Most New York calamity occurs at street level: muggings, cabs jumping the sidewalk, electrified manhole covers. But lately it’s been coming from above and plunging toward the unlucky—or extraordinarily lucky—man below. Among the falling objects in the past few weeks: One 22-inch metal sheet, which blew off the Time Warner Center on April 4 and fell 76 stories, grazing a passerby. One chunk of brick parapet, which broke loose from a midtown Day’s Inn and crashed through the roof of the sales office. One bowling ball, dropped by an elderly man from his seventeenth-floor terrace. And one acrobat, who fell off his high wire at Madison Square Garden. No one was seriously hurt—except for the acrobat—but the falls were enough to revive the city’s sense of reverse vertigo. And it hasn’t helped that the sky is falling here at a moment when the world itself seems to be falling apart.
New York is a great place to get creamed, with plenty of tall buildings and hapless pedestrians. Like Maria Checchi, who was stepping out of a First Avenue pizzeria in 1994 when an air conditioner hit her. Or Grace Gold: In 1979, the Barnard student was killed by masonry from a Columbia building. The city passed Local Law 10, requiring regular façade inspections, and Columbia paid thousands to her family.
But the old buildings keep crumbling. In 2002, Roland Harris had the bad fortune to plant himself on his Bronx stoop—just below a magnificent brick façade, 80 feet long, that fell onto his head.
New buildings have been equally perilous. In 2002, also at the Time Warner Center, a worker was killed by flying plywood. (After last week’s incident, the city halted work there for two days.) Then there’s debris launched with intent to kill, which cops call “airmail.” In 1992, Alvania DeLeon was outside her Grand Concourse home when someone let fly a 75-pound slate slab, leaving her partially paralyzed. A year later, police officer John Williamson responded to a riot in Washington Heights and was walking to his cruiser when a 30-pound bucket of Spackle came down on him. The crowd cheered.
But we shouldn’t make too much of vertical terror. Only a few unfortunate souls, at most, die each year from falling debris; dozens more perish in auto accidents.
And indeed, many New Yorkers, upon leaving street level for their own apartments, tend to forget about the prospect entirely. We clutter roof terraces with junk that flies away with the first strong wind. We carelessly install air conditioners and toss garbage off fire escapes. And every so often, someone walks underneath.