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Happy Birthday, Spike

On May 1, 1931, President Herbert Hoover pressed a button in Washington, D.C. and the lights went on in the Empire State Building for the first time.

For a nation mired in the depths of a Great Depression, the world’s tallest building was much more than an engineering marvel. It was a 1,472-foot-high beacon of hope.

Even before the remains of the old Waldorf-Astoria Hotel were completely cleared from the 83,860-square-foot site on Fifth Avenue, an army that would grow to 3,400 construction workers prepared to lay the framework for what would become a 102-story, 37 million cubic foot behemoth.

These were the fortunate few who had meaningful work when so many of their neighbors were idle. They threw themselves into the task, logging 7 million man hours in a year, working through Sundays and holidays. It was almost as if they thought the project would disappear if they put down their hammers and pails and took a break.

The building rose at the incredible rate of 4.5 stories per week, facilitated by a special rail line that connected the building site directly to steel mills in Pennsylvania. The steel was still warm when it was riveted into place on the mammoth structure rising over Manhattan.

The interior lobby was lined with ceiling-high marble brought over from Europe on ships. From the sixth floor to the top, the exterior was covered with Indiana limestone and granite, trimmed with aluminum and chrome-nickel steel. Even using the best materials, the total cost came in at less than half of the original $50 million estimate.

It took less than 14 months to build the Empire State Building.

It is hard to reconcile that accomplishment with the current state of affairs in the nation’s largest city. Most of the large-scale civic projects in New York are suspended in limbo, tangled up in petty disputes and a jungle of red tape.

Whether it’s a new train station, an expanded convention center, or the complex planned for the World Trade Center site, the only thing that seems to be rising is the estimated cost of construction, as politicians and developers jockey for position and bicker over who is to blame for the delays.

The city that has always astounded us with the audacity of its dreams no longer seems able to summon the willpower to make them a reality. New York has lost its mojo.

Message to New Yorkers: You don’t need a subway map to find it. If you have temporarily forgotten what is possible when spirit, grit and imagination are joined in common purpose, there is a powerful and majestic reminder nearby.

It is standing there in front of you, right where King Kong left it. All you have to do is look up.

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