A Reflection on American Building

The city used to amaze me. Maybe it’s because I’m from the part of the world where the plains reach out farther than you can see, so the sight of a 30-story building, or even a naked parking garage, is almost a spectacle. It gives you the feeling of being elsewhere—not here, not home, not out in pasture with the wind and the sun, but in the city where everyone is busy with important things.

A charm for the city still lingers in my imagination. And yet, it’s changing. 

I used to look at skylines and feel the pulsating energy drawing me in and pushing me away at the same time like the snobby cool kid at school. I wanted in, wanted to feel like I belonged there, wanted to find an inlet to the mainstream, whatever that is.

Now I’m not so sure. 

I recently visited a city, and in a neighborhood where humble houses once stood there is now a mammoth hole hewn deep into the crust—a squared foundation for a skyscraper. As I looked through the chain link barrier I was reminded of the meteor crater in Arizona I saw when I was 5. When you look down from that ledge you can feel the leftover violence that bowled out the earth so long ago, and a similar brutality looked back through the chain link fence of job site. Laborers ascend the hole on makeshift stairs at the end of their shift and think of the leftovers they’ll have when they get home.

Enterprise does this. It takes a wooded hill and fells every tree and flattens the dirt and puts its mind on nothing but the job to finish and the profit to realize. It installs a manmade plain where for centuries a riverbank stood—where wolves once watched the moonbeams warble on the river currents, where Native Americans likely sat seeking solace for sufferings they couldn’t understand.

And now? Now there’s skid loaders and I-beams, robotic arms with hoses that spray concrete, white lights filling every corner of the site and a polluted reflection dimming the stars. “There’ll be a shopping center at the bottom with stores our predicted tenants will be sure to enjoy.”

I stand on the street and look down into the cavern of industry, seeing how we pummel the earth and blast the rock and spew down cement that will be there forever and I wonder: “Is this okay?” Is it right for us to do this? We stamp and plod and stab into the earth with ever newer ever better machines that multiply our efficiency and force, and the hill that once stood here is nothing but a memory in the minds of the dead, which is to say a memory that exists nowhere.

I don’t know. One could argue that in that building human lives will find their home—that mothers will rear their young, that professionals will rest from anxious toil, that Christmas parties will be hosted and love will be shared. 

We can build whatever we desire—it happens every American second—but should we? Will the universe hold us accountable for the way we kick down earth’s door and smash hills and chip trees and blast bedrock to build a steel and glass profit box? With what presumption do we stomp froward and justify our every action provided the bottom line is black? I don’t know. 

I look up and see the crane forty stories above the surface frowning down at me like an offended conscience. One thing I know is I’m not in control. 

We are a loud species, dead set that our will be done and our kingdom come.

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