A thing of beauty emerged on my Upper West Side block recently, something New Yorkers are seeing more often these days. The scaffolding overhanging two buildings down the street was dismantled, revealing the façades of an elegant apartment house and adjacent church for the first time in, well, a long time.
This wraparound sidewalk shed, which a worker confirmed had been in place for more than 15 years and straddled an entire corner of Central Park West and 96th Street, was especially obstructionist. Besides being a haven for pigeons and raccoons, it completely boxed in a busy intersection at which a subway station and crosstown bus stop converge, along with a stoplight and a bagel-pastry cart popular among morning commuters.
The foot traffic running through the scaffolding created an awful jam, particularly while trying to get an impatient dog to the park. Many were the elbow bruises, ripped jackets, and turned ankles I endured while hugging the shed’s metal posts and jutting joints to evade bodily contact with others. I had to pull chewing gum from my pants after one iron pipe encounter.
What had stood for so long took just a few days to deconstruct. Bird droppings and discolored walls aside, I now welcome the faces of two handsome buildings, and an open, shadow-free sidewalk that lets me zig and zag as a New Yorker should. The southwest corner of West 96th Street finally breathes and lets the sunshine in.
Of course, scaffolding is a necessary fixture of urban life—historically, the product of new construction sites that also bring contractor trailers, perimeter fences, and diverted paths that snake into the street. The money clock is usually ticking on these projects, and developers are all too eager to pull down the barrier walls as soon as possible to show off their trophies.
What really spawned a surge in sidewalk sheds—including those that far outlast their expiration date—were façade safety inspections of existing buildings required every five years under the 1998 mandate known as Local Law 11. The sheds, typically covered in strips of corrugated tin, support workers scaling upper floors for repairs and protect pedestrians from falling debris. But as with any construction job, work shortages are frequent, leaving the scaffolding in place for months or longer. And as Connor Harris has noted, “many other dense cities manage to keep pedestrians safe with far less onerous requirements.” Many building owners failed to follow through on the pointing, brickwork, and exterior upgrades compelled by LL 11 for which the sheds were erected, creating a permanent street-level blight. By 2020, more than 11,000 of the structures blotted the city.
Aside from being light-stealing eyesores, the sheds are often magnets for squatters, drug users, and rats. I was once assaulted by a gang of high schoolers who used a shed near my office as a clubhouse. And for those of us spooked by the prospect of walking under a ladder, take special care when approaching a scaffold, especially one where actual work is going on—it’s hard to find a shed that doesn’t have an orange ladder leaning over some portion of the passageway, ready to jinx.
But the sheds can also have utility, providing shelter in the rain and impromptu outdoor gyms for macho types using the beams for pull-ups. The most stubborn dog will happily pee along a shed’s worn netting.
Credit Mayor Eric Adams for accelerating inspections and enforcement of scaffold scofflaws, with legislation introduced in March to prevent prolonged shed usage unaccompanied by actual work. Under proposed Bill H-0972, owners—including co-ops and condos as well as landlords—will be held to account on lagging repairs, while the city tries to streamline procedures for work permits. Blessedly, new sheds are obliged to be at least 12 feet high, which should help alleviate the claustrophobic feeling for those passing through daily. A sidebar bill (H-0971) is also proposed, requiring shed permit holders to replace or rehab city-owned trees damaged by the structures.
But blue skies aren’t totally in view. According to a fascinating online tracker maintained by the Department of Buildings, around 8,960 sheds are active across the five boroughs, extending more than 2 million linear feet—and casting impossible-to-measure shadows across New York’s streets. The average shed stands for 480 days; 241 have lasted five years or longer, including one covering a 1917 Hamilton Heights apartment house, once home to Thurgood Marshall and W. E. B. Dubois, that’s been up since 2006 (it’s finally being removed, and the owners drew hefty fines).
Nonetheless, around my neighborhood, bright new pathways have suddenly appeared sans scaffolding. Storefronts and restaurants look more inviting. I no longer avoid walking past Trader Joe’s on Columbus Avenue, whose longtime scaffolding and heavy loading equipment made for a hazardous obstacle course. And I can’t wait to see one particular shed gone: the one shrouding my own apartment building the past three years. Work is on hold while the crew awaits new terra cotta tiles from England and prepares to fix a rooftop parapet. Here’s hoping we see the light of day sometime in 2024.
Photos courtesy of author