My office building is across the river from Washington, D.C., and has a good view of the D.C. skyline. Everywhere I look, cranes have sprung up like weeds. This isn’t anything particularly new. I’ve noticed these massive cranes for a decade or more now. They stand like upright T-squares scattered about the city.

It’s not just Washington, D.C. Everywhere I go, I see these cranes. I’ve seen them driving through Portland, Maine. I’ve seen them in Albany, New York, and Savannah, Georgia. I’ve seen them in Orlando, Florida, and London, England, and Venice, Italy.

Washington, D.C. is the 22nd most populous city in the United States, and I can easily count a dozen cranes. Throughout the big cities of the country, there must be thousands of these massive cranes, carrying heavy loads to the top of buildings. Driving up and down the eastern coast of the United States, there is no shortage of these cranes. The crane business must be thriving. Where do all these cranes come from?

These are the kinds of things I think about while driving on one of our road trips. What, I wonder, is the process for ordering a crane? Are the cranes custom-made for the job? Can they be reused? Do you rent a crane, or do you purchase it outright? Who are the crane salespeople, and what are their days like? When it gets close to the end of the month, are the crane salespeople eagerly cold-calling construction companies with the hope of padding their sales?

Are the companies that make the cranes the same companies that sell the cranes? Or has a middle-market emerged, a kind of crane brokerage, one that specializes in pairing you up with the crane most suited to your needs?

Have you ever seen one of these cranes put up or taken down? Me neither. One day, there is nothing more than big hole in the ground where a building will go. The next, a crane stands astride the hole, with an American flag blowing in the breeze one hundred feet up. How does that happen? Obviously the crane has to be put together. It must come in pieces, but those pieces have to be awfully big. How many trucks does it take to cart in all of the pieces of one of these cranes? Do these trucks only venture out in the wee hours of the night? I have never seen a caravan of crane-bearing trucks driving down the highway, but I have seen cranes appear overnight.

And how, exactly, does one put a crane together? Wouldn’t you need another, perhaps smaller, crane? If so, doesn’t this lead to a bootstrapping problem? There is probably a YouTube video out there somewhere that shows a time-lapse of a crane being assembled, but I’m too lazy to look for it.

The problem with cranes, as I see it, is that they make it obvious that a city is never finished. Oh, look, a new crane just went up. I’ll have to avoid that part of town now, because traffic is probably snarled up. Cranes take up space. Anyone who has ever gone through some home improvement—a kitchen or bathroom remodel, for instance—yearns for the days when the dust has cleared, and the house is back in order. That never happens with cities these days. Two cranes come down and two more go up.

Just once, I’d like to see a city skyline absent of cranes. “Hey, look!” I’d shout, gleefully, “they’ve finally finished!”


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