By George Capsis
On his first trip to America, Greek journalist John Capsis asked his cousin George what all those black patches were on every New York City sidewalk. George casually offered that they were spat-out wads of chewing gum. Incredulous, John stopped and wrote about them to his equally disbelieving Greek readers; they could not accept that nice, clean, rich Americans would allow such a repulsive and sticky defacement.
Each culture has a conditioned myopia to certain street ugliness; we perhaps accept more graffiti than most. So, I was pleased when the Times offered the outrage of City Councilman Benjamin Kallos who can’t understand why scaffolding should encrust a building for years and years with absolutely no work going on. He has introduced a bill that gives the building owner six months to complete the work or the City will do it at its expense.
Oh wow! I thought about the scaffolding on West 4th and Charles, near the two adjoining buildings owned by George Soros’s daughter; it took up precious space on the narrow sidewalk for six years. After two architects and two contractors intervened, the scaffolding finally came down.
But where did all those scaffoldings come from? I mean, I have never seen so many. One sat over Karavas, the Greek souvlaki restaurant near Sheridan Square for years; it came down a few weeks ago with the closing of that eatery (that is one of the bad things about scaffolding—it is not good for business).
According to the Times, it all started in 1979 when a Barnard student was killed by a falling piece of terra cotta from a 1912 building on 115th Street and Broadway. After that incident, the City established tough building inspections; if your building looked like it would shed a few bricks, you had to throw up scaffolding and repair all the loose bricks and architectural ornamentation. But repairing a century-old tenement is expensive and sometimes building owners don’t have the money to do it. So, they just keep renting the scaffolding and renting the scaffolding and renting the scaffolding.
In 1990, the City issued only 1,019 scaffolding permits. Twenty-five years later, in 2015, a total of 6,667 permits were stamped valid, with the largest number in downtown Manhattan—2,938.
You never see anybody working on the scaffoldings. Never. Yes, they worked on an 1880s five-story tenement across the street and I did see a crew come once in a while, and more, as they finished up. It only took them a year (or was it two or three).
“A specific timeline for landlords to get the work done will finally work toward holding someone accountable for scaffolding that goes up but never comes down,” Councilman Kallos bravely offers.
Is this yet another example of George’s Law—that bureaucracy is a blunt instrument and the ill it attempts to correct in one decade becomes larger in the next?