I have a note on my phone listing all of my impressions from the first time I visited New York, almost exactly a year ago. It starts with boarding the plane: first 10 rows, all men in suits making important business calls, and continues to exiting the airport: terrified of taxi, watching the meter $$$ climb!
And then my favorite part, because it led me here: fire escapes…It just makes me so happy they’re real. Growing up in Atlanta I didn’t run into them. The few times I recall seeing any fire escapes was when visiting movie sets and on the facade of a few trendy buildings, added merely as a decorative piece. For some reason, I had assumed all New York movie location scouters were walking down the same few streets lined with buildings coated in these magical metal floating stairs. I had no clue in reality they were around every corner.
The history of how fire escapes came to be the iron jungle gym clinging to the city is no surprise. By the mid-19th century, New York was filling up fast with the influx of new people arriving to the city. With the island expanding so fast, buildings started to move up and into the sky. They were built taller and quicker with cheap materials. These overcrowded and unsafe structures resulted in many fires, including a deadly fire in the basement of a bakery in the 1860s. This lead to the city’s first egress law in 1867 requiring an exterior stair be added to all buildings.
Since then people have used fire escapes as a personal extension of their apartments. From gardens, to refrigerators, bike storage, and love story settings (West Side Story obviously needs a shout out), they have served many purposes far from their intent. It wasn’t until the 1968 building code that required interior stairwells and sprinklers that fire escapes were no longer a necessity.
For years architects have dealt with the inevitable reality of designing the perfect facade only to have a metal Z slapped on top of it. I can only imagine a fashion designer creating a dress and finally seeing it on a model only to have a jagged metal necklace clipped around her neck. It creates an interesting conversation about designing with codes and safety in mind, and finding means of integration that are honest to the design. For example, designing reception desks with ADA height surfaces and ramps that feel intentional, not like an afterthought added to meet a code.
The future of fire escapes is up in the air. They are no longer required and many have been removed during renovations, however not without kickback like at buildings in SoHo on Greene Street where tenants protested and successfully stopped an architect from taking them off. The Zs have become an iconic character in this city’s story. My first day in the city I completely fell in love with them for that reason. After I got over my initial shock that they were in fact real and had an actual use (if only their name made their purpose more obvious), they came to embody all of New York to me on that first trip. Everyone and everything was trying to replicate this city. Every movie, every new development in other cities, everyone was trying to get a taste of this energy and atmosphere.
But here was the most authentic version, the only real version of New York City was New York City, standing tall and proudly wearing its iron jewelry.
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