The Scaffolded City
Confronting New York's sidewalk sheds.
By Justin Liang
Surely it must be classed among the seven wonders of New York, alongside the Empire State Building and the yellow taxi. But the iconicity of the former and the ubiquity of the latter cannot compete with that omnipresent seventh wonder: the unsightly sidewalk shed. In our own backyard, the spindly steel beams, green plywood cladding, and harsh fluorescent glare of these structures have most recently been foisted on the façades of Morton Williams and Lerner Hall. It remains the bane of residents in McBain. Venture into the rest of the city; one finds the same scaffolds inflicted on other unsuspecting buildings. Whether the humble walkup or the storied Flatiron Building, no edifice is immune from its clutches.
Few know that this controversial feature of our urban landscape has its roots in Barnumbia history: One evening in 1979, Barnard first-year Grace Gold was walking with a friend on 115th Street when a chunk of masonry fell from the lintel of a Columbia-owned building, killing her. The tragic case of the falling brick, however, has a much longer history. Over a half-century ago, a man “killed by a falling cornice” was featured in E.B. White’s Here is New York.
In a city as vertical as ours, all sorts of death and destruction rain down from the sky: poorly installed air conditioning units, say, or milder kinds of devastation, like the fecal matter of passing pigeons. But it is the falling brick alone that grants us New York’s seventh wonder.
After the Barnard first-year’s death, the city council passed a façade inspection law mandating that all buildings six stories or higher be examined every five years; if the building failed inspection, a sidewalk shed would have to be erected until repairs were done. Landlords being landlords, many realized that it was cheaper to keep renting the sheds instead of shelling out for expensive repair work.
The façade inspection law is responsible for what is today almost a million feet of sidewalk sheds. The average tenure of these sheds is over nine months, but they can sometimes be in place for years on end. Columbia declined to comment on the average tenure of its own sheds, but the scaffold outside McBain, for instance, has been up since 2018. The city’s record, though, belongs to a shed in Harlem that has stayed up for 28 years. These structures are the unsightly barnacles that mar the face of our city, blighting street fronts, impairing visibility, and obscuring natural light. While ostensibly for safety, the sheds themselves can be unsafe: In 2020, a pedestrian was killed by a collapsing scaffold.
Other dense cities with old buildings such as London or Paris manage to keep pedestrians safe without so much structural flotsam. What then is to be done for New York? One solution is legislative: Councilman Ben Kallos has proposed a law that would force landlords to complete façade repairs within six months and dismantle sheds within a week thereafter. An even more fanciful proposal has been to inspect buildings remotely, using drones. Still, another approach is to rethink the scaffolds: Urban Umbrella, a company that traces its origins to a city-sponsored competition in 2010, offers an alternative with translucent roofing and elegant steel arches. But it is fourfold more expensive than the traditional sidewalk shed, meaning its user base is limited to an upscale clientele.
Or, instead of unsightly temporary sheds, why not make them permanent? It’s a whimsical idea, but a covered sidewalk has its proponents: Some cling to its inviting shade under the hot summer sun or take shelter in a rainstorm. For the street vendor, it is a perfect place to set up shop. For the homeless, it can be the only place on the street they call home. From the arcades of Venice to the shophouses of Singapore, covered walkways are a staple of many vernacular architectural traditions.
Perhaps the answer will one day bring us back to the beginning. The Grace Gold Memorial Scholarship, in honor of the Barnard freshman killed by falling masonry, is awarded annually to a student pursuing the fields of architecture, engineering, or urban design. It is a small but meaningful gesture of hope that New York may one day join the ranks of the world’s other great capitals, finding a way to keep pedestrians safe without obscuring the face of the city. That, then, may be a seventh wonder truly worth its name.