We’re a subterranean lot, us New Yorkers. Not by choice, like mole people or Minnesotans, but by necessity: The subway is the easiest, fastest and cheapest way to get from A to B. Hence, we spend a lot of time underground—waiting for trains, riding trains, throwing momma from trains.
The last thing we want when we surface is to feel like we’re still down below. But, thanks to the ever-present scaffolding blighting our sidewalks, the city often feels like one long tunnel. The line between below ground and above ground—which used to be the sidewalk—is blurred.
Despite all that, I’m not here to write about the misery of seeing yet another scaffold going up. I’m here to write about the joy of scaffolding coming down. And what an unexpectedly glorious, uniquely New York moment it is when you happen upon it.
Before we get to that, a little clarity. When I say scaffolding, I’m referring to the steel pole structures, about one-story high, that butt out from building facades, covering the entire sidewalk. Atop, they’ve got wood planks and lots of men speaking a frenzied combination of Spanish, Polish, Slavic and sometimes even English. Walking through these structures is not dissimilar to walking through a mineshaft, right down to the dim light bulbs spaced every eight feet. (Occasionally, after midnight, you’ll encounter a solitary red bulb. Not sure what the point is, aside from terrifying you and your dog by making you feel like you’re on the set of Saw VI.)
Confession: I’ve been mislabeling these structures. Technically speaking, they’re called sidewalk sheds, but only by Department of Building employees, sidewalk shed manufacturers and building supers. I learned this from my own building’s super, Angel, when I walked outside one morning and saw half-a-dozen guys unloading a truck full of poles and planks in front of our Upper West Side building. “Oh no,” I uttered. “Scaffolding.” “You mean the sidewalk shed?” Angel said.
Why I thought my building would be spared, I don’t know. There was a silver lining, though, however slight. Maybe Angel could answer a question that had been tugging at me for quite some time: Why were these scaffolds—I mean, sidewalk sheds—in front of every other building in the city? When one comes down, another goes up. I assumed it was due to the renovation craze.
“All buildings over six stories have to repoint their facade every five years,” Angel said. “It’s a city code.”
Well, he got it mostly right. According to Department of Buildings website, Local Law 11/98 mandates that “the periodic inspection of the exterior walls and appurtenances of buildings greater than six stories in height… shall be conducted at least once every five years.” Inspecting, not repointing, is the mandate. (Yes, I had to look up appurtenances—“any built-in, nonstructural portion of a building, such as doors, windows, vents, etc.”) But, as most of these buildings are pre-war, that almost always leads to repointing, or replacing the mortar joints between bricks. So if it seems like this cycle of scaffolding is never-ending, that’s because—with more than 12,000 six or more story buildings in the city—it is.
New Yorkers need light, crave it like seedlings. We judge our apartments by how much light we get (one of the first questions we ask a realtor). We choose to walk on the sunny side of the street, crossing if need be. A sidewalk covered with scaffolding robs us of our prized light. Especially if it’s part of our normal going-to-work, going-to-the-gym, walking-the-dog route. Bright, open and scaffold-free one day, dank, claustrophobic and scaffolded the next. We mutter to ourselves and trudge through it, wondering how long it will be up. Repeating the ritual day in, day out, month after month, sometimes for a couple of years. We get used to it, eventually accepting it as part of our everyday surroundings.
Then one day, we’re walking down the same stretch and something feels different. It hits us. The light, that is. We feel the sun’s rays and look around and notice the scaffolding is gone. With only a few rust stains here and there on the sidewalk as proof it was ever there in the first place. And, as crazy as it sounds, we’re elated, basking in the glory of this previously nondescript, now beautiful stretch of sidewalk, ignoring the rat poison traps and smeared dog poop. It is a sublime New York moment, one out-of-towners would never understand. And one, per Local Law 11/98, we get to experience all over again in 2014.
Chuck Pagano is currently working on a collection of short stories. He can often be found playing fetch in the West 87th Street dog run with his indefatigable chocolate lab, Bailey.
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