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STEINBERG: Sneaking a peek at a life-sized sandbox

Men watch work on the construction site outside 350 N. Orleans St.

Men watch work on the construction site outside 350 N. Orleans St. | Tina Sfondeles/Sun-Times

Alex Griffiths works but doesn’t get his hands dirty.

The 40-year-old Brit has a job related to computers in the clean, abstract digital world at the 1871 high-tech business incubator at the Merchandise Mart.

That, he said, partly explains why he paused on Orleans Street, just north of the Chicago River, one morning to gaze down into a construction pit and watch equipment digging up great mounds of mud.

“It’s fascinating to watch,” said Griffiths. “This is something physical.”

Physical is the word. Six stories of basement parking being dug out of the muck at Wolf Point, the start of what will be a 60-story, $360 million tower. A big John Deere 350 excavator and a trio of smaller pieces of digging equipment look like a family of dinosaurs feeding at the edge of a swamp. Every minute or two another passerby stops to watch.

OPINION

“I think it’s because we all wish we were driving one of those big backhoes,” says a second man, who didn’t want to be identified, a reminder that there is an element of idling to the observation of construction.

“I don’t want my kids to know I’m doing this at 9 a.m. on a Tuesday,” he said, puffing on a cigar.

“See how skilled they are,” he said, gesturing toward what is, in essence, a bucket brigade with heavy equipment. “You go home at the end of the day, you’ve accomplished something.”

Interwoven with the worksite at Wolf Point might be, for me, an element of nostalgia unrelated to construction. We watched construction begin but won’t be here to see it finished. The Sun-Times’ last day in the old Apparel Center, 350 N. Orleans, is Saturday. Next week we start our life at 30 N. Racine.

It is all part of the city’s constant change. Construction in Chicago is booming at a rate not seen in a decade, since before the recession, as pent-up demand and foreign money drive projects. Watching buildings go up has spurred me to write a number of stories, from the physics of concrete to the mechanics of tower cranes. It never would have occurred to me that pedestrians watching the action also deserved notice had not Tina Sfondeles, a Sun-Times colleague, started snapping photos and tweeting them under the title, “Men Watching Construction Projects.” The endeavor, tweeted at @tinasfon, had 26 installments last time I looked.

How did that happen?

“It began as two men staring at a large crane near the Franklin Street Bridge,” she said. “Then others joined in. I would see this phenomenon nearly every day — with men peeking at the construction site from different vantage points. Some just stood near the bridge for a clear view. Others peeked through gates and mesh covers. Some peeled the covers down to view the site. Others stood on top of a water pipe to get a better view. And this happens nearly every day, rain or shine.”

What does Sfondeles think is going on here? Men “never outgrowing a childhood love of Tonka trucks,” she explained. “I find it really endearing that these men get lost in thought while staring at the site. It’s a little time out from reality.”

There is indeed an aspect of channeling your inner child, or your actual children.

“It’s just fascinating to little kids,” said Griffiths, who has two boys, 2 and 5 years old.

What do the construction workers think of being watched? Do they even notice?

“We see people looking at us a lot,” said Michael Femali, an operating engineer for James McHugh Construction in Chicago. He said he doesn’t mind, particularly when it’s a little kid in a stroller.

“Every time we see a woman pushing a stroller, we always see kids waving and pointing, all the time,” said Femali, who operates a tower crane. “Every time I see a little kid waving I always try to wave back.”

“I’ve been doing this 25 years,” he said. “I kinda like people watching. I understand what’s going through their minds, what they’re thinking.”

And what are they thinking?

“‘This is kinda interesting.'”