2024-04-08 6 min read



How do you introduce a term which enjoys extremely high penetration within a tiny sub-community, and is basically unknown and opaque to everyone else? 

The term at hand, umarell, is borrowed from Emilian and is rare enough for my word processor to display it underlined with a string of pink dots. Literally it means “little man,” but within my tiny sub-community it means “someone who spends time observing workspaces, typically construction jobsites.” I am an umarell. I love watching work being done, and find joy in the details of how it's done. I often go out of my way to walk past a jobsite; I’ve concocted elaborate schemes to get myself into factories and workshops; I literally run a newsletter called “Scope of Work.” If you’re reading this, you’re probably an umarell too. 

I find life as an umarell to be lonely. An umarell’s defining characteristic is that they stand outside the work, looking in at the people doing it. Presumably they admire the work and the workers; Wikipedia suggests that umarells might “stereotypically” offer unwanted advice, but the article cited only quotes one umarell saying “Ottimo lavoro, bravi!” (“excellent work, well done!”). This is my experience as well: I watch a jobsite because I am in awe of it, and because I am impressed by it, and because I desperately want to understand it. For this, I am deemed “little” — and when I am umarelling, I do feel that way. 

I feel little partly because of the comparison between the scale of my own body and of the body of the jobsite. But more than its physical scale, the characteristic of a jobsite which I feel little in comparison to is its sense of forward momentum. A jobsite barrels into the future, not so much pushed by the people who work on it as they are pushed by the jobsite itself. Jobsites — places which are nothing if not chaotic, smeared with mud and crawling with heavy equipment, extremities going numb in the winter and garments soaked in sweat in the summer — somehow command us to move mountains, and mountains we do move, piece by minuscule piece.

How does this happen? If the jobsites I see in New York spoke a language, it certainly wouldn’t be the languages spoken by their workers. Unlike other workplaces, jobsites are environments where an individual contributor can advance, and gain the respect of one’s peers, and indeed contribute a great amount, even without speaking the dominant language in which the jobsite exists. The jobsite must have some other, nonlinguistic way of communicating with the people who do its bidding; perhaps it taps into some innate animal function. This would make sense: Humans are not the only species to maintain jobsites, and for me it would be just as compelling to umarell at an ant farm, or a beaver colony, or a coral reef. If any of these creatures are also prone to umarelling, I would be delighted to learn of it, and either way I would suggest that their jobsites are at minimum cousins or siblings to ours. I feel little in comparison to them, too.

If part of my relationship with jobsites emerges from some deep animal instinct (who, I wonder, is the shared ancestor of not only humans and beavers but also leafcutter ants and coral polyps?), then there is another part which crystallized at a specific moment in my adolescence: the spring break of my junior year of high school. I was sixteen and adrift, detached from the culture that surrounded me. The jobsite didn’t care; I walked onto it and instantly took the shape of a common laborer. However it communicated its needs, I appear to have been hardwired to receive the message. I assume that I am not the only one.

But I have not worked on a jobsite in over a decade, and I am sure that that affects the way that I umarell, and the emotional response I have to doing so. Whatever ambivalence I have to the concept of human progress — and whatever my aesthetic response is to the mid-rise condos whose development seems to dominate jobsites today — I am nevertheless convinced that construction enables the things I care about. Shelter is an underrated technology, and I am proud of the effort that humans put into creating it. Even the blandest condo tower can teach us things as it is being birthed. 

I observe some jobsites by chance: One-off encounters offer themselves at random and I pause, look around, and note my observations. I also observe some jobsites by habit, tracking them over time as they appear and reappear in my weekly routine over years. One such jobsite, which I have come to know well, has been in progress since late 2019. It started as a school bus depot. Summarily demolished, its lot, which covers two-thirds of a city block, was excavated before dozens of piles were driven into the soil below. This process was disruptive. My desk sits directly across the street on the third floor of a concrete building, and the rhythmic thuds reverberated through it all, making conversation legitimately difficult. The next step, though — the installation of a corrugated steel sheet pile wall — was comically loud. I worked for weeks with noise-canceling over-the-ear headphones, and still found it difficult to be productive. 

But was my lack of productivity actually a result of the noise? The noise certainly alerted me to the jobsite’s existence. But like the Sirens’ song which tempted Odysseus, perhaps the sound of the vibratory pile driver was less the thing distracting me than the sound made by the thing distracting me. The noise itself wasn’t the distraction; the jobsite was the distraction. I may have found the noise objectionable, but ultimately it advertised something which I desperately wanted to spend more time with.

To an umarell, a pile driver is a siren, and the thing it calls us to is other people’s work. So let the pile driver call you, and look towards it, and find some appreciation in what you see.

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  • A few weeks ago I included notes from a recent umarelling session below the paywall in this newsletter; I have since dropped the paywall altogether, and invite you to read them (at the bottom) here.
  • Emilian is a dialect spoken Northern Italy; umarell is the diminutive of òmen, “adult male human.” From a good article on Italian dialects:
In total, there are currently around 30 dialects and minority languages spoken in Italy, according to UNESCO. These range from Venetian in the northeast, to Tuscan and Ligurian in the centre, and Sicilian in the very far south. Some of them are fairly similar to the Italian widely spoken today, while others sound completely different and are influenced by Spanish, Greek, and even Arabic words, depending on where you are in the country (and who may have invaded the region at one time or another).

If you were to greet someone with “good morning” in standard Italian, you would say “buongiorno”. However, were you to say it in Sicily, you would say “bon giornu”; in Bologna, this changes to “bån dé”, and in Naples it becomes “buonjuorno”.
  • I have been to Rome once, in 2015, and when there I was shocked by the appearance of a capsized boat — which had been there for at least a year and a half and remained there for at least a year and a half after my visit — in the middle of the Tiber River. At first I found it appalling, but later I thought about the layers upon layers of anthropogenic rubble which must exist below the streetscape all over that city, and I developed a fondness for the idea that we might let our refuse lie for a while where it falls. Just as umarells need access to jobsites, archaeologists need access to trash, and it makes sense that we would allow the archaeologists of the future the favor a capsized boat every now and then.

Thanks as always to Scope of Work’s Members and Supporters for making this newsletter possible. Thanks also to TW for reading an earlier draft of this essay.

Love, Spencer

Spencer Wright
Spencer Wright
Spencer Wright is the (mostly accidental) founder of Scope of Work, which he started writing (as The Prepared) in 2013. Today he serves as its editor-in-chief and chief dilettante.
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