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City Desk

To the Scaffold!

by Richard Brookhiser

You hear it sometimes before you see it — the pang pang pang of rhythmic hammering, the clang of dropped metal, the smock of dropped wood. When you turn the corner you see the familiar sight: a crew of Central Americans or Africans humping pipes, girders, planks, and plywood from a truck and throwing them up into the air. Another scaffold is going up.

The technical name for these urban portes cochères is sidewalk sheds, and the city requires them whenever there is serious construction, demolition, or ordinary repair. Any building, from 19th-century brick or brownstone runts, to gargoyled beaux-arts matrons, to the white-brick slabs of Camelot, to the glass Rubik’s cubes of postmodernism’s nightmares, is liable to grow a ground-floor girdle. The basic design is everywhere the same. The verticals, or bridge legs, are thick metal pipes. Slimmer pipes, with pinched ends, are clamped alongside to form horizontal braces, or X-shaped cross braces. The business end — what prevents tools, workmen, or random cornices from toppling onto your head — is the deck. Metal beams clamped to the tops of the bridge legs run across the sidewalk, metal runners are laid at right angles over the beams, and a ribbed metal sheet surmounted by wooden planks is laid over the runners. Plywood parapets offer extra insurance against objects or people rolling into the street. The prevailing color scheme of plywood these days seems to be dark blue, though I can remember parapets of forest green.

The address of the construction company is displayed; don’t worry about it, it’s someplace in Brooklyn or the Bronx, you’ve never been there. If demolition is the game, there may also be a funnel to direct detritus into a dumpster. Fancy addresses seem to get fancier sidewalk sheds — the elevation of the deck is higher, the look is airier. The parapets of the sidewalk sheds in front of the Waldorf-Astoria display pictures of a frieze. Why didn’t Phidias think of that? Then when Lord Elgin took the picture off the marbles, the Turks could have just put up another.

Every sidewalk shed adds its bit to the botheration of city life, by the din of its going up and the constriction of foot traffic beneath it — New Yorkers move fast except when they don’t, and one strolling mama in a thicket of bridge legs can bring a street to a halt — and when I first moved here I looked to the day when all the sheds would come down. But I soon realized that they were never coming down; when one is dismantled, another arises down the street. In the country standard “Long Black Veil,” the condemned man sings The scaffold is high and eternity’s near. Sidewalk sheds are near you wherever you are, and they stay up for eternity. But I have learned to love them. They are a sign of life, creative destruction made visible, like cutting hair or clipping toenails. Detroit has no sidewalk sheds, only coyotes.

Sidewalk sheds serve multiple purposes, from the harmless and useful to the unseemly and dishonorable. The horizontal braces are a forum for masculine display. The black kids who knocked off a few quick chin-ups at the end of the last century have sons chinning themselves now. When it rains, the sidewalk shed doubles as the forgetful man’s umbrella. Everyone carries a mental map of the sheds along his daily commute which, with the help of awnings, doorways, trees, and loading docks, can be a point-to-point route to the Number 6 train and dryness.

The traveler’s aid can equally become the caravanserai of the homeless. In the Seventies and Eighties, when the only response to people living on the street was to insist that they were poor, not mad, and wring hands in a kabuki of crisis, sidewalk sheds replaced the Bowery flophouse. Their interiors filled up with pushcarts, cardboard mattresses, blankets, bodies. A blind man would know he was under a sidewalk shed by the tang of urine. Then came Giuliani and the problem miraculously (as far as the great and the good were concerned) vanished. The Occupy movement brought a brief and lesser return of the bumoisie, but they too have moved on. The sheds remain, however, for the next social crisis (the double dip? an Obama loss?).

Sidewalk sheds are weapons in the war of landlords and commercial tenants. A shed either hides signage or obscures it in gloom. When building and renter are on good terms, the parapets display temporary signs telling the world (or at least the world across the street) what businesses are imprisoned below. When owner and renter go to war, up goes a shed, and enjoy your new location in Howe Caverns, baby. One of my favorite restaurants had folding glass doors and, in good weather, sidewalk tables on a block so charming it might have been in Italy, except there were children and people paid their taxes. Then there was blood; a sidewalk shed appeared, brooding over the new San Gimignano like Mothra. This went on for at least a year, until the restaurant owner took his staff and his tiramisu to a new location down the street.

Mayor Bloomberg, whose attention nothing escapes, has decided to reform the sidewalk shed. An international design competition was announced in 2009 and the winner was a 28-year-old architecture student at the University of Pennsylvania, who came up with a design he called urban umbrellas. The supports look a little bit like old Paris metro entrances or fan vaulting for unbelievers. Since ribbed metal and blue plywood would spoil the effect, the decks and the parapets will be made of some sort of clear plastic. Any smoke from forbidden cigarettes will waft away between the arms of the umbrellas. This being New York, the first prototype was not unveiled until last December. When a new shed went up this month, down the street from my front door, all I heard was pang pang pang and clang and smock.

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