By Kenneth Kowald

The Empire State Building has been part of my life, it seems, forever. When a large structure to go up some blocks west of it was approved not long ago, which will block the view of it from some angles, it brought back memories.

I remember that on a Sunday night I was in what was called the rumble seat of a car, with a friend of my father’s, while my father sat up front with the driver. We went to look at the building, which opened in May 1931, after about 11 months of construction. We did not own a car until I came back from the U.S. Army years later, so this was a friend’s vehicle.

As I recall, we sat near this imposing structure and just looked at it.

Some years later, I read a short story by Stephen Vincent Benet about a man who walks past the Empire State construction site late on a moonlit night. He hears strange chomping sounds. He reports them to the authorities. The sounds are being made by termites, which are eradicated. Some years later, after the building has opened, the same man walks by on another night and hears the same sounds. End of story.

Probably the main pests this icon and other buildings have to deal within the city these days are bedbugs.

My car excursion was when we lived on the Lower East Side. Several years later, after we had lived in Borough Park for some years, my mother took my sister and me to see the construction site for the attached bungalow my parents planned to buy in Elmhurst.

We were not used to the new Independent subway system — the BMT was our line in Brooklyn — and we got out at the Woodhaven Boulevard station instead of Grand Avenue. We walked up the hill to what I came to know as Nassau Heights and from that vantage point I saw the Empire State Building on a clear, sunny, late summer day.

We walked down the hill, over what is now part of the Long Island Expressway, and found 57th Avenue, which was to be my home for the rest of my unmarried life. I walked up and down that hill many times, especially on Saturdays, when I went to the Drake Theater on Woodhaven Boulevard.

Then and to this day it has seemed to me that the Empire State Building is a beacon of hope. Perhaps that is because it opened during the Great Depression and was somehow seen as a monument to a people who would not be put down, who truly believed, as Franklin Delano Roosevelt so eloquently put it in 1933, that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. It is a message, I think, which is distinctly American, in all its variety and sensibilities, to this day.

It does not matter that the Empire State Building is not the tallest building in America or the world. It does not matter that millionaires fight over it, as long as they maintain it. It is still the Empire State Building, in all its glory.

John Ruskin wrote, “When we build, let us think that we build forever. Let it not be for present delight, nor for present use alone; let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for … and that men will say, as they look upon the labor and wrought substance of them, ‘See! this our fathers did for us.’”

I am glad that our view of the Empire State Building, from our condo balcony, will not be obscured by the proposed new structure. It is quite far away from where we live, but to me it continues to be a beacon of hope, as it was to a child in a rumble seat and a young boy on a hill in Elmhurst so many years ago.

Indeed, this is what our fathers did for us.

Please read my blog, No Holds Barred, at

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