Magazine October 16, 2017, Issue

Urban Symphony

(Mike Segar/Reuters)

Two buildings on my block are undergoing repairs, and I live in one of them.

The building next door is a school from the 1910s, large, plain, cubical. For the longest time it has been girdled with scaffolding, but then this summer something new appeared. The entire building was wrapped in a mesh curtain. Lit up at night, it glowed, like an ice palace or a maximum-security prison. The mesh was to keep in fragments of whatever was being applied to or extracted from the structure; the lights were to allow work to be done after hours. The side street on its flank was sliced in half lengthwise, and the near half turned into a work zone. Bulldozers moved material back and forth at ground level, a crane hoisted it to higher floors. It was all done with a certain gigantic delicacy, like a bodybuilder sidling along a tightrope, but it was irksome for traffic, which passed the pain on to bystanders. A plane tree across the street, four stories tall, lost half of itself in a sideswipe. A parked car got tapped on its left rear fender and rear-ended the car in front of it, which did the same.

The passage beneath the scaffolding that covers you, down the block to my very door, actually became cleaner. The custodians of the school, who used to heave swollen stinking bags of garbage onto the sidewalk for pick-up and for vermin buffets, have had to dispose of them elsewhere. Ditto with the endless quantities of superannuated school furniture: chairs with writing arms, old wooden desks, glum metal filing cabinets. The homeless, whom a progressive mayor has returned to the streets, may settle in for a night with take-out, dogs, and sleeping bags. But the next day they are gone. So large chaos makes small order. Even the sidewalk, though, now wears mesh walls, antiseptic but eerie, like the boarding tunnel of an airplane whose destination might be the next world.

Are students being subjected to this? There is a charter school nestled within the school; parents of every race and status form a line as for a rock concert in order to apply for their kids; the winners file out at noon, two by two, girls in jumpers, boys in neckties, to be shepherded to the nearest park to play. I do not, however, see the regulars — older, boisterous, dressed anyhow, requiring school police to keep them from congregating under the scaffolding for chin-ups and pick-ups. Does some quirk of regulation cause the difference? No quirk saves the tenants in the wing of my building that abuts the school, who report the sound of endless construction, an all-hours hard-hat serenade.

So the street is half-blocked, the sidewalk is spooky, and your new best friend is racket. Our building meanwhile is suffering a renovation of its lobby. Nothing wrong with the old one. Nothing right with it either, but I wasn’t expecting San Simeon. Nevertheless, for whatever reason (if you are thinking, capital improvement = rent hike, you are probably thinking correctly), management chose to do a redo. The glass front doors were papered with the notices the city requires for untoward circumstances — rat poison, failed restaurant inspections, building renovations. The walls and ceilings of the long entry hallway and of the lobby itself were stripped down to the concrete. The light fixtures were removed, replaced with blazing bare bulbs in yellow latticed baskets, like lacrosse sticks, their wiring encased in metal cables, looped like bunting. The look is interrogation room meets disaster relief. Our doormen stand at their station, like so many boys on the burning deck, taking packages and buzzing up guests as usual, while breathing sick-building dust. (They have a union, which has gone on a couple of strikes in my time; does it do, you know, anything else?) The bulk of the lobby has been turned into the work zone of contractors. Saws saw, hammers hammer, orders are given, always in shouts, whether or not there is sawing or hammering. One afternoon the senior contractor was directing his junior, who stood on a ladder drilling into a girder. A shower of sparks fell, graceful as a peacock’s tail. July Fourth in September. I nodded to the doorman, who I hope was wearing an asbestos shirt. “Luxury building!”

That is what it is, and given the demand for apartments in the city, rightly so. Economic warming brings storm surges of gentrification. The historic capital of black America, where one would rather have been a lamppost than governor of Georgia, is trending white. The oldest outer borough long ago flipped to beard models and novelists. The dreariest outer borough, Drug Ho Hell, where presidential candidates used to stop to furrow their brows at blight, is coming up in the world. My cousin, who still lives where my parents were born, four hours upstate, reports that two refugee restaurateurs from Brooklyn opened a fancy sandwich shop there. Given such pressures, anything in the city with walls and a roof qualifies as luxury.

But still . . . And I know noise is part of the cityscape, like glamour and pollution. My neighborhood contains a hospital and a firehouse. I have done radio interviews over the phone during which the heartland host has asked, “Is anything wrong?” I hadn’t heard the sirens. Once my wife and I were staying in a homestay in Jogjakarta. The brochure had been a bit deceptive, showing a charming colonial-style room of which unfortunately there was only one, the rest being post-independence barracks. Two Australians occupied the nice room. Then at breakfast they asked nervously whether they could switch: The street (theirs was a front room) was so noisy. We jumped at the chance. One motorbike all night? Two? Heaven.

So I am street- and sound-wise. But something about the double hit is paining the hairs of my ears. I am a walker, a listener, a learner, a citizen of the streets, a citizen. Enough.

Historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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