A struggle to prevent suicides at soaring New York City sculpture
New York — When it opened 2½ years ago near the Hudson River, the 150-foot-tall piece of public art known as the Vessel looked like another surefire Manhattan tourist draw. It's strange honeycomb of platforms and staircases, partially ringed by skyscrapers, offered striking views of the waterfront and quickly became an Instagram favorite.
But these days it stands closed and empty, its entrances blocked off with chains or metal barricades, after a 14-year-old boy last month became the fourth person to fatally leap from the sculpture.
Editor's note: This story includes discussion of suicide. If you or someone you know needs help, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
The death on July 29, a mere two months after the sculpture had reopened following previous suicides, has reinvigorated a call for real estate developer Related Companies to raise the height of the waist-high railings on the sides of the stairs and platforms.
“The only thing that’s going to 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 any more.”
Tall landmarks in New York City and elsewhere have long had to deal with the reality of having to balance a desire for thrilling views and aesthetics with a need for suicide prevention measures, like nets or fences.
Related, a company led by the billionaire Stephen Ross, and the studio of the Vessel's designer, Thomas Heatherwick, had implemented a number of measures at the sculpture intended to prevent deaths.
After a 21-year-old man became the third person to fatally jump from one of the Vessel's platforms, in January 2021, Related closed the structure to evaluate its options.
When it reopened last May, it had extra security personnel, signs with suicide prevention information and instituted an unusual rule: Nobody could go into the structure by themselves. They had to be accompanied by at least one other person.
That creative solution didn't work. The boy who died in July was with his family when he leaped.
Now, the sculpture is closed again. Related has said only that it will remain shut while it continues to evaluate what to do next.
Heatherwick Studios said in a statement it was “distraught.” It said it had “exhaustively explored physical solutions that would increase safety and they require further rigorous tests, and while we have not identified one yet, we continue to work to identify a solution that is feasible in terms of engineering and installation.”
The local community board had initially suggested installing taller barriers in a letter sent after the first death in 2020, but got no official response, Kern said.
High-profile locations all around the country and world have dealt with the issue of suicides, with some places installing nets or barriers, as the George Washington Bridge did a few years ago.
Some studies of suicide in New York City have found there are more deaths by long falls than by gunshots or drug overdoses.
New York University struggled with suicides in the indoor atrium at its 12-story Bobst library, first installing plexiglass barricades as a prevention measure, then upgrading to perforated aluminum screens to enclose its crosswalks when the glass didn't stop one more death.
Dozens of people have died jumping from the Empire State Building over the decades, both office windows and from the outdoor observation deck, which was ringed with a high, spiked fence after publicity around suicides there in the 1940s.
The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco is currently undertaking a suicide barrier project expected to be completed in 2023 that would install steel netting along both sides of the entire expanse, 20 feet below the bridge and extending 20 feet out.
Getting the project underway took years of discussion and debate, said Paolo Cosulich-Schwartz, public affairs manager for the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway & Transportation District.
There was opposition at times, from those who doubted whether barriers would work and questioned what the physical impact on the iconic bridge would be, he said.
The bridge currently has prevention efforts in place, consisting of signage as well as officers patrolling all the time, who Cosulich-Schwartz said are able to prevent the vast majority of suicide attempts.
Still, he said, there are on average about 30 suicides at the bridge annually, and there was a push for more to be done.
“You talk to the families that have lost loved ones at the bridge and it becomes clear quickly that one is too many,” he said. “And if there’s something that we can do to reduce or eliminate suicide on our iconic structure, that’s something we can and should be doing.”
On a recent day, visitors to the plaza where the Vessel stands were open to the idea of adapting the structure out of safety concerns.
“It is beautiful and I imagine that the concept, the idea, was that in each level you have a frame of the city ... but it’s a failed design,” said Natalia Villarejo, 38, of Puerto Rico, who was looking forward to climbing it before discovering it was closed.
“I think if you could do it, and still keep the Vessel looking as good as it does within the city, it should be explored,” said Eddie Mitchell, 18, of St. Louis, Missouri, visiting with a friend and their mothers.
His friend's mom, Elyse Manterfield, was even OK with permanently limiting public access.
“To a certain extent,” she said, “it's art for art's sake and I’d be OK not being able to climb it and simply experience it.”