Baffled by Scaffolds: Students Surrounded by Construction

The Claustrophobia-Inducing Structures Have Outstayed Their Welcome


Published: October 5, 2010

It’s dark out. You are walking down your favorite street, off to do your favorite thing with your favorite people. Everything is wonderful, but something large looms in your path. Suddenly, the cool air you had been basking in becomes heavier. Criss-crossed bars mar the view of that building you love to look at and strangers, who were respectably far away not seconds ago, now share a dirty, intimate tunnel with you. Someone is coming towards you. You move to the side. They move to the same side. You try again. Again. “Oh, but,” you quietly lament, “I’m in such a hurry.” You are under a scaffold, and you will not be free for another block.

Block-long corridors of scaffolding make the already crowded city even more claustrophobic and are picturesque settings for violent crimes. (Sara Azoulay/The Observer)

I’d like to say this distressing tale is merely that—a story, whispered around campfires and in darkened bedrooms, told to alarm young children and keep them safely away from the frightful inconveniences of big city life. Unfortunately, this is an all too accurate account of an average New York City pedestrian’s commute.

The Department of Transportation conducted a survey this past winter, estimating that approximately 30 percent of Broadway, between 59th Street and Houston Street was hidden by scaffolding. From the looks of it, not much has changed since January. To be fair, scaffolding is necessary to keep construction workers safe, and the sidewalk sheds are there to prevent debris from falling on passersby. A nice enough sentiment, but they are ugly, rickety and sometimes they leak. More often than not, they are filthy, and whenever I walk under one, I get the sensation that if ever I were to be brutally assaulted, it would be in just such a location.


I was around 10 years old the first time I took notice of scaffolding’s offensive nature. I had, up until that point, accepted it as a part of the city, never taking time to wonder what it was for or what the block would look like in its absence. I since resigned myself to the understanding that scaffolds are a necessary evil. Without them, buildings would fall to ruin—a decidedly worse alternative to these unsightly structures. I was happily surprised, then, to discover that others more proactive than myself are not nearly as pessimistic about these eyesores.

Mayor Bloomberg’s attempts at beautifying the city reached new heights this winter when the winner of the UrbanShed contest was announced. This was an international contest which challenged architects to create a new design for New York City’s sidewalk sheds. The winning design is known as the “Urban Umbrella”—a carbon fiber structure that allows in more air and light, and is aesthetically pleasing. The problem? No one wants to pay for it.

Though installation and maintenance costs are lower than those of traditional scaffolds, the cost of new equipment is more than most construction companies are willing to bear, especially in such difficult economic times. A January article in the New York Times claimed that the first Urban Umbrella would be up at a Lower Manhattan construction site by summer. To date, scaffolding is as without umbrellas as ever.

Representatives from the Department of Buildings now believe the end of the year is a more realistic goal for the first Urban Umbrella. In the meantime, the Downtown Alliance is continuing work on its “Re: Construction” program, a public art project which decorates downtown construction sites. A recent installation is “Restore the View,” created by artist Richard Pasquarelli. The work, a digitized painting of a cloudy sky, adorns scaffolding at Fitterman Hall, across from 7 World Trade Center.

This is certainly a step in the right direction, adding an affectionate touch to a part of the city that desperately needs some care. But the fact remains that while the exteriors of these sidewalk sheds have exponentially increased in tolerability, the interiors are as objectionable as ever. Until the Urban Umbrella becomes a fiscally realistic alternative, I will weave my way through these crowded passageways, lamenting what might have been, and shaking my fist in defiance at an unchanging world.

Or I could take a taxi, but that seems impractical. It’s only a block.