How a student’s senseless death led to a New York behind scaffolding

Manhattan these days is swathed in scaffolding. Every block or two, building facades disappear behind wooden planks and metal poles, and pedestrians are often rerouted through boarded sidewalk sheds that are more like tunnels.

While scaffolding can go up (and stay up, sometimes for years) for a variety of reasons, one is something called Local Law 11—which mandates that any building more than six stories tall undergo an inspection of the facade every five years. Landlords or boards are then tasked with fixing damages.

Scaffolding is unsightly, and after dark it’s a little unnerving. But Local Law 11 and the scaffolding it requires exist for a powerful reason: a terrible tragedy in 1979 that resulted in the death of a 17-year-old college student walking in Morningside Heights.

The student was Grace Gold. Born and raised in Brooklyn and a graduate of John Dewey High School, Gold had been finishing up her freshmen year at Barnard College and living in a dorm at 616 West 116th Street, according to a New York Times article from May 17 of that year.

Out for a walk the night before around 8:20 p.m., Gold was talking to a friend in front of the vestibule of an 11-story apartment building at 601 West 115th Street (below) owned by Columbia University. Suddenly a block of cement from an upper-floor window lintel broke off and struck her in the head, killing her.

“It just came straight down and hit her,” a witness told the New York Daily News.

That could have been the end of the story—a terrible tragic death, described as a “10 million to one possibility” by a police detective quoted in the Times article.

Instead, city officials proposed legislation. In 1980, Local Law 10 was passed; the law “required building owners, including co-op and condo boards, to perform regular inspections and repairs of facades,” states a 2019 Habitat magazine piece.

“The law later morphed into Local Law 11 and is now known as the Facade Inspection and Safety Program,” continues Habitat. “It explains the ubiquitous sidewalk sheds throughout the city, which are designed to protect passersby and prevent tragic deaths like Grace Gold’s when workers perform mandated facade inspections and repairs.”

Lori Gold, Grace’s sister, lobbied the city to change the law’s name to the Grace Gold Law. The city didn’t make the change—but they did give the corner of Broadway and 115th Street an honorary name: Grace Gold Way.

It took Gold’s senseless death to get the city to pass laws requiring owners to maintain building facades. The law hasn’t put a stop to building debris falling on pedestrians, and scaffolding abandoned and left in limbo by owners poses its own risks.

But Gold’s legacy has been to make city streets a little safer, and it’s something to think about next time we collectively groan at all the scaffolding surrounding us.

[Second image: New York Daily News; third image: Google]

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25 Responses to “How a student’s senseless death led to a New York behind scaffolding”

  1. beth Says:

    very sad

  2. Jay Gayner Says:

    I remember the incident when it occurred. Tragic as it was, deaths or injuries from falling material were virtually nonexistent before (and after) the law, which is amazing considering that this is a crowded city with many thousands of tall buildings. The law has imposed a huge cost on New York, both financial and aesthetic, for a dubious safety benefit.

    • Lori E Gold Says:

      Actually, Jay, there were many injuries prior to Grace’s death. Everything, from cars, to your home to your bodies, all need to be reviewed periodically and maintained, to ensure health, safety and welfare, and their ongoing function. The Local Laws (LL10(80), LL11 (98)) were enacted with the purpose of reviewing, maintaining buildings within 5 year cycles for their safety, and helping to ensure the safety of the streetscape. Though Grace’s death was the lightening rod that inspired the law, there were deaths and injuries prior to it having been enacted. And once done, it continues to be heralded as that which has saved lives.

  3. Shayne Davidson Says:

    A good friend told me about this incident—her brother was a friend of the victim. I think about it every time I walk under scaffolding when visiting NYC, and pray that those boards are sturdy.

    • Lori E. Gold Says:

      Thank you, Shayne. I do as well. You are referring to the “street bridges”, which we all walk under when passing by a scaffolded building. I do hope we all stay safe, and hope to see more cities follow NYC’s path with LL11. So far, about 15 cities have done so. I would be interested in knowing the name of the brother, if he was a friend. I am Grace’s sister. Thank you.

      • Shayne Davidson Says:

        Yes, that’s right. The brother’s name is David Killen and he’s about the same age as your sister. He went to high school in Brooklyn. I am so sorry for your loss, Lori. It’s unimaginable.

      • velovixen Says:

        Lori, I am so sorry you lost your sister, so young.

  4. Kelly Says:

    I understand what they did at the time but it is a complete overreaction for and one that is little more than a cash cow now and is killing tens of thousands of trees, blocking sunlight and a terrible nuisance. Every 20 years, okay, but these contractors want more money so they “find” damage to the facades every time they inspect. There is a building on First And 51st where the scaffolding has been there for well over 5 years.
    This no longer has ANYTHING to do with safety or saving lives. If it did, why is it okay if 2000 people are murdered in NYC in one year (1992) or even a few hundred in recent years and no action is taken to prevent THOSE deaths?? Why weren’t those neighborhoods flooded with around the clock police? I mean if saving lives is the point of scaffolding then why not the other lives?

    • Greg Says:

      Excellent point. It also lead many building owners to preemptively remove their (perfectly stable) cornices and ornamental elements. Law of unintended consequences.

      • Kelly Says:

        Yes. This is now nothing more than a cash cow. The city created a far more dangerous situation by allowing FOR PROFIT companies to go up there with hammer and chisel to “inspect”.

  5. countrypaul Says:

    Thank you for the explanation for why the city looks like an endless construction zone. Obviously, it is not a good look, especially when combined with all the semi-outdoor dining sheds, but one can certainly appreciate the need for it considering the age of many of our buildings and the degree of decorative filigree attached to them. A serious question: Do other cities with a large stock of 50- to-150-year-old buildings do the same?

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Hi Countrypaul, my understanding is that New York is only one of a handful of American cities with this kind of law.

  6. Paul Tatara Says:

    It’s an over-reaction to a tragic event. The city could just as easily have each building put up netting or some other obstacle ABOVE STREET LEVEL that can catch these very rarely-appearing projectiles. The solution does not have to be a massive eyesore that encroaches on an otherwise beautiful city and a repeated obstacle to people who simply want to walk down the street. The scaffolding is a dumb solution, in other words. And you can bet SOMEBODY with power is getting rich off of it. Who are we kidding?

  7. memadtwo Says:

    It has definitely not made the city safer, just more expensive. Scaffolding also increases crime and garbage. If they enforced traffic laws they would save a lot more lives than this does.

  8. Oluseyi Akinyode Says:

    Thank you for sharing this history.

  9. S.S. Says:

    This is a similar over-reaction to the tragic death about ten years ago of a person who called for an elevator and the door opened, but some way there was no elevator cab on the landing, and the person somehow fell into the pit accidentally and died.

    Now every single elevator in NYC has to pay at least $15,000 to install a “door lock mechanism” to prevent the door from opening if there is no cab on the landing.
    My small coop of 5 residents had therefore had to come up with $3,000 each.

    In a city of 70,000 elevators, that is over $1 billion dollars that we had to pay out to the elevator companies, surely much more than what any insurance company pays out for a wrongful, 1 in 10,000,000 death.

  10. velovixen Says:

    I remember hearing about Grace Gold’s tragic death. And, to an extent, I agree with some of the commenters. The law that resulted from her death, like many others, has had consequences that nobody foresaw when it was passed. Certainly nobody anticipated the curbside dining kiosks that have sprung up in the wake of the pandemic. Perhaps, as Paul Tatara says, netting would prevent much of the falling debris. Also, better regulations on how scaffolding is used, and how long it is allowed to remain in place, are necessary.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I think your last sentence, about the length of time scaffolding remains, is key. I live near a building that has had scaffolding up for five years, which has attracted some bad elements. I know this is the case with so many other buildings across NYC.

  11. carlagolden Says:

    I’d like to offer my condolences to Lori E. Gold, Grace’s sister. The Regnor was built in 1911 by my 2nd great uncle, Joseph Paterno, though he had long sold it by 1979. I was recently visiting Manhattan to show my mother many of our ancestors’ 164 buildings and we were stunned by the volume of terra cotta architectural detailing on so many of the older buildings. I understand the need for LL10/11 though I sympathize with the local gripes too. Mostly I just want to acknowledge the tragedy and am glad to be able to offer my condolences directly to her sister here. Thank you.

    • LEGold Says:

      You are very kind, Carla, and I am honored to accept your gracious words. I am hoping you will see this note, as my prior attempt to provide an explainer to fix the many falsehoods and misstatements of “facts” was deleted by the original blogger. Most of these opinions having nothing to do with LL11, except indirectly. Best, Lori E. Gold

      • ephemeralnewyork Says:

        Hi Lori, I just want to clarify that I did not delete any of your comments meant for this post. When a commenter new to Ephemeral New York leaves a comment, WordPress sends a notification to me asking that I give the ok to post it, at which time it is immediately published. Sometimes this notification does not come to me for several hours, even a day, unfortunately. As soon as I saw that you had comments pending, I published them. This site welcomes all comments from anyone and everyone—especially for a story like this one. I appreciate very much that you helped fill in the blanks here.

      • carlagolden Says:

        I was notified of your reply Lori. Thank you for it!

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