Spirit in the sky

The men who build skyscrapers

Even in the early years, when New York’s skyscrapers reached only modest altitudes, the men who built them were honoured with a nickname that acknowledged them as frontier-busters: they were known as cowboys of the sky. But that tag was never entirely appropriate, because those cowboys always included a significant number of people who would then have been called Indians – and now call themselves Native Americans.

It all began in 1886, a decade after Sitting Bull led the Sioux and Cheyenne to victory over Custer’s forces at the Battle of Little Big Horn. Back east, a railway company wanted to build a bridge across the St Lawrence river, between Canada and New York State, and the site it chose was owned by the Mohawk, a tribe in the Iroquois Confederacy. In return for access to the land, the company recruited native men as labourers. They weren’t hired to work on the bridge, mind you, but as soon as they got a chance they climbed on to it all the same. And nobody could fail to notice that they looked jolly comfortable up there.

Swiftly establishing a reputation for good work, the Mohawk “skywalkers” (as they were also nicknamed) started travelling further afield for work. Often they went in big groups; but in 1907, when more than 30 from the Kahnawake reservation were killed in the collapse of another bridge, tribal leaders decreed that men should spread themselves about, lest another such accident wipe out an entire generation.

One of the most lucrative destinations was Manhattan, where pay can be 50 per cent higher than upstate (the current rate, set by the union, is $33.55 (£23.36) an hour). In the course of more than a century, Mohawk ironworkers have helped to put together virtually all the island’s significant structures: the Woolworth Building, the Empire State, the Chrysler, the George Washington and Triborough bridges, the Waldorf-Astoria, the RCA, the United Nations Assembly building and the World Trade Centre. Outside the Mohawk community this contribution has not always been fully acknowledged – though Joni Mitchell, on her 1976 album Hejira, did mumble a portion of praise.

For many years, a sizeable Mohawk community could be found in Boerum Hill, in Brooklyn. But after improvements were made to Interstate 87, many ironworkers concluded that they could more satisfactorily establish a family home on the reservation and commute to shared accommodation in the city during weekdays. And in the mid-80s, after construction slowed dramatically, the Boerum Hill Mohawks disappeared. But a decade later construction began to flourish again. In Times Square alone, three new skyscrapers shot up in the past couple of years, and this time last year the Manhattan branch of the ironworkers union, Local 40, reported full employment for all of its 1,200 members. Which took no account of the hundreds who flooded in from outside – including many Mohawks.

You might imagine that what happened to the World Trade Centre would sour urban America’s affection for tall buildings. Perhaps it has. But 2002 may still be busier than 2001 – not least because companies and individuals affected by the destruction need new office space. And there are ongoing jobs, notably the $1.7bn (£1.2bn) Columbus Centre that will provide a headquarters for AOL-Time Warner, a hotel, offices, apartments, retail space, a concert hall and plenty of parking. Still to come are a $1.5bn reconstruction of the Lincoln Centre, a Guggenheim museum project planned for the East River and billion-dollar stadiums for the Yankees and the Mets.

Interested to find out more about the Mohawk ironworkers, I make my way to a building site on Washington Square. It’s 6.00am on a winter morning and I’m looking for a native welder, Lorne Clute. Eventually a shortish figure presents himself: he has dark hair, a round face with twinkling eyes, a pencil moustache and a stocky figure exaggerated by his puffy blue jacket – featuring the embroidered logo of the ironworkers’ union. This is Clute.

He takes me on to the site and upstairs to a dingy space where bare bulbs have been strung across the unfinished ceiling. Amid gleaming air-con ducts waiting to be fitted and tall gas bottles standing to attention, there’s a wooden cabin: Clute pops inside and emerges moments later in dungarees, a thick workshirt and a bandana.

A small crowd gathers. Then a man with an official manner summons everybody inside the hut for a talk which may possibly be for the Financial Times’s benefit. “Fellas, we’re getting close to the end of the job,” he says. “Everybody gets careless towards the end of the job. I want you guys to look closely at safety. Keep them hard hats on, and when you’re doing grinding, keep your glasses on. You should all have glasses, we got plenty here. You guys’ve worked hard. It’s been a tough job. We been lucky here, just a coupla minor accidents. We need your help. If you see something unsafe, let us know. Let Joe and the guys know about it. Anything you got to say?”

One of the ironworkers asks, “Have we got Friday off?” Everybody laughs.

In the noisy freight elevator, Clute shouts greetings to colleagues. At the last stop, we step out and climb a severely wobbling ladder on to what is currently the top floor – but with Clute and his colleagues putting up two levels each week it won’t retain that status for long. Clute explains how the various gangs work. First up are the connectors: daredevils who grapple to the top of vertical steel like bears climbing trees, stroll on beams no wider than themselves and somehow manage not to fall off as they catch 20-tonne beams swung towards them by a crane. After connectors come bolter-uppers, plumber-uppers (to check accurate alignment), welders and the decking gang.

