January 2, 2007

It was an urban photographer's dream.

Having seen my Comcast Center construction documentation page, one of the men working on the skyscraper's construction invited me on site and up the elevators to improve the collection. So on January 2nd, this Phillyist was on the very raw 43rd floor of the Comcast Center for an ironworker's view of the construction progress and amazing views of Philadelphia.

We began by climbing a few staircases and ladders to the third floor to catch the lift that carries equipment and workers to the upper levels. My tour guide contacted the lift operator by intercom to tell him our current location and destination, much like someone would hail a cab: "Jim, I'm on 3, need to go to 41!" There are only two such elevators to serve the entire project, and with large loads of tools and materials that need to share the space with workers, spots on the elevators are at a premium.

It took about 20 minutes for the elevator to finally pick us up. The apparent anger of my host was the source of my entertainment during our wait. Every couple minutes he blared into the intercom, "YO JIM, WHAT THE FUCK!?" A few times, as the completely full elevator passed without picking us up, Jim got a non-electronic variant of the same question.

(This early impression made me think my guide had a pretty short temper. Then, his friendly interaction with the lift operator once we were on board made me realize this is simply the language with which Philly's union construction guys communicate. The knowledge was helpful a few days later, when I received a profanity-laden voicemail from him because my phone was off while I was on a plane. Much like the face-to-face interaction with the elevator man, the ensuing phone call was polite and friendly.)

After stopping at what seemed like every floor, we finally reached the end of the line, 41. A brief and initially tentative walk to the edges for the view had me mesmerized, but we didn't stay there long before he suggested that we go up a few more levels by ladder.

So, we climbed two very tall ladders and squeezed through holes in the next floor to reach the 43rd story. Above us, there was nothing but the concrete core rising in the center and the half-completed steel of what would become the 44th floor. Although they were strapped in as is obviously required, it was fascinating to watch the steel workers deftly maneuvering on the beams above our heads.

This is not to imply that the situation on 43 was anything for the faint of heart. Even though it was a fairly normal day on the ground, the wind at 650 feet was pretty intense, with gusts in the 30-40 mph range. I'm one of the least-afraid-of-heights people I know, and it was a little exciting to be close to the edges when a gust of wind hit.

There were also these nasty little gaps in the flooring about 18 inches wide that would run the length from the core all the way out to the edge in some spots. When navigating each floor, one needs to step over them or fall to the floor below. The flooring was a little soft and was uneven, like the inside of corrugated cardboard. Plus, construction equipment was all over the place and had to be avoided.

Oh, and the edges.... See those wire railings in the photo on the right? Not really? Exactly.

Overall, it was a slightly precarious situation, especially if you don't remind yourself to stop walking when blocking your own vision with a camera.

The chance for an inside view of the construction progress, and to meet some of the people responsible for it, was awesome. Even better were the views of Philly's skyscrapers, bridges, and streets below. It was an amazingly clear day, and the chance for new angles on areas I've photographed thousands of times, combined with the altitude-fueled adrenaline rush, was indescribable.

The ironworkers have promised to take me to the top again in a few months when the building is topping out. That spot on the 57th story will be a full 300 feet above the 43rd floor.

I'm a little nervous thinking about it.

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