It is not in every city in the world that you can fall in love looking at a fire escape. Of course, there has been much debate about whether fire escapes are actually emergency exits or romantic balconies. Maybe the use of a fire escape in ‘West Side Story’, inspired by William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet resulted in this. Who knows?
I was in New York last week on business. I don’t know where the energy came from, but I landed up spending close to 66 hours awake out of the 72 I was there for. It’s definitely the city that burns with spirit. It is infectious and for someone who is already hyperactive, it is a drug. I won’t go on and on about Manhattan’s dizzy effect, the psychedelic billboards on Time Square, the never ending nightlife (even during the day I suppose) and the energy that comes with New York. It was a work trip after all, where did I have the time for that?
In between all the work, I took time out to escape just for one thing. A tour of the city’s fire escapes. I noticed it for the first time when I was walking back to my hotel at 4 am, after one of those spontaneous nights. If I get around to that story, it will take me a few blog posts. Let’s just say I landed up meeting someone who is supposedly family after a few years of Facebook messaging, in New York, only to discover that every crazy thing I’ve done traveling is nothing compared to his adventures. We discovered that we never met before because we probably avoided all the family get-togethers where there was a possible chance of meeting. Someone I am so glad to have met, even if it was for a few cocktails and a greasy breakfast and I am certain I am likely to meet in some unsafe corner of the world in the future. I am pretty undecided on whether to call him family as there can only be one black sheep per family and I’ve taken that spot.
Anyway, from the fiery escape to the fire escape, here is a snippet from the New York Times on Fire escapes and my iPhonography discovering them.
Officially, of course, the urban fire escape is primarily an emergency exit, but in New York, this prosaic adornment of countless five- and six-story apartment houses has assumed myriad other functions: faux backyards, platforms for criminal getaways, oases for marginalized smokers and makeshift bedrooms popular during an age before air-conditioning. And they are often visual knockouts, too. Strikingly designed fire escapes have complemented some of the city’s grandest structures, like the Puck Building on Lafayette Street, and enhanced even the dreariest structures.
First built in New York well over a century ago, mandated by the 1867 tenement law, fire escapes soon became a canvas for the virtuosity of local foundry workers, including recently arrived European immigrants. Throughout the city, these artisans created ornate objets d’art constructed and molded from wrought and cast iron. The designs that resulted present a decorative smorgasbord, and include such rich details as arabesques, filigree lacework and rosettes.
Aesthetics, though, are only skin deep. In the case of the Lower East Side in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the fire escape ornamentation on scores of tenement blocks hardly masked the poverty within. Notable photographers like Weegee took pictures of fire escapes to help demonstrate both the hurly-burly and inhumanity of immigrant life. Even the film version of the musical “West Side Story,” a retelling of “Romeo and Juliet” in Hell’s Kitchen, substituted a fire escape on a cheerless tenement for the Shakespearean balcony in the famous love scene.
Although many of the fire escapes built during New York’s second wave of immigration still exist, these well-worn structures have been lamentably overlooked. Even the venerable Encyclopedia of New York City neglects to give them a separate entry. Perhaps it’s time for New Yorkers to give these old cultural symbols a second look.
I don’t know if New Yorkers want to give this a second look, but I’m surely headed back to New York for another look.