For Labor Day, reflect on workers’ role in the transformation of the waterfront - The Buffalo News

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For Labor Day, reflect on workers’ role in the transformation of the waterfront

From third-floor windows at 1 News Plaza, overlooking Washington Street, you can observe (“supervise”) the work under way across the road. It is, all of it, fascinating.

The former Donovan State Office Building is being transformed into a hotel and law office. Next to it, what was a parking lot is in the process of becoming a reflecting pool. And if you twist your neck enough to risk injury, you can see some of the work under way on the Webster Block, where another former parking lot is rising into a huge hotel and hockey complex.

It is part of the transformation of the Buffalo waterfront and it is a remarkable sight, not just because so much construction is so foreign to Buffalo over its last half-century – although there is that – but to develop a deep admiration for the skills of tradespeople who know what they’re doing. It’s a fine lesson for Labor Day 2013.

These are workers who operate cranes as big as skyscrapers. They build forms, pour concrete and produce … well, whatever it was they were planning to produce: walls that are smooth and straight, or with a perfect curve that must be harder to create than it seems. Floors, steps, loading docks are imagined and planned and then, with the sweat of skilled tradespeople, they appear. How do they do that?

Some operate excavators as surely as if the massive shovel they manipulate is an extension of their own arms – moving chunks of rubble or nudging an oversized dumpster as gently as a mother rocking a child. How?

Some procedures, we admit, are difficult to comprehend. A critical part of construction evidently requires workers to dig deep holes and then fill them in again. This occurs with some regularity, and we are sure it must be important. We just don’t know why. This even though a number of third-floor business meetings have dwelled on the subject, perhaps at too great a length.

Of course, there is much more occurring. Third-floor supervision covers only what is occurring outside. Construction is also under way inside the old office building – now known as One Canalside – preparing for the arrival of the Phillips Lytle law firm, expected by the end of the year. Carpenters, electricians, plumbers and who knows who else are at work there, or will be soon. Later, they will turn to the bottom four floors of the building, where a Courtyard by Marriott hotel is expected to open next year.

The good news for Buffalo this Labor Day is that work like this is occurring all around the city. Skilled tradespeople are at work on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, which is expanding at breathtaking pace. In the city’s new Larkinville District, workers are continuing the job of bringing a once moribund neighborhood back to life. Other signs of new life are cropping up in other areas around this reawakening city.

Often, the credit for these projects goes to the politicians, developers, planners and architects who, in fact, are crucial to their creation. It takes money and imagination – and, in some cases, raw nerve – to take on the kinds of projects now under way here. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt Sabres’ owner Terry Pegula too much if the Webster Block project, known as HarborCenter, went bust – not that anyone expects that. But he’s still putting up tens of millions of dollars on a bet that can benefit the city for decades to come.

So the wheels behind these projects deserve their back-pats, but until you watch the workers skillfully plying their trades, it is easy to overlook their crucial contributions to projects that are enormously complicated.

The workers, we are sure, are also grateful. It’s been a long time since so many skilled laborers had so much work in this city. It’s good for them and their families, and for the communities where they spend their money. Better still is the likelihood that these developments will spur further activity that will create even more jobs.

In this way, Labor Day 2013 is one of the most hopeful this city has seen since its mid-20th century heyday. It’s a fine thing for Buffalo to celebrate today.

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