Saturday, May 31, 2008

A Fall from Grace

The remnants of the construction crane that collapsed and killed two workers Friday came down today, but the bad feelings set off by this tragedy are bound to linger. This is the second collapse of a crane this year--one in March took seven lives--and the latest disaster leaves an aura of menace around the construction boom that is transforming New York City.

First there's the awful nature of the collapse itself. It took place after the March disaster set in motion a succession of government actions and inspections that were supposed to prevent things like this from happening. Early reports point to metal fatigue or operational error as possible explanations for the collapse of the crane, according to a fine report by Tony Destefano in Newsday. Whatever the cause, two men died.

Then there's the unease that accompanies our city's boom. You can't look around Manhattan these days without seeing a new office tower or apartment house looming above. I'm glad for the office towers that bring jobs, but I'm skeptical about the relentless eruption of luxury housing across Manhattan.

For all of Mayor Bloomberg's plans to build moderate income housing, I have an unshakable sense that the Manhattan that is emerging under his mayoralty will become ever more hostile to moderate income residents. Where I used to look at construction sites as dramatic scenes of a city unfolding, I now see them as siege towers hemming in a New York that provides good homes for working people.

And this disaster was more personal for me than the last one. For years I've purchased my children's soccer gear at a great old store called Soccer Sport Supply on First Avenue between 90th and 91st streets. And the apartment building under construction is scheduled to become the new home of East Side Middle School, an excellent public school that my son attended.

When I looked at the disaster site today, I noticed that Soccer Sport Supply was closed for the post-disaster cleanup. And I couldn't help shuddering at what might have happened if a crane had collapsed onto a building packed with students.

An editorial in the Daily News called for a return to the days of safety first. That's wise, but it leaves me asking how we got away from that in the first place. Answering that question means looking closely at the Bloomberg administration.

The mayor has been rightly acclaimed for bringing first-rate people into government. But Bloomberg's mayoralty rests on a devotion to business interests and market values. The mayor praises efficient government, but he seems to have little taste for a city government that redistributes wealth and power in the interest of the majority of New York's citizens.

Today, in the new Gilded Age, we need a mayor who will stand up to businesses--including the construction and real estate industries--and discipline them in the name of the public good. An effective effort to guarantee the safety of people who live, work, and walk around construction cranes would be a good place to start.


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