You can’t take your eyes off the crusher. Its sliding neck can stretch into the very innards of an abandoned building. At the end of its neck, it has a metal face with a metal nose—more like a prehistoric beak. It has jaws. And its teeth are eating away at the empty and exposed second-floor shell of 65 K St. NE, the former ticket-adjudication center.

Feeding time began before 9 a.m. The second floor is just a series of concrete slabs. No match for the crusher. The machine seems to toy with it, jutting past the tangled exposed rebar that hangs in the air, helpless as dead tree branches. It then rubs its nose in the slab, spraying everything with dust. Finally, it opens wide and chomps hard into the flooring and the walls.

The action stops Robert Williams, 52, at the building’s old driveway. He stands there for a while, staring straight at the crusher. He finally moves away, heading down toward North Capitol Street. “It was something to look at,” he says. “Just something curious.”

Leaning over a wall along 1st Street NE, a man stands for a good while, gazing up at the thing and the showers of concrete. “When I look at this, I think of 9/11,” he says. “See how that fell?” Another chunk of concrete chalks the earth.

Standing next to the man is Marvin Frye, 43. He pulled up a while ago to catch the crusher. He’s dressed in work clothes. He says he’s on his way to Capitol Heights for a construction job of his own. But he had to stop. When asked why, he just looks up at the jaws. “It stopped me—you know what I’m sayin’,” he says.

Posted nearby, along the perimeter, a large poster promises that after the crusher is done pulling apart the slabs, a “New Class A Office Building” will rise and bring “value and elegance—a rare combination.”

“Value and elegance” have come to all four quadrants, invariably preceded by a deep hole in the ground. Some of the sites are ringed by high fences. Some have Jersey barriers and have taken over sidewalks. Most are lorded over by clusters of men in hard hats. All of them tug at our inner rubberneck. That’s why the flaps cut within nylon inevitably turn into a series of peepholes. The sidewalk becomes damn good orchestra seating. And the crane becomes just another monument on the skyline.

Most of us will never pick up a piece of rebar. Most of us will never mix concrete for a subterranean parking lot. Most of us will never enter these “Class A” office buildings or luxury condos. These sites could be our only chance to glimpse their interiors.

At 4th and I Streets NW, there’s a hole and a series of pictures promoting Madrigal Lofts. There’s laptop porn—an iBook on a table at dusk, a glass of wine, black high heels, an empty chair. There’s also dinner-party porn and kitchen porn. Nearby workers are attempting to slide a Bobcat over a curb. Twenty-seven feet down, concrete and rebar foundations jut up from the ground like hair plugs.

Around the corner, another hole is being prepped for condos. It’s at least 40 feet down. The sign advertising hipster condos says, “One Night. One Party. One Chance to be first.” A construction worker said that recently city inspectors fined the operation because there was too much dirt flying around, getting into the street. “It’s a typical game,” he says. “In construction, some days you win, some days you lose.”

At 2nd and I Streets NE, the hole is filled with beams and rebar and concrete. It looks like layer cake. The place will soon be called Senate Square, and a sign predicts it’ll be “D.C.’s most exclusive block.” Every day, Tim, a UPS delivery man, drives his truck past the site. It’s on his route. Some days he’ll stop and watch the men build in the hole. Maybe twice a week he’ll pull over and monitor their progress. He says he parks at different spots, different angles to better understand what’s going on in the hole. “Every day I go by, it gets higher,” he says. “I’m interested to know how high it’s going to be.”—Jason Cherkis

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.