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As Cranes Fall and People Die

by JUDITH LEVINE

Let’s keep this in perspective, implied New York mayor Mike Bloomberg the day two construction workers died in the crane collapse on East 91st Street in Manhattan. Yes, the accident was “unacceptable,” he said. Still, “construction is a dangerous business and you will always have fatalities.”

Governor David Paterson was equally unapologetic. No, no, he told a TV reporter. The pace of building is not too fast.

Both men suggested that the 23 percent building increase in the last five years was not related to the 83 percent rise in construction accidents, accounting for 15 deaths this year alone.

Hey, risks must be taken. Sacrifices must be made. Fourteen-million-dollar condos must go up.

“If [Bloomberg] shuts down all activity until cranes are proven safe, he’s going to shut down billions of dollars of economic activity in New York,” the dean of the Baruch School of Public Affairs told the Times Sunday. “He can’t do that and nobody would want him to.”

Nobody would want him to?

Funny. I’ve yet to meet anyone who does not want him to. I have no friend who can afford to live or rent in any of the new buildings. I have spoken to no neighbor or local shopkeeper who does not regard with sadness and dread the city filling up with luxury housing, mega-office complexes, and sports stadiums.

In rent-stabilized buildings around the city, tenants are up in arms as landlords harass them to make room for market-rate residents. At hearings to impose building moratoria and downzone communities it is standing room only.

“The mayor doesn’t do anything,” a neighbor of the East 91st Street crash told the New York Observer. “They don’t care about the working-class people. Nobody cares about the tenants.” Said another: “We are furious.”

Not to worry, we’re told, as applications to restrict building heights and densities languish at City Planning and finding a parking space becomes a strategic feat, or a miracle. Economic development is an unmitigated boon.

Why, then, does it seem that the windfall of economic development is mitigating nothing more than the effects of economic development?

Public school classrooms are so packed now there’s no place for kids to sit, much less learn. A few of the new buildings are slated to have schools in them—for instance, Frank Gehry’s Beekman Towers in Tribeca. But the city issued almost 9,500 permits for new apartments in 2007. Where will all those new kids go to school?

New construction is supposed to solve the housing crisis. But as costs soar, the lower end of the mix of “mixed-income” housing falls off the agenda. Developers—like Forest City Ratner, preparing for Brooklyn Atlantic Yards—demolish affordable housing to build “sub-market-rate” housing, which is unaffordable to most New Yorkers. Meanwhile, the City announces that budget cuts will force 15% rent rises in public housing and the closing of community centers and programs.

New development brings jobs and new enterprise, say its promoters. What jobs? Selling hotdogs at the new football and baseball stadiums? Or dishes at Pottery Barn, when rising commercial rents force out the local designer furniture makers and shoe repairmen in the developing neighborhoods?

Developers of high rises must provide green spaces, the Administration crows. But don’t those spaces (when they actually materialize) open up the same ground and sky blotted out by the high rises? Bryant Park in midtown—already wall-to-wall bodies during any sunny lunch hour—will soon have to accommodate 13,600 new workers in two immense towers going up on its periphery. How?

Perhaps City Hall has always been a wholly owned subsidiary of the equivalent of Forest City Ratner. Perhaps there’s never been a time when New Yorkers didn’t wake up to the sound of jackhammers, when life here was not noisy, crowded, and chaotic. When workers did not fall to their deaths from skyscrapers and cranes.

But the question is always the same: who benefits?

The job of public officials is to ensure that the answer is the public—not just developers, but the rest of us.

Most New Yorkers don’t want their city transformed into a cross between Dubai and Alphaville. We do not want every New Yorker to be displaced by an emir or a Tokyo billionaire. We work here, go to school, ride the subways, pay taxes, and vote here now. We live here and would like to keep doing so—decently.

Economic growth is not worth the loss of our quality of life—or a single worker’s life.

JUDITH LEVINE grew up in Queens and has lived in Brooklyn for 35 years. She is the author of Harmful to Minors, My Enemy, My Love, and, most recently, Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping. She can be reached at Judith@judithlevine.com

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