Fight to prevent suicides in rising New York sculpture

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EDITOR’S NOTE – This story includes a discussion of suicide. If you or someone you know needs help, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

NEW YORK (AP) – When it opened 2.5 years ago near the Hudson River, the 46-meter-high public artwork known as the Vessel looked like another infallible Manhattan tourist attraction . It’s a strange honeycomb of platforms and stairs, partially surrounded by skyscrapers, offering stunning views of the waterfront, and has quickly become an Instagram favorite.

But these days it’s closed and empty, its entrances blocked by chains or metal barricades, after a 14-year-old boy last month became the fourth person to fatally jump from the sculpture.

The death on July 29, just two months after the sculpture reopened following previous suicides, reignited a call for companies linked to real estate developers to increase the height of the railings to waist height on the sides of the stairs and platforms.

“The only thing that will work is raising the height of the barriers,” said Lowell Kern, chair of Community Board 4, which represents residents of the area. “At this point, after four deaths, artistic vision doesn’t matter anymore.”

Great landmarks in New York City and elsewhere have long had to contend with the reality of having to balance a desire for exciting views and aesthetics with a need for suicide prevention measures, like netting or fencing.

Related, a company run by billionaire Stephen Ross and the studio of ship designer Thomas Heatherwick had implemented a number of measures on sculpture designed to prevent deaths.

After a 21-year-old man became the third person to fatally jump off one of the ship’s platforms, in January 2021, Related shut down the structure to assess his options.

When it reopened last May, it had additional security personnel, signs with information on suicide prevention and instituted an unusual rule: no one could enter the structure alone. They had to be accompanied by at least one other person.

This creative solution did not work. The boy who died in July was with his family when he jumped.

Now the sculpture is closed again. Related only said it would stay closed while it continued to assess what to do next.

Heatherwick Studios said in a statement he was “distraught”. He said he had “comprehensively explored physical solutions that would increase security and require more rigorous testing, and although we have not yet identified any, we are continuing to work to identify a workable solution. in terms of engineering and installation “.

The local community council initially suggested installing taller barriers in a letter sent after the first death in 2020, but got no official response, Kern said.

High-profile places across the country and the world have addressed the issue of suicides, with some places setting up nets or barriers, like the George Washington Bridge did a few years ago.

Some studies on suicide in New York have found that there are more deaths from long falls than from gunshots or drug overdoses.

New York University has battled suicides in the interior atrium of its 12-story Bobst Library, first installing Plexiglas barricades as a preventative measure, then switching to perforated aluminum screens to shut off its pedestrian crossings when the glass did not prevent one more death.

Dozens of people have died jumping from the Empire State Building over the decades, both from the office windows and the outdoor observation deck, which was surrounded by a tall spiked fence after the advertisement around suicides in the 1940s.

The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco is currently undertaking an anti-suicide barrier project slated for completion in 2023 that would install steel netting on both sides of the full span, 20 feet (about six meters) below the bridge and s extending to 20 feet.

Kicking off the project took years of discussion and debate, said Paolo Cosulich-Schwartz, public affairs director for the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway & Transportation District.

There was sometimes opposition from those who doubted the effectiveness of the barriers and wondered what the physical impact would be on the iconic bridge, he said.

The bridge currently has prevention efforts in place, consisting of signage as well as officers patrolling all the time, which Cosulich-Schwartz believes are able to prevent the vast majority of suicide attempts.

Still, he said, there are an average of about 30 suicides on the bridge each year, and there was pressure to do more.

“You talk to the families who have lost loved ones on the bridge and it quickly becomes clear that one person is too much,” he said. “And if there is anything we can do to reduce or eliminate suicide on our iconic structure, it is something we can and should do.”

On a recent day, visitors to the place where the ship is located were open to the idea of ​​adapting the structure for safety reasons.

“It’s beautiful and I imagine that the concept, the idea, was that at each level you have a framework of the city… but it is a failed conception”, said Natalia Villarejo, 38, from Puerto Rico, who was eager to climb. before finding out it was closed.

“I think if you could do that while still keeping the ship as beautiful as it does in the city, it should be explored,” said Eddie Mitchell, 18, of St. Louis, Missouri, on a visit with a friend and their mothers. .

Her friend’s mother, Elyse Manterfield, even agreed with the permanent restriction on public access.

“To a certain extent,” she said, “it’s art for the sake of art and I would be good if I couldn’t climb it and just experience it.”


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