NEW YORK—Denise Richardson is essentially the first woman to run an association for unionized heavy construction workers. Her job can be so exasperating that, over the years, she has grinded her teeth out of alignment. At age 54, she’s currently wearing braces.
“My orthodontist said it’s not caused by stress and it’s a myth,” Richardson said. “I appreciate what he said, but I don’t believe him because I know I had straight teeth until 15 years ago.”
Richardson is the managing director of the General Contractors Association of New York (GCA), a trade association that represents New York City’s unionized, heavy construction and public works contractors.
There are women in leadership positions in architecture and building construction, but not in heavy construction. And there are good reasons for that.
“Anything can happen at any time,” she said. “Usually, when things happen in our industry, they’re not good things.”
A construction plan will always omit unforeseen problems.
The association has 250 members. GCA has labor agreements with 13 unions that are working on an array of projects throughout the city—that alone can fill a day with disputes and interventions.
GCA also participates in advocacy. During the last Legislature session, the association had to take a position on 140 pieces of legislation.
The heavy construction industry is a high-risk business, to say the least.
“Out of the 135-year history of GCA, we’ve had our entire membership turned over,” Richardson said. “All it takes is one bad project and your company is finished.”
But if anyone is perfect for the job, it’s Richardson. It takes an insider to do the job right.
Richardson grew up in Cranston, R.I. Her father was a construction worker, a glazier.
He was a member of the union. There were times when their family felt a squeeze in their wallets as the economy sunk in the 1970s, and nonunion construction rose.
“People treat [heavy construction] as an unskilled field that is interchangeable, but it’s not,” she said. “Some of the smartest people I’ve ever met are people who are working out on a field in a construction job.”
She remembers the day that Cranston began to install sewers, a day when nascent career interests began to form.
“Everyone came out to watch, it was a huge deal,” she said. Having sewers meant that families could have dishwashers and washing machines.
“People started moving here, there were new kids to play with,” she said. “It exposed me to what infrastructure could do to the improvement of life.”
Richardson is the first in her family to go to college. She went on to get a master’s degree in public affairs and urban and regional planning at Princeton University.
“I do have a reputation of being very demanding,” she said. “I expect people to do the best you can at any given time. Your best may differ on different days, but you should always do your best.”
There’s a soft side to her too, although she doesn’t show it at the office.
She and her husband have three rescued cats living in their home in Queens.
“Cat hair is a great accessory to any outfit,” she joked, and after a moment’s pause, “I’m not a cat lady, really I’m not.”
She may not have time to saunter through Central Park, but she makes up for the little things.
When she’s not reading about infrastructure, Richardson shops. The cashiers at Lord and Taylor know her by name.
Richardson has gotten to know the people who work at her neighborhood drug stores and bakeries.
She goes three times a week to her neighborhood bakery, run by a father and daughter. One day, the father passed away.
“I went to his wake because I felt a connection with him,” she said. “It was like part of my community passed away when he passed away. That was a real New York City connection.”
She used to stop for long chats with her dry cleaner when she lived in Sunny Side. “Even to this day, I’ll visit him when I’m in the neighborhood,” she said.
“New York City is a collection of neighborhoods, people have closer ties here than they do in the suburbs,” she said.
NYC, Then and Now
Richardson moved to New York City in 1983, at the time the city was recovering from the fiscal crisis and just beginning to invest in new infrastructure.
“Most of the people living here today have no idea what it was,” she said. “It was everything that you’ve seen in pictures, but worse.”
It was a time when abandoned houses and lots of vacant commercial space characterized the city.
“It was like if I were to move to Detroit today,” she said. “At the time, people seemed overwhelmed and beleaguered to be in New York City.”
Besides the decrease in crime rates, Richardson attributes the city’s changeover to the improvement of its infrastructure.
But others may not agree when it comes to MTA ticket prices being raised.
“People don’t appreciate the infrastructure that they have,” she said. “But everything that we do, from the time we get up in the morning to the time we go to bed at night, depends on the infrastructure that we have.
“It’s about the willingness to invest. If I can accomplish anything during my tenure at GCA, it would be to turn the debate about a need to invest on infrastructure,” she said.