The Rush of Empire

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All Images: Lewis Wick Hine via George Eastman House

I feel the rush.

I am securely on the ground, looking at the photography of Lewis W. Hine, but I feel it all: the rush of gravity at 1,000’, the rush of the wind at that inhuman height, the rush of America, reeling from depression but rising to unimaginable heights out of unprecedented lows. I feel the rush of greatness that comes from watching mere mortals doing extraordinary things, and I feel the rush of pride that says my people did this.

I see ordinary men, discounting their feats and fears. They mock gravity, traipsing untethered across 6” wide beams a quarter of a mile above the safety of the grounded Earth. They toss and catch glowing hot rivets in a dance for which they alone know the choreography. They pound, tighten, seal, hoist, pull, push and will the King of All Buildings into existence. And they think nothing of the heart-stopping danger, nor the exhilarating posterity of their work. It’s just a job. Just tryin’ to feed my family during hard times. The long-term impact of their work rushes past their short-term humility.

I see the building rise and I feel the shock of the times. 1930: The Great Depression, bread and soup lines, Hoovervilles in Central Park, no jobs, no hope. Hard times and hard, lean men desperate for work.

The building is financed by a shadowy, speculating CEO and chaired by the beloved former governor: John Jacob Raskob and Alfred E. Smith are the stuff of American biography themselves. 3,400 men find work at the nadir of American employment and spirit. The building rises to 102 floors, 1,250 feet, in 14 months. 4 ½ floors per week. It is ahead of schedule and under budget, with only five men lost during construction. This is our greatness. This is what my people – my fellow humans – can accomplish. This is the rush of Americanism.

And as the building rises it becomes an inextricable symbol of the zeitgeist. I hear Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and see Scott Fitzgerald lamenting his Lost City and the Babe still hitting 40+ homers in pinstripes, still larger than life. I hear Ellington and Langston Hughes and Woody Guthrie and see Alfred Stieglitz and Ansel Adams. I see Chaplin the tramp and Errol Flynn and Astaire and Busby Berkeley. I see the greatness of American art in 1930 and 1931, and it all becomes a pastiche around the rush to the sky in the middle of Manhattan in the middle of the depression. I feel the rush, not just to recover, but to conquer.

I feel this rush of American Exceptionalism, now nearly a century old, and realize that there is nothing greater in the world.

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37 comments
  1. I don’t know what to tell you anymore. You shouldn’t be doing this for free Brian. I love seeing your art, but I feel like I’m ripping you off. Get a gallery, book, something. You are too good.

    • You are too kind, Hobbs, and that is the goal. *wink*

      • Well do it! You need an agent.

    • clownonfire said:

      Brian,
      Hobbs is on to you… You’re in a league of your own.
      Le Clown

      • He’s going to be a star. I don’t feel that way about most people, but Brian is really one of, if not the best writer I know.

      • clownonfire said:

        Brian,
        He’s pretty awesome. And I like the way he dressed too.
        Le Clown

    • I agree with what The Hobbler and Le Clown have said– you NEED to be getting paid for this

      • Thank you so much, J&T. Just…thanks.

  2. Not too much more to say, Brian…except…I agree with The Hobbler….

    • Thank you so much, Jots.

  3. Exceptional.

    • *blushing* Thanks, friend.

  4. Sheesh…all of you, thank you so much.

    • Here is my non-expert analysis of your writing:

      The fact that you can write well on a variety of topics is great. Better yet, is the fact that you can see a picture and create the setting, background, etc. that is not necessarily shown by the picture, but so completely ties into the photo that after reading your story, you can not separate it from the photo, song or whatever.

      You also add enough of your own personal experience and emotion that the words become more than words, but are rather a doorway, to another soul. Even if I don’t know much about your chosen topic, after reading your…I don’t know what to call it, because it’s more than a description, more than a story…anyway, I can feel a connection to it.

      I’m cell phone blogging this at the moment, and can’t see my whole comment, but I think you get the picture. ;)

      • I’m more touched than I can say Thank you.

      • You’re welcome, but the thing is, I don’t want to be one of those people who waits till everyone knows about you and then says “I knew there was something special about him”. I’m letting you know now that I know greatness when I see it. You have a way with words Brian and I’m not just saying that to suck up to you or anything. It’s just true. I’ll leave you alone now. ;)

  5. Well done, my friend. I have a ton of catching up to do on your blog today. This is where I started and it does not disappoint! Great, as always.

    • Always great to see you, m’dear. ;)

  6. These are wonderful!
    I read last year New York by Rutherfurd (http://www.amazon.com/New-York-Novel-Edward-Rutherfurd/dp/0385521383) and I loved it. I remember the chapter about the fever of the skyscrapers… and these photographs helped put image to his narratives.

    • My reading list just got a little longer, thanks!

  7. Lily said:

    It’s crazy to think about this history of how cities were built. I really liked the way you wrote this–touching on topics I remember studying in school. It’s sad yet empowering that people would go to work and risk their lives to get a measly income to feed their families. Nice job!

    • Seriously, can you imagine? Men are not supposed to walk on beams a quarter of a mile up without a rope! And 102 story buildings aren’t supposed to go up during the Great Depression! Un. Believable stuff.

  8. You got me at Rhapsody in Blue — I must Youtube it now! Great essay…

    • That clarinet! Gets me every time.

  9. Rebecca Booth said:

    Beautifully written and the pictures compliment your writing perfectly!

    • Thanks so much! I can’t imagine doing either the work or the photography. Pass!

  10. The pictures were brought to life with your words…amazing! Life before OSHA that’s for sure..dear lord the guy hanging off the wire had me sweating.

    • Right?!? And just think of poor Lewis Hine crawling up there with the workers…WITH A LARGE FORMAT 8×10 CAMERA AND ALL THAT GEAR. Mindblowing.
      Thanks for swinging by, Life…! Great to have you here.

  11. And all of you, I can’t recommend Ric (brother of Ken) Burns: New York enough, especially Episode Five: Cosmopolis. The film of the Empire State Building construction is priceless. GO!

    http://www.pbs.org/wnet/newyork/index.html

  12. Became enthralled by Hine’s photography at about age 12. After moving to NYC (in my early 20’s) the feelings moved to devotee… for the exact reasons and feelings you wrote about.
    What a fine post. History, hard working people, classic images, true art, music and public figures who personified the times.
    These are a few of my favorite things.
    Many thanks Brian. This will place me in ponder/wonder mode for the rest of the evening. Another favorite thing.

    • So happy to read this, Ms. Black. Thank you!

  13. writerwendyreid said:

    Those pictures are amazing. I could never have done anything at those heights. Were they even wearing any sort of safety gear? I didn’t see any.

    • None. No safety gear. Nada. GULP!

  14. I used to work there (as King Kong in the observatory. Yes, really). Looking out from an unscreened window on the 86th floor, it’s almost incomprehensible that they even built the thing.
    You’ve really captured its majesty here, Brian.
    You oughta see about passing this on/selling it to the Empire State building PR Dept.

    • 86th floor. Without a screen. Yeah, I’d have a slight problem with that.

      Thanks, man! Would love to shill for any man who pays! Now it’s just a question of finding him…

  15. Fraha said:

    I felt as if you were walking me down the path of time past, taking a tour on a city growing upward. I feel like I would be wearing a beautiful large hat that I embrace as you to tell me to look to the building pointing to the sky. Thank you for taking me on a journey.

    • What an amazing thing to read in the middle of a horrendous Cube day. Thank you so much, Fraha!

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