For over three years filmmaker/journalist Kelly Candaele has been documenting the construction of the Wilshire Grand Center, whose tower rises 1,100 feet into the air, making it the tallest building west of the Mississippi.
I met Brian Smith and his grandmother Jean on a Sunday morning in South Los Angeles. Brian was a recent graduate of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 11’s “boot camp” training program designed to prepare new members for the rigors of the trade. I had first come across Brian at the Wilshire Grand Center construction site as he waited for an elevator so he could move his cart of materials to a higher floor. It was only his third day on the job – he seemed enthusiastic but unsure of what the future held.
Brian told me that a union electrician from the neighborhood had come to his home in his off time to help his grandmother with some wiring. Brian, who had been working as a marketer in the music industry, was looking for something more stable – a career he could depend on. The Local 11 electrician invited him to look into his trade.
I have been working at the Wilshire Grand Center construction project for a year and a half as a filmmaker trying to capture the daily effort and skill that goes into building our city’s tallest structure. I have approached this three-year project with respect – like one who surfs big waves or climbs our highest mountains – aware of the dangers and humbled by the power and vastness of the environment. I’ve seen many construction workers make the sign of the cross as they arrive in the morning – a gesture of faith and an appeal for safety and guidance. At safety meetings every morning, they are reminded that the main goal is to go home to their families and friends at the end of the day.
Yesterday, one of those workers – an electrician – fell to his death from the 53rd floor. The state’s occupational safety agency,
Ron Miller, the head of the Los Angeles Building Trades Council, says that it is a “ritual” for trades workers to drive around Los Angeles surveying the jobs they have worked on.
Virtually every person I’ve talked to who is currently building the Wilshire Grand Center tower in downtown Los Angeles plans to bring their friends and family members to the building once it is finished. Electrician Anthony Sotelo wants to book his mother into the Wilshire Grand’s hotel for at least one night so he can switch on the lights that he wired to make sure they turn on.
“You take pride in your work by showing your family what you have built,” he says.
One of the delights of completion is the possibility of taking material and psychological pleasure in what you have created, the ability to tell a full story that reveals the daily successes as well as the discords of a difficult project.
…mill hands, farm hands, factory hands…hands….hands…hands…
— Eugene Debs
Ironworker Devonte Merrifield makes sure he takes care of his hands. He jokingly points out that the strength of his marriage depends on two strong – and sometimes soft – hands. “My wife complains because I can’t rub her back anymore because of my calluses. My hands can be a little rough,” he says, lifting his hands and smiling.
Merrifield is in some ways similar to my electrician father who believed that the feel of a person’s hands might indicate something about their character. Shaking my father’s hand was not merely a polite ritual. The absence of thick pads of calluses was, for him, one indication that you might not be contributing much to society.
Merrifield knows that what he does with his hands is deserving of a measure of respect. His identity is partly bound up with what he calls his “working man’s” hands and the confidence drawn from meeting the challenges of apprenticeship.
Several years ago I produced a documentary film about young men who had been in gangs and in prison, men who had had their lives turned around when they were accepted into building trades unions. They all came from tough and economically deprived backgrounds. In addition to their social environments, what was similar about all of the young men who had gotten in serious trouble was the absence of a father in their lives.
Most of them explained to me that while they respected their mothers’ feelings while in the home, when outside of the house they gravitated towards other male figures. Arturo Peña, who was part of a gang in Los Angeles’ Ramona Gardens housing project, reflected on his experience as a young man. “We didn’t have fathers growing up so we looked up to these older gang members who dominated and controlled the streets.”
The lucky ones from so-called “broken families” —