Tony wooed Maria from one in West Side Story. Rosario Dawson belted from one in Rent. They became just another piece in a gritty urban jungle gym for the kids in The Get Down. Police procedurals regularly feature guys fleeing (or entering) by means of them.
Fire escapes, the clunky metal accessories to buildings constructed in response to industrial building-code reform, have become an iconic part of the urban landscape. They serve purposes as numerous as their pop-cultural cameos. Part emergency exit, part makeshift patio, the fire escape has played an integral role in shaping the development of the cities whose buildings bear them. It continues to impact the urban landscape today, in ways that few could have imagined when they were first thought up. And despite having been invented expressly for public safety, the fire escape always created as much danger as it replaced.
By the mid-19th century, New York City was overcrowded, oppressively loud, and unequipped to support the flood of new arrivals to the industrializing city. Cheaply built tenements stretched higher into the air than ever before, filled with people who worked in equally overfilled factories. These buildings were firetraps, made of cheap materials that burned easily. They grew more deadly the higher they climbed. When fires raged, there were typically only two forms of escape: narrow interior stairs, or the roof. The stairs sometimes burned away, as they did in an 1860 fire that started in a building’s basement, where dry hay and shavings from a bakery’s storeroom had ignited. Those who were trapped had only one option: to wait, hoping the overtaxed fire departments would turn up swiftly and with a ladder tall enough to reach the upper-floor windows. That is, before the building collapsed, or they were killed by the flames. “The burning building extended four stories above any of the surrounding structures,” The New York Times wrote of the bakery fire. “It must have been instant death for any of the poor creatures on the upper floors to have jumped from the roof.” Thirty people died in the blaze.