Comment: A Shaken Neighborhood

When we residents of Yorkville said the crane on East 91st Street would probably kill us one day, it wasn’t something we actually expected to happen. More of a sick joke, really: “Yeah, one day it’ll probably crush a bunch of people, like that one farther downtown.” We’d laugh sardonically and keep walking, figuring it unlikely for such a disaster to happen twice. 

That Friday, I left my apartment near 90th and First at 7:50 a.m.—barely ten minutes before the collapse. Once I heard the news at work, I spent the morning in fevered unproductivity, refreshing Curbed and the Times every few minutes looking for details. Which buildings were damaged? Was anyone hurt? Information came in contradictory bursts: two people were killed, then only one, then two again. My apartment was spared, but the buildings on two sides were emptied as a precaution—I avoided homelessness by fewer than fifty feet.

As a refugee of 475 Kent Avenue in Brooklyn, evicted without warning on a frigid January night only months earlier, I sympathized with the displaced tenants of 354 East 91st Street and nearby apartments. That startling moment when the future evaporates, the mind lasers in on immediate concerns: “Who owns a comfortable couch?” and “For how long can I sleep there?” My own sudden homelessness was the reason I moved uptown in the first place, where I assumed structures would be safer.

It was dark when I returned from work that Friday, when I rounded the corner of First Avenue and 86th Street and stepped into a blindingly lit, but eerily quiet, disaster zone. Spotlights and the spinning red flashes from emergency vehicles illuminated the adjacent buildings, where NYPD officers perched to watch the recovery operation.

The following day, I watched four boys play touch football in the middle of First Avenue, the end zones marked by metal crowd-control barriers at either cross street. The avenue remained desolate for days, as if waiting on a morbid parade that never showed up. It is still partially blocked while the investigation continues, and a nearby wine shop and a soccer store have been shuttered all week. 

But for those of us who didn’t lose family or our homes, the strangeness quickly passed. My roommate said he knew normalcy had returned when the taxis, impatient as ever, resumed honking at First Avenue’s newly bottlenecked traffic. Mayor Bloomberg may have displayed shocking insensitivity by saying, “We’re not going to tolerate any rate of accidents any higher than it has to be.” But if a collapsing real-estate market barely slows the skyward race to build new condos, many people suspect that two additional casualties will not stop it either. And at least the construction industry is grumpily accepting the need for greater oversight.

For the moment, many of us rest secure knowing that, when it comes to construction accidents, our neighborhood will probably be the safest in the city for some time. After all, it cannot possibly happen again. Right?

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