Unlike other ironworkers, connectors don’t wear harnesses. There’s a reason for that, according to Jack Doyle, president of Local 40. As steel is raised by cranes, it moves about. “Connectors have got to be fast to take account of that. If the wind gets hold of a beam and swings it, you gotta get out of the way. If you’re wearing a harness, you’re trapped.”

Even for the rest of the ironworkers, conditions seem less than ideal. For a start, there’s the racket, generated by men banging ferociously on metal. Icy wind numbs my fingers and nose. But mere cold doesn’t bother ironworkers – particularly not welders such as Clute, whose torch, he estimates, reaches temperatures as high as 17,000 degrees. “You gotta wear a shield, a number 10 shade, because the ultraviolet will ruin your eyes. You gotta keep your neck covered and your hands, because after many years of welding you could get some kind of skin cancer.” In summer, the combination of workshirt, leathers, gloves, mask and headscarf is acutely uncomfortable. “Boy, it’s hot! The iron gets so you can feel it through your boots. There’s this guy, Jimmy Philips, he cooked an egg on the decking.”

As he takes me round the site, it becomes clear that Clute concerns himself little with the building’s ultimate purpose. “This job here, this is gonna be, uh, let’s see, they got a theatre in the basement, some kinda performing arts..? I forget the name of the people that is putting up the money for this.” (In fact, it’s a new law school for New York University.) “The building will probably be done some time next year. They’ll have a grand opening. I won’t be invited, but I’ll come back and see what it looks like… You like to see it, you like to say: ‘I worked on that from top to bottom.’”

Clute, 32, grew up at Akwesasne over the Canadian border. His father worked briefly as an ironworker before giving up that dangerous job to become a, er, roofer. His older brother, Darrow, became an ironworker while Clute was at high school. Clute didn’t go straight into the job: after school he worked for a cousin at a factory in Ontario, fixing machines, earning 10 bucks an hour. But one day a friend told him he could make a lot more as an ironworker. So he learned about welding, got himself a union card and drove to Vermont for his first job, the IBM building in Williston. He had so many friends there, it must have felt like home. There was Burgess Diabo, who’d been at high school with him. Peter and Joey who stayed with him at the Super 8 Motel. And one of the foremen, Matthew Stacey, was his ex-brother-in-law.

He came to New York in 1998 to work on his first skyscraper, the Planet Hollywood building on Broadway and 47th Street. Looking back, he says he was terrified working at such unfamiliar heights. With good reason: the worst day of Clute’s life was when his friend Robert George fell from that building to his death. Clute had been working roughly halfway up. George, a 21-year-old apprentice, had been working at the top. Clute wasn’t immediately aware what had happened, but it didn’t take long to find out: for a start, he couldn’t get on to the freight elevator because it had been taken over by the emergency services.

There was a wake for George in Long Island. All the ironworkers on that job turned up to pay their respects. There was an official investigation, too, but nobody could say for certain what happened. The accident had a profound effect on Clute. “It made me real nervous about the job,” he says. “You always gotta be sharp. Watch what you’re doing. One wrong move could cost you your life.” His girlfriend, Denise, was worried too: she didn’t want anything bad to happen to Clute, specially not after she gave birth, that same year, to their son Reece.

Clute, who already had two children through his earlier marriage to Anne-Marie, would prefer them to become doctors rather than ironworkers. And why not? Mohawks are no more capable of ironwork, he says, than anybody else. “Sure, you meet a lot of natives in this business. But it’s like anything else, you meet a lot of Irish, Italians, Jamaicans, Latin guys, lotsa different people. Nobody is better than anybody else. And not all natives have a head for heights.”

Others, though, believe there’s something that sets Mohawk men apart. One, a foreman called Dale Herne, says: “I don’t know what it is, but natives” – such as himself – “have a knack for being up in the air. It’s in the bloodline, it’s automatic. A lot of the older guys were in the business, and they passed it on to us. And when we come into the trade they help us. It’s unbelievable, it’s like a spiritual thing.”

At Clute’s invitation, I join him one evening at a bar near the building site. We’ll have a drink, he says, then go back to his house in New Jersey where I can talk to other native ironworkers living there.

Before meeting him, I’d contacted other native ironworkers, many of whose names were given to me by Mark Peterson, the photographer who took these pictures. I spoke to Dick Otta, who worked briefly as foreman at the Washington Square site until moving to another job at JFK airport. I called Ben Roundpoint, Marvin Davies and Michael Swamp, the union’s business manager at Akwesasne, who, after September 11, co-ordinated relief efforts. Neil Laughing, a retired ironworker, told me about working, in the early 1960s, on the Pan Am Building (now called the MetLife). And I talked to people on the council in Kahnawake, where several chiefs are former ironworkers.

Peterson urged me to visit the reservation. “It’s crazy, you won’t believe it,” he said, which certainly intrigued me. It would be a long journey – six or seven hours at best – but ironworkers like Clute manage it each week, setting off immediately after work on a Friday and getting home before midnight. For the return trip, on Sundays, younger men might drive through the night, arriving just in time to start work on Monday morning. If they can do it, why not me? But when I inquired further, I learnt that the craziness of the reservation is precisely that it seems ordinary: instead of showcasing poverty and meaninglessness, like the stereotype, it looks smartly suburban; thanks largely to the money brought home by ironworkers.

Not having time to spare, I forego that epic journey. To compensate for missing out, I’m looking forward to seeing the house Clute shares with a dozen or so other natives in New Jersey. Many of these guys, Peterson suggests, lead double lives: on the reservation, they’re middle-aged family men, big on fishing in the St Lawrence; during the week, in the city, they carry on like teenagers from one big night to the next. I’m not sure exactly what I expect to find, but I can’t help thinking it will be like the 1980s TV series, Auf Wiedersehen, Pet – only with native Americans instead of Geordies.

So we go for a couple of beers. And another couple. Then two more. Each time a new bottle appears, I push the last, half-full, to one side and hope Clute won’t notice. He’s been coming to this bar since he started work on this site and he’s made several friends. At the next job, he’ll have to find a new bar.

But there’s one place he goes back to again and again; and that’s where he takes me for the next few rounds. I’m delighted, but starting to worry about missing his friends, who have to rise early and may soon go to bed. The Hogs and Heifers, in the Meatpacking district, is where Hollywood stars and bankers come to mix with ironworkers and bikers. It furnished a model for the lively bar depicted in a recent film, Coyote Ugly. The bartender pouts and wiggles energetically as she moves from one optic to the next, to the evident satisfaction of male customers. Hanging from the wall behind her are thousands of bras, donated by visitors such as, recently, the actress Julia Roberts. At least, that’s what Clute seems to be saying to me, only he’s inaudible against the ferocious headbanging music (heavy metal, plainly, is appreciated by ironworkers).

I ask, in a tone intended to be casual, how long he intends to stay here. “You asked to see a typical night for a native ironworker in New York,” he reminds me, evidently enjoying the attention. Is this typical? “It’s typical if I’m meeting a journalist from London.” Thus Clute teaches me that, as with Schroedinger’s cat, the natural condition of a Mohawk ironworker can never be determined through observation.

Hours later than planned, we catch a ride to New Jersey. Now Clute wants to go to the Pebble Beach pub, in Cliffside Park, for a burger. I’m really anxious. I tell him that I don’t want to miss his friends. So he telephones his room-mate, Tommy Herne. Herne is reluctant to come out but Clute insists – and tells him to bring the rest of the guys too, because the Financial Times is paying. Before I can object, he hangs up.

Mercifully, Herne arrives alone. He’s in his late 30s, about Clute’s height, but more wiry. And quieter. His nose is scarred where he was hit by a bolt at work. Though based in New York, he’s registered with Local 17, the union branch in Cleveland, Ohio, because that’s where he started out. Over 16 years he’s travelled further afield than Clute: to Colorado, Las Vegas, Chicago, Michigan and Connecticut. They became friends after working together on a hospital upstate.

Right now, Herne’s between jobs. Every morning, at 6.00am, he turns up at Local 40 on 15th Street for work. “By 8.00am you either get a job or go home,” he says. After September 11, in a similar position, he did a few shifts at Ground Zero, burning iron so it could be broken up and taken away. But if you gave him the choice, he’d work as a connector, without a harness. I tell him he’s crazy. “That’s what I prefer to do. It’s an ego thing. You’re the first guy up there.”

Around midnight, we walk towards the house on Lincoln Avenue. The lights are off. Inside, Clute points to a sticker on one of the doors: it’s a symbol he showed me earlier, representing the various tribes of the Iroquois. “There are three guys in there, all native. And three more in there. And there.” He says it quietly, because they’re all asleep.

I’ve missed them. But that doesn’t matter, because in the room shared by Clute and Herne – amid a mess of wrenches, hard hats, Herne’s bicycle, playing cards, dartboard, TV, guitar, vacuum cleaner and two single beds – I experience a woozy epiphany. On the wall, there’s a big poster, a reprint of a classic 1930s photo, unattributed, which shows 11 men sitting on a girder 800 feet high to eat from lunchboxes. Clute rises from the end of his bed, eyes heavily lidded and speech ever so slightly slurred, to point out a fellow with his flat cap pulled low over his face. “See that guy there – a native.”

I’m not sure I believe him, but whether that particular man was a Mohawk or the man beside him – or one of the others – there’s a good chance that somebody was. Clute’s boast, in effect, is saying this: that despite an ongoing tribal claim to sizeable portions of New York state, Mohawk ironworkers have contributed vast measures of real estate to Manhattan. And that most of them – the man hidden beneath the cap, like the guys asleep in the next room, and many others, faceless when glimpsed from far below, get little credit for it.

2955 words. First published 26 January 02. © FT Magazine