A powerful first-hand account of the many generations and ethnic groups of men who have built America's skyscrapers.
From the early days of steel construction in Chicago, through the great boom years of New York city ironwork, and up through the present, High Steel follows the trajectory of careers inextricably linked to both great accomplishment and catastrophic disaster.
The personal stories reveal the lives of ironworkers and the dangers they face as they walk across the windswept, swaying summits of tomorrow's skyscrapers, balanced on steel girders sometimes only six inches wide. Rasenberger explores both the greatest accomplishments of ironwork—the vaulting bridges and towers that define America's skyline—and the deadliest disasters, such as the Quebec Bridge Collapse of 1907, when 75 ironworkers, including 33 Mohawk Indians, fell to their deaths. High Steel is an accessible, thrilling, and vertiginous portrait of the lives of some of our most brave yet unrecognized men.
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About the Author
Jim Rasenberger is a frequent contributor to the New York Times. He lives in New York City with his wife and twin sons. High Steel is his first book.
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High SteelThe Daring Men Who Built the World's Greatest Skyline, 1881 to the Present
By Rasenberger, Jim
Brett Conklin was one of the lucky ones.
Of the 1,000 or so structural ironworkers who worked in New York City in the winter of 2001, most, like Brett, lived somewhere else. They lived at the far reaches of the city's suburbs, in Connecticut or New Jersey towns where a man making a good middle-class income could afford a patch of decent real estate. Or they lived in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, by the anchorage of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, where several hundred Mohawk Indians boarded during the week, four or five to a house. A few Newfoundlanders still held claim to the old neighborhood around 9th Street in Brooklyn, while another clan -- the Newfies of Lindenhurst -- maintained a well-kempt enclave on Long Island. One man lived on a farm in the Berkshires that winter, waking in the middle of the night to begin his star-lit drive to the city. Two men drove all the way from Wilmington, Delaware, to Times Square every morning, then back again every afternoon.
Wherever an ironworker lived, chances were he came into Manhattan by one of its tunnels or bridges. The difference was enormous. A tunnel was dank, gloomy, infested. Entering New York by tunnel was like sneaking into a palace through the cellar door: it lacked dignity. The proper way for an ironworker to enter the city wasby bridge, swooshing over water, steel vibrating beneath him and gathering in the sky before him. The ironworker entering the city by bridge enjoyed a peculiar kind of pride. His work -- or the work of his father or grandfather, of the generations of ironworkers that preceded him -- lay before him and under him and vaulted over him. Every bridge and building represented a catalogue of friendships, marriages, births, falls, cripplings, and, in some cases, deaths. The relationship between an ironworker and the city's steel structures was intensely personal.
On the morning of February 20, 2001, as on most mornings, Brett Conklin had the good fortune to enter the city over one of the most spectacular bridges of them all, the George Washington, a 4,760-foot suspended span crossing the Hudson River between Fort Lee, New Jersey, and northern Manhattan. Shortly before dawn, his commuter bus, which he'd boarded 40 miles to the west, slowed for the toll, then shifted up and started across the bridge, and Brettcould look up to see the two lacy steel towers, each taller than a 50-story skyscraper, and the four suspension cables draped between them, each weighing about 7,000 tons and still bejeweled, in the wintry gloom, with luminous green electric bulbs. Downriver a violet fog hovered over the tops of the buildings. Dawn was breaking. The newspaper forecast mild temperatures, rising to a high in the low 50s, mostly cloudy with a chance of dim sunshine. There was no mention of rain in the forecast.
Half an hour after crossing the bridge, Brett emerged from the Port Authority Bus Terminal and strode across Eighth Avenue. He was a striking man, six feet four inches tall, large-boned and well built, but with a soft, boyish face. Brett had recently moved in with his girlfriend but he spent a good deal of time at his parents' house, eating his mother's cooking, watching sports on television with his father and younger brother. He was, at 28, still very close to his family and proud of it. When his mother expressed reservations about his decision to go into ironwork six years earlier, he'd listened carefully, weighed her words, then made his own decision. Respectful but headstrong -- that was Brett.
With his long stride, Brett covered the distance to the building on Times Square in a matter of minutes. He slipped into it through a side entrance on 41st Street. The building had reached 32 floors, just six floors shy of topping out. Upon completion, it would become the headquarters of Ernst & Young, the accounting firm, and take its place among five other skyscrapers to leap up in Times Square during the last two years, and among dozens to appear in Manhattan over the last five or six years. Like every other tall office building in New York, it would be supported almost entirely by structural steel.
Brett was lucky to be an ironworker in New York during one of the greatest construction booms in the city's history. The boom had been going strong since the mid-90s. Over the last few months, the stock market had shown signs of contraction, but nobody was too worried about that, not yet. Enough new office space had been conceived in the bull market to keep ironworkers in pay for years. Local 40's shape hall on West 15th Street, where union ironworkers went when they needed work, was as quiet as a tomb. If a man showed up, he was sent right back out that same morning. Virtually anyone with a book -- that is, membership in the local -- who was healthy and wanted the work could have it. Even members of out-of-town locals who drove into town to partake of the bounty -- "boomers," they were called -- went out the same day on a permit.
A fine bounty it was, too. $33.45 an hour, plus a generous benefits package, made New York's wage the highest an ironworker could earn in North America. In good times, a capable hand could work virtually nonstop, turning that $35 an hour into $1,400 a week, and turning that $1,400 a week into $65,000 or $70,000 a year. At 28, with a girlfriend but still no family to support and no college loans to amortize, this was a considerable sum of money. Indeed, Brett was doing better than most of his old high school friends who had college diplomas and white-collar jobs ... Continues...
Excerpted from High Steel by Rasenberger, Jim Excerpted by permission.
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