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Teetering on the edge of San Francisco's development boom

Claire Stremple
Leon Benjamin in the crane tower


It seems as though you can’t look up at the sky without seeing the long neck of a construction crane.

The Bay Area is developing fast, and there’s construction everywhere. Skyscrapers spring up to accommodate growing industry, and apartment buildings are erected to house new residents lured West by lucrative jobs. Cranes are a powerful symbol of development in the city. The people who operate those cranes are the link between San Francisco’s future and the sky, out on a tiny metal limb. To meet one of them, I go out to a construction site.


I’m standing at the base of an unfinished skyscraper in downtown San Francisco. The building looks half-dressed—not all of the windows are on, nor all the walls, so the very top is a naked skeleton of steel support beams. Just next to the building, rising up even taller, is a cheerful-looking yellow tower crane.


If you’re having trouble picturing this, think of a crane like you see on the ground—those machines that lift and lower heavy things. Now put it on a 500 foot tower. Tower crane. It’s as crazy as it sounds, and it’s essential to how a city goes up.


To see the leading edge of the development boom, you really have to get up there. After suiting up in a reflective neon vest, hard hat, safety glasses, and gloves—and signing a serious waiver—I get on a manlift. That’s an elevator for construction sites. It’s a big cage that moves up and down outside the skeleton of the building. I need to take it up 31 floors, because that’s as high as it goes. And then I need to climb out of the building and up into a tower crane.


The manlift part is easy.


I follow the foreman out onto the construction site, and the manlift operator lets us on. We squeeze in with about half a dozen workers, all carrying tools and materials. The doors of the lift clang shut ominously. Then we’re going up fast. The operator calls out the stops.


At nine stories people look like ants. At fifteen stories, cars look like toys. At 29 stories, we’re cresting the peaks of skyscrapers. When we get up to the 31st floor it’s a relief to be in the building, even though it’s mostly a frame. Windows without glass yawn open.


Credit Claire Stremple

The crane tower is about twenty feet from the building, connected only by a tiny, narrow gangplank. That’s what Leon walks across to come get me.


“Leon Benjamin, Clipper international and crane operator,” he says, as he sticks his hand out for a hard shake. Leon’s a big man, who moves quickly. I’ll be keeping up with him all morning. “We’re at the 31st floor at 41 Tehama in San Francisco, California. We’re about to step out onto the bridge that connects the building to the tower crane.”


The plywood that he generously calls “the bridge” bends under his weight as he steps out into what I would consider the void. My stomach drops as I step out after him.


I walk across the bridge and onto a steel girder about the width of my foot, teeter across it, and duck under a beam into the tower where the ladders are. We have to go up about 100 more feet, rung by rung. This is the tricky part. I stick my microphone in my mouth and grab the ladder with both hands.


Credit Claire Stremple

“You’re doin fine! No rush, take your time!” the foreman calls out.


Birds are flying under us. Leon’s framed against a panorama that I normally see from a plane. He leans casually against a thin rail on the platform between two ladders.


I breathlessly ask him if he ever gets used to the height. He laughs and shakes his head. “Never!”


We climb the last set of ladders, then Leon disappears into a hole in the bottom of the crane. I peek my head inside. It’s really the belly of the beast. All of the electrical mechanisms are in here, and the machinery that lets the crane rotate. The bolts that hold it together are bigger than my open palm.


“Step on that rail, the one by the bottom by your foot,” Leon directs me. “Yeah, there you go.”


I grunt and hoist myself out onto the platform of the crane.


On the crane


The tip tops of buildings seems to shimmer around us, then openness gives way to the Bay, and the Bay Bridge skips across the water towards Oakland and its hazy hills. San Mateo’s blanketed in a mosaic of brightly colored houses.


The crane tower is so tall that it sways slightly.


“After a while you kinda get used to it,” Leon says. “The best way I can describe running one of these is that it’s like being on a boat. After a while you've got your sea legs and then it goes away.”


Leon’s been doing this for 20 years.


“I spend more time up here than I do at home. This is my first home.”


This seems like a pretty extreme place to feel at home to me. But this is where Leon’s driver’s cab is, and where the crane’s cables are wound on big drums. Above us looms the long arm of the crane, made up of a long piece called a boom, and a shorter piece that moves up and down, called a jib. It extends another 200 feet into the sky, dangling it’s powerful hook.


Credit Claire Stremple
Leon's office

I’m still trying to wrap my head around what’s happening up here, so I compare the crane to a big fishing pole.  “Exactly!” Leon says, “This is the reel.”


We’re standing on the reel of a gigantic fishing pole that’s balancing on top of a five-hundred foot tower of ladders.


Leon tells me that when the of the crane is extended fully to 200 feet, the crane can still lift 9,000 pounds. If you’re wondering what weighs 9,000 pounds, the easy answer is a huge bucket of concrete. “That’s pretty much what we use it for. Other than that you might have some iron, or fliers or decking equipment,” Leon says.


It seems improbable that this crane, so thin compared to the massive building beside it, could hoist so much weight, but it can. Leon knows the complex ratios of weight and distance that keep the crane from falling over.


“A little thing,” Leon grins. “When you put a building up, you look for the closest building next to you and think ‘Where am I going to lay this thing down if I have time to put it somewhere?’”


He’s casually telling me that if the crane tips, he’s hoping to land on a building, rather than plummet all the way to the street.


Booming growth


If you live here, you’ve been watching the city grow. The last several years have been at turns hard and spectacular. More traffic, more crowds on BART trains, more rent, more opportunity, more everything. Up here, though, that growth is different.


“I heard rumor there’s another 30 cranes coming up before the end of the year here,” Leon reports. That’s a lot of buildings. Where are most of them going in? “Right now, right here in the financial district.”


We, the regular people watching from the ground, see these buildings go up with our necks craned back. Leon watches from this perch at 500 feet. He sees skyscrapers start as small foundations in the ground, then rise into towering spires that never quite reach him up here. I ask him how the view has changed over the last two decades.


“For the longest time I can remember coming into San Francisco and seeing the clock tower. Now it’s gone!”


Not quite gone. Now all the new buildings and construction block his view of the clock. He’s actually put most of these buildings up. We stand on the edge of the crane platform and he points them out to me.


“There've been so many buildings I did out here. I worked on that building, I worked on a building over there. The Rincon building, I worked on Barry Street over there, that is 340 Fremont. Tenth and Market. That was a good job.”


Risk and responsibility


And, he says, a dangerous one. According to Leon, there are a lot of guys who won’t take on tower crane work. I ask, are they hiring?


“Always. Right now we don’t have enough operators in San Francisco or the Bay Area, so we’re always looking for tower crane operators.”


Leon’s familiar with the risks, and knows how to plan for them.


“Everything about this machine if something goes wrong can potentially kill someone. You have to be on your toes at all times. It’s not for the weak hearted. They demand a lot from you. You kind of set the pace for a job. And sometimes you miss birthdays, graduations. You take a job like this, and you're committed. That’s why the contractor pays you the way they pay you. They want to make sure they've got the best guy for the job.”

Credit Claire Stremple
Almost finished!

A changing Bay Area


Leon’s on both sides of the development boom. On one hand, it’s good for the crane operator business—there’s more work. He says he saw the first signs of the boom in 1997. That’s why he started operating a tower crane.


“I’m glad I did it," he says. "It changed my career a lot.”


On the other hand, rising prices affect him, too. Leon used to live in San Jose, but then he started a family and his wife wanted to go back to school. When they were looking to buy a house, he says prices seemed to double overnight. So they moved to Modesto, where they could afford to buy a home on one income.


Leon is literally building the new face of the Bay Area, even as that growth pushes him further from its epicenter.


Credit Claire Stremple


From here on the crane, though, the bustle of downtown is a hushed echo. Each rushing person is as small as a gnat. I ask him if being up here in the crane everyday changes his perspective when he’s down in the city.


“I like it up here more than on the ground. It’s more peaceful up here, you know?


Wind whips around us, and somewhere below a siren howls towards its destination. That emergency feels far away, though. The siren is muted, the flashing lights too distant to be seen.


Crosscurrents San Francisco