Fire escapes are not needed in newer buildings but a number of New York City residents enjoy having them:
New York City’s 1968 building code no longer allowed fire escapes in new buildings. Modern buildings are equipped with sprinkler systems and interior stairwells.
Yet fire escapes are so woven into the urban fabric of the city that the Landmarks Preservation Commission is often called on to decide whether an old building that is being renovated should keep its metal appendage, as the commission did in March, when residents protested a developer’s plan to remove fire escapes from two buildings on Greene Street in SoHo. (The commission allowed the change.)…
Introduced in the mid-1800s, the iron Z’s that still cling to thousands of city apartment buildings became so synonymous with New York life that they made cameos in “West Side Story,” “Rear Window” and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Since then, air-conditioning and modern fire prevention have chipped away at the necessity of fire escapes. But the romance remains: In a city of people starved for space, light and air, fire escapes double as storage closets, front porches and back gardens, a perch of one’s own above the bustle of the street…
Even then — to say nothing of now — fire professionals had their doubts about fire escapes. The National Fire Protection Association noted in 1914 that they were often hard to reach; poorly designed and badly maintained; lacking ladders or stairs from the ground to the second floor; and blocked by residents’ possessions. (People often aired their mattresses and chilled their perishables there.)
While fire escapes may be on the way out outside of protected buildings, I want to know about the effect of their disappearance: where exactly do New Yorkers go now to get their moment alone? In a city with some of the highest real estate prices in the world and a booming luxury market, space is at a premium. Cities often have a reputation for bombarding the individual with all their activity and potential social interactions. Georg Simmel made such a point in his famous piece “The Metropolis and Mental Life” where he suggested people respond by developing a blase attitude to block out all the stimulus.
Perhaps city residents have traded older versions of private spaces – like fire escapes – for new ones like smartphone screens and headphones which allow the user to be more private in public settings such as a park or Starbucks.