Rasenberger's 'High Steel' -- it's scary, building a skyline

April 18, 2004|By Dan Cryer

High Steel: The Daring Men Who Built the World's Greatest Skyline, by Jim Rasenberger. HarperCollins. 376 pages. $26.95.

It's no sweat being a structural ironworker, right? All you have to be is very strong, very agile and utterly fearless. At any moment, the work can kill you.

If you're lucky enough to make it into the union -- it helps if your father was a member -- and join a crew building a bridge or raising a skyscraper for $34 an hour, here's what might happen.

You could step in the wrong spot and fall to the floor below. Debris could fall from the floor above. An errant steel beam could whack you in the chest or crush you. You could be walking a narrow beam hundreds of feet in the air, lose your balance and fall to your death.

No wonder they call these guys the daredevils of the skies.

"Frenchy" Gosselin, in the late 1920s, viewed his trade through the disarming lens of humor: "It ain't no picnic, but ... I wouldn't wanna be no taxi driver. Looka them down there, dodging in and outa that traffic all day long. A guy's apt to get killed that way."

Never mind that five of his fellow workers died in constructing the Empire State Building.

Even in the age of OSHA and heightened safety awareness, the job remains extremely dangerous. According to that federal agency, only timber cutting and fishing have higher death rates. Falling is the cause of death in 75 percent of ironworker fatalities.

Oddly enough, the Institute of the Ironworking Industry reports, the victims tend not to be rookies or over-the-hill geezers, but experienced men at the peak of their skills. "They forget to remember just how dangerous it is up there," an institute official says.

Jim Rasenberger's High Steel is a breezy, anecdotal history of the men who built New York City's bridges and skyscrapers throughout the 20th century. That the author is a freelance writer, not a historian, can sometimes be frustrating. Instead of trying to settle discrepancies over facts, for example, he merely reports them.

Nor is Rasenberger the stylist that some of his illustrious predecessors were. When he mentions Joseph Mitchell (Mohawks in High Steel) or David McCullough (The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Making of the Brooklyn Bridge) or Gay Talese (The Bridge, on Verrazano-Narrows), the effect is to underscore the workmanlike quality of his own prose.

Still, no previous author has put together the big picture as Rasenberger has. He gives us a sense of who ironworkers are, what they actually do and why they love their jobs. He offers fascinating glimpses of their trade over time.

The structural girder for Rasenberger's story, to which he returns repeatedly in the course of his historical overview, is the construction of the Time Warner headquarters that recently went up on Columbus Circle. Here he follows a "raising gang," an elite five-member crew working at the top of building as it stretches ever skyward.

The author is an admirer of these men, but not an apologist. In many ways, he notes, they are "cultural relics" from a fading industrial age, who drink too much and "practice few of the civilities of the harassment-free workplace. As gender roles become less defined, the ironworkers, virtually all men, continue to revel in a cocoon of full-blown masculine camaraderie."

They are out of step with the rest of America, Rasenberger notes, in two other ways. As the workplace becomes less unionized and safer than ever, they remain ardent unionists working in conditions of continual danger.

In New York City, most ironworkers hail from "multigenerational dynasties" of Mohawk Indians, Newfoundlanders and their American offspring, and men of German, Scandinavian or Irish background. Since the author opts for the colorful whenever possible, we learn far more about the Mohawks and the "Newfies" than the others who make up the majority of ironworkers.

The search for the exotic leads Rasenberger to such early 20th-century union honchos as Sam Parks, a shrewd Irishman who unabashedly proclaimed, "I like a fight." To recruit union members, his goons cracked heads; to avoid strikes, he accepted company payoffs. In 1910, the union's reputation hit bottom when its officials were convicted of complicity in numerous bombings of nonunion construction sites.

During the '20s, as skyscrapers and bridges remade the city skyline, the ironworkers' public image soared once again. It soured in 1970 when New York hard-hats saw fit to express their disagreement with Vietnam War protesters by beating them up.

An ironic redemption arrived in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, as TV cameras recorded ironworkers laboring night and day to clean up what terrorists had wrought. Their future, however, remains far from certain.

"Whatever rose downtown," Rasenberger writes, "could not be what was there before. The Great American Steel Sky-scraper had been forever de-moted from an icon of strength to a symbol of vulnerability."

Dan Cryer was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism. He is the staff book critic for Newsday and has reviewed books for The Washington Post, The New Republic and Salon.com. This review, in longer form, was published in Newsday, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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