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How Safe Are New York City's Fire Escapes, Really?

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[Photos by Bob Estremera. More fire escape photos over here.]

The spotlight is once again on New York City's ubiquitous, iconic fire escapes following the tragic death of actor Kyle Jean-Baptiste, a rising Broadway star who had recently finished a run as Jean Valjean in Les Misérables. On Friday, the 21-year-old performer fell from a fourth-floor fire escape on an apartment in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Police have determined that his death was an accident.

The tragedy led the New York Times to take a look at the role of the fire escape in New Yorkers' lives—namely, as "storage closets, front porches and back gardens, a perch of one's own above the bustle of the street."

The Times offered a brief history of the fire escape: They were first added to buildings in the mid-1800s, and became a refuge for residents crammed into tenement buildings, who would use the iron perches as a place to air out clothing and mattresses, escape crowded dwellings, and even as beds in the summertime. But there have always been concerns about their safety and relative usefulness. From the Times:

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.) When the NYC building code was updated in 1968, it banned fire escapes from new dwellings, preferring more modern safety methods like sprinkler systems and interior stairwells. And in recent years, they've begun disappearing from older buildings, too—in part, as we reported in April, because of aesthetics, but also because of safety concerns. When older buildings are renovated, architects are choosing to replace the fire escapes altogether: In April, Joseph Pell Lombardi called them "a detriment to the building," in reference to two Soho buildings he's in the process of revamping.

Even NYC historians are re-examining the romance of the fire escape: William B. Helmreich, the City College professor who wrote The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City, said, "This tragedy occurred because not enough attention is given to the dangers inherent in sitting on fire escapes.…A fire escape should be an escape from fire; it shouldn't be an escape from reality."
· Despite Dangers, New York City's Romance With Fire Escapes Endures [NYT]
· Dear NYC Fire Escapes, You Are Iconic and We Would Miss You [Curbed]
· Take A Closer Look At NYC's Beautiful, Ubiquitous Fire Escