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.