The lights flickered and then a loud, thundering sound reverberated through the building. When the sound didn’t stop, my coworkers and I went to the window where we saw people running on Third Avenue and a smoke cloud behind the Chrysler Building. My office is located on the 17th floor of a building on 43rd Street; the floor was vibrating, the windows were rattling. When we decided to leave the premises, we came across a hysterical woman sitting on the floor of the lobby surrounded by security guards ushering us to move on. One guard said there had been an explosion. We left the building and joined the crowd moving away from the smoke. “The Steam Pipe Building exploded.” “Something happened at Grand Central.” No one knew what was happening, but we all knew we needed to get away from the growing cloud.
Although last Wednesday’s steam pipe explosion, thankfully, turned out not to be the next 9/11, my experience made me realize that its impact on my psyche has not subsided. Since 2001, the city has beefed up security, adding cameras and bollards on and near potential terrorist targets. The bag searches continue in the subways. The biggest, strongest buildings engineering can permit are filling the gap at Ground Zero. All to create a sense of stability.
What this infrastructural eruption brought to my awareness, though, was that these initiatives have not succeeded in making me feel safe. When my office building shook, I feared it would collapse. When I saw that there was a large crater in the street spewing steam (and who knows what else), I feared that a sink hole would expand possibly swallowing up surrounding buildings, including Grand Central and the Chrysler Building. Once I discovered the explosion was not a terrorist attack, I did not think that everything was going to be o.k.
I don’t have an answer for how to fix the problem, but I think that this is an issue pertinent to planners and architects working in the city. Barriers and blockades do not necessarily make someone feel safe. Buildings are supposed to provide shelter and protection. City infrastructure is supposed to run well enough that people do not question its reliability. The design profession may not be able to solve the socio-cultural and psychological issues that have yet to subside since 9/11. It is, however, the industry’s responsibility to at least consider integrating new measures into design.