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The Dangling Crane: A Sword of Damocles for the Modern World

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The Hurricane Sandy-toppled crane atop New York's tallest and most expensive developing hotel and residential tower known as One57 (i.e. 157 West 57th Street; the "One" apparently approximates just enough from an address perspective to excite the marketers...) shared the media spotlight right on cue, careening minute by minute as the region hunkered down amidst the competitive hysteria of cable and broadcast outlets alike for any news not previously deemed "new". No sanctimony intended: most viewers expected exactly that. Coming just days before a presidential election, narrative stakes rose ever higher.

If nothing else, the accident caused residents and visitors alike to look aloft at the building and consider its looming form. The constant throngs of smart phone image-makers alongside the barricades demonstrated best an unwitting and surely unwanted inspection of the building itself; nothing more than a well-deployed stararchitect imprimatur proving a disappointment despite its creative signature by Pritzker Prize laureate Christian Portzemparc. Regardless of one's taste or design predilection it is a banal overblown value-engineered needle honed from zoning regulation sleight-of-hand that makes all the existing towers around it shrink in its glassy shadow (black with a sprinkling of colored side wall panes in a nostalgic nod to the great early modernists). What does lend the building value is the view it grabs through sheer verticality along with a good address, especially as ambiguously distilled with its invented marketing moniker.

Change is due and welcome (as both leading presidential contenders remind us daily). Only a miniscule proportion of New York real estate is landmarked as with all truly dynamic global capitals. Making money from new construction that keeps pace with rapidly shifting tenant demand is the life force of future validity and sustained relevance in the global marketplace. But attention must be paid throughout to the shared infrastructure and systems of a functioning social contract. Growth is mandatory but not at the wholesale expense of the surrounding community; in that case homes and offices both new and old shoulder a risk that may not be evident at the outset of the approval process. Density is what's wanted and called for in the 21st century but there is a point at which it strains local capacity to a breaking point. There has to be some measure of balance between private gain and the commonweal such gain relies upon.

What the onlookers are witnessing today is a metaphor of the 4th century BC Greek legend of the Sword of Damocles, as later distilled and relayed by the Roman orator Cicero as an object lesson for the risks of power and the trade-offs required in wielding it.

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It is an anecdote about the court of Dionysus II in Greek Sicily's Syracuse, where an unctuous functionary dared to trade places with his sovereign who arranged that a huge sword should hang above the throne, held at the pommel only by a single hair of a horse's tail to demonstrate the tenuousness of power.

And this present-day metaphor is almost laughably literal: looming overhead is exactly such a downward thrusting thread-borne sword to remind one and all of the precariousness of power, consolidated at the top and sanctioned by elected and appointed officials on behalf of the voters who place them in charge.

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In the case of One57 the whole town catches a glimpse of the bargain made. Thanks paradoxically to nature's recent fury, there is a chance to pause and think about how best to shape a livable tomorrow directed by the kinds of limits that ultimately foster exactly such sustained growth. In any case, heed this over-stressed thread!