From the Editor: Losing control

Construction worker standing near machine
Construction workers have a job to do. But some of them need to remember sometimes that so do the rest of us. | Image: Tim Gouw

So I did something I’m not proud of on Election Day this year.

I almost got into a fistfight with a construction worker. 

Let me preface this by saying that it’s not my mission to stir up trouble and I wasn’t looking for it. I also realize in retrospect where the pent-up aggression and explosion on this worker came from – but first, let me tell you the story. 

You can’t go a few blocks in my neighborhood on a daily basis without running into some street closure or something blocking the path for where you’re trying to go. It’s a derivative of the massive development boom Philadelphia is experiencing in this reverse white flight revolution. Developers swoop in, buy up blocks of city streets in emerging neighborhoods, REALTORS rebrand neighborhoods to make it desirable for interested gentrifiers, and the cycle continues. 

I don’t have an issue with that – well, I suppose I do in some small part – but that’s for another time and a different column. What I do have an issue with are the contractors who have very little regard for the neighborhoods they swoop into. Closing off streets without permits, doing massive demolition and not using water to keep down the toxic dust from old construction, leaving debris in the streets that pops tires, parking giant trucks on sidewalks creating sinkholes. 

The list is long and equally annoying, and I’m aware it’s the breaks of living in a big city. 

Like I mentioned, for months I’ve had to deal with street closures rerouting me all over. A two-block trip becomes five, a five-block trip becomes 10. On this day, I was in a rush to get to a meeting and came down a stretch of East Thompson Street in Northern Liberties at the edge of Fishtown. Without warning, I noticed cones blocking my direction. However, there were additional cones blocking the only streets I could go down forcing two decisions. 

Stop and have the long row of cars behind me back up into oncoming traffic or go the wrong way down a one-way street into oncoming traffic. 

The smug construction worker looked at me and told me to “back it the fuck up.” 

Philly, I’d had it. 

I got out of my car grabbed the cones blocking the street and proceeded to throw them to the sidewalk. The worker and a few other workers began screaming, calling me every expletive in the book. I didn’t care. This was the culmination of months in the making of being forced to reroute blocked streets for no reason. 

I looked at the construction worker and yelled back, “show me the permit that allows you to block the street. Go ahead, I’ll wait.” 

He shouted some more expletives never answering my question, but instead pointed to a hole in the street covered only by a metal grate saying that it was unstable. Not my problem. You drilled the hole in the street. You patch it up for drivers. I’d had it with workers already at work giving little pause for the people in the neighborhood their decisions affect. 

I drove through with applause from the cars behind me. All the cars behind me followed suit. It was a small victory that, in retrospect, I realized I should’ve treated a lot differently. I’m a 30-something-year-old man and a father, my actions are not how one should behave. I wasn’t looking for applause either, though I realized the frustrations of the cars behind me mirrored my own.

But you can only be told to “back it up,” or in this particular case “back it the fuck up,” before enough becomes enough. Look, I’ll never do that again, especially considering about 8-10 workers came out to see what all the commotion was about and I suddenly felt boxed in, but I must say it felt like a small victory to stand up and let these contractors know that Philadelphians are putting them on notice. 

You don’t live here, we do. 

Respect the neighborhoods you come into. Leave it the way you found it. Need to close a street? Get a permit like the rest of us. These courtesies go a long way for residents to understand that, while a nuisance, it’s part of the deal. 

But when you disrespect by not figuring out an alternative for drivers, pedestrians and cyclists (which was the case here) then you’re the “piece of shit,” my friend, not the other way around. 

I’m not proud of the way I treated this situation, in fact, despite the choice words hurled at me, I’d like to apologize to that laborer for my actions. At the end of the day, I completely realize it probably wasn’t his fault there was a hole in the ground. 

He’s just trying to do his job.

But you know what? So are the rest of us.

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  • Kerith Gabriel's Headshot

    Kerith Gabriel is the former editor-in-chief at Philadelphia Weekly but somehow hasn’t figured out that means he doesn’t have to write nearly as much. As a routine contributor, journalism has been in his blood since his beginnings as a sports writer over a decade ago for the Philadelphia Daily News.

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