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Construction: Men’s No. 1 Spectator Sport

Mon August 11, 2003 - National Edition

(AP) The show starts around lunch time, when the men — in suits and ties, in khakis and button-down shirts — finally break free from their offices.

They linger close to the chain-link fence, staring up at the swinging cranes or down at the men in hard hats soldering metal that will become the backbone of Chicago’s newest skyscraper.

This is construction watching, a mostly male spectator sport played out every summer in urban areas throughout the country.

“It’s the toys that they have. They’re toys for big boys,” said Scott Meeks, who works a block away from the spot where two office towers are rising in downtown Chicago.

Meeks, an applications developer, walks by on his lunch hour to check on the progress of the buildings. He’s rarely the only one along the fence.

Matt Terry is often there, too, watching workers operate the tower crane.

“I’ve been following this since I was a little kid when they were building homes in my neighborhood,” said Terry, who works around the corner at United States Gypsum. “It’s man stuff.”

That seems to be the case, although it’s hard to say whether nature or nurture plays a bigger role in men’s attraction to construction, said Bernard Beck, a Northwestern University sociologist. Beck said a construction site reflects a cultural image of manhood — strength, dexterity, purpose and the ability to make things happen.

“Watching construction is like, in a way, sitting in the clubhouse of a sports team,” Beck said. “It’s a very masculine activity. It’s full of masculine signals and codes.”

And that’s what could make women leery of stopping for a peek, even if they are curious, Beck said.

Jack Greenfield, who works in public relations at Stanton Crenshaw in New York, has his own theory about construction’s appeal to the male psyche.

“It’s not tough man wrestling, kickboxing, hockey or NFL football, but it’s noisy and violent. Also, it’s always enjoyable watching someone else work,” said Greenfield, who can’t resist peeking through peepholes at Manhattan construction sites.

For Chris Falk of Chevy Chase, MD, there’s an easy explanation for his lifelong fascination: “It’s the trucks.”

Falk, media director for the American Association of Poison Control Centers, said as a boy, he would wait in an alley to watch garbage men compact trash. Now his 31/2-year-old son spends hours watching videos with titles like “Road Construction Up Ahead” and “Mighty Machines.”

Joe Davis, boss of a gang of workers setting steel at what will become the 48-story Hyatt Center in Chicago, doesn’t mind the gawkers. Davis said the kind of dangerous work he does is bound to attract interest.

“It’s thrilling to watch something different. It’s just like watching a drag race or something,” Davis said. “It is a macho thrill.”

Just because men are the predominant construction watchers, though, doesn’t mean all women eschew the sport —especially when builders make it easy for them to take part without fear of attracting wolf whistles.

Brian Steele, a Chicago Department of Transportation spokesman, said he saw an even split of men and women watchers over the last two years as workers tore down and rebuilt Wacker Drive, a major thoroughfare along the Chicago River.

The city staged viewing areas, with bleachers, informational signs and samples of construction materials. They got the idea from seeing how many people paused at fences to stare at workers two years earlier during the reconstruction of south Michigan Avenue.