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The Men On The Roof: Building Up, Tearing Down

In New York, it seems like there’s always a crane and a brand-new, giant building going up. But things are different now. We all know the chit-chat about how work from home is changing the nature of office space. New York magazine has a thoughtful article about commercial real estate titled: “New Glut City: the city’s mega-office landlords are panicking, pivoting, and shedding what’s worthless.” It’s worth a read for sure.
Today, I want to talk about tearing down.

Outside my window on the Upper West Side, there was Eagle Court, a brick building at 215 West 84 Street. Built in 1925, it was four stories high and had 124 apartments. A brass plaque told passersby that Edgar Allan Poe wrote “The Raven” on this site, back in 1845 when it was a farmhouse.

In May 2022, Naftali Group filed plans to build an 18-story luxury condo with 45 apartments and ground-floor retail on the site and July of 2022, Naftali filed plans to demolish the building. After a year of battle with a recalcitrant renter, the building was empty and demolition began.

The demolition has been taking place outside my window, and there has been some controversy. A large inflatable rat stood guard for some weeks, and a small group of vocal protesters made it known the construction was a non-union job. But that hubbub is gone, and instead, a crew of workers is taking down the building brick by brick. It’s less of a demolition than a “de-construction,” and the process is, for a writer like me, a front-row seat to what work is like in 2023.

Men — all men — arrive at 7 a.m. sharp and set to work. They all wear matching orange safety vests. The days have been hot, often 90 degrees or more. Their safety gear seems to me hot, but necessary. In heat, rain, and even lightning storms they work. They take lunch around noon — maybe an hour, I haven’t kept track. They finish at 5 p.m.

A 10-hour day of physically hard work. I imagine them taking Advil in the morning, their bodies weary and pained by the demanding work. They don’t rush, and there doesn’t appear to be a site supervisor barking orders or looking at blueprints. There’s no wrecking ball. Instead, the work is clearly manual labor. They’re deconstructing a piece of New York, a moderate rental, to build a glossy, exclusive luxury condominium.

I had a conversation with a Democratic strategist who expressed concern that the proclamation that the country’s economy was “better” might fall on deaf ears for those who look at their economic security in terms of grocery bills and gas prices. I thought about that as I looked out the window at the construction workers, mulling over their work and its physical demands, and the changing economy’s impact on blue-collar laborers. Will New York be forever growing its skyline? Will commercial real estate come down, as residential real estate grows? When the Eagle Court demolition is complete, I can only assume there will be a pause. The designs of what will rise on the property haven’t been filed yet. And presumably, the workers who build the new 18-story building will be different than the workers who take down buildings.

So I’m watching the hard-hat workers out my window, and thinking about their grocery prices, and kids’ dental costs, and the fact that a movie for a family of four at AMC Theaters costs $99.96 before parking and popcorn. People may think they want to vote for issues and public good, but in the end, I wonder if we all vote with self-interest above all else. For the men on the roof, theory is nice, but putting food on the table is better.

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