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.

In This Issue



Books, Arts & Manners




Give Me Your Poesy I very much enjoyed Kevin D. Williamson’s essay on Emma Lazarus (“Wretched Refuse, Indeed,” August 28) and the way in which her famous poem, which had several ...
The Week

The Week

‐ Some stood, some knelt, all winced. ‐ President Trump’s speech to the U.N. General Assembly was a combination of idealism and blunt talk. Most striking was his ode to national ...

Take a Small Knee

The National Anthem protests that have taken place around the country could be just the beginning of a backlash against the 'evil' heterosexual white man.


M.A.C. East Lansing, Michigan On either side, the highway’s barren stretch Is dwarfed by the wide wastes of prairie grass, Its pale dry leaves weaved with dark heads of vetch And clumps of sumac shimmering ...

Most Popular

Film & TV

Joker: An Honest Treatment of Madness

When I saw that the New York Times and The New Yorker had run columns berating the new Joker movie, criticizing it not simply on cinematic grounds but instead insisting that the film amounted to a clandestine defense of “whiteness” in an attempt to buttress the electoral aim of “Republicans” — this is a ... Read More

The Democrats’ Disastrous CNN LGBT Town Hall

A few days after Donald Trump committed the worst foreign-policy blunder of his presidency by betraying America’s Kurdish allies in northern Syria, former vice president Joe Biden, the elder statesman and co-frontrunner in the Democratic presidential primary, was on a national stage talking to CNN’s primetime ... Read More
White House

What Is Impeachment For?

W hat is impeachment for? Seems like a simple question. Constitutionally speaking, it also appears to have a simple answer: to cite and remove from power a president guilty of wrongdoing. Aye, there’s the rub. What sort of wrongdoing warrants removal from power? I’d wager that the flames of ... Read More

Beto Proposes to Oppress Church with State

Beto O’Rourke’s presidential campaign is within the margin of error of non-existence, but in his failure he has found a purpose: expressing the Democratic id. His latest bid for left-wing love came at a CNN forum on gay rights, where he said that churches that oppose same-sex marriage should have to pay ... Read More
Politics & Policy

Fox News Anchor Shepard Smith Resigns

Fox News Channel's chief anchor, Shepard Smith, announced on air Friday that he would be resigning from his post after 23 years with the network. “This is my last newscast here,” said Smith. “Recently, I asked the company to allow me to leave Fox News. After requesting that I stay, they obliged.” He ... Read More
Film & TV

The Breaking Bad Movie

I considered staying up until midnight last night to watch Netflix's two-hour Breaking Bad movie El Camino as soon as it went up, but I'm glad I didn't. It's fine, it's worth watching if you're a fan of the series (otherwise it'll mean nothing to you). But it doesn't answer any particularly compelling questions. ... Read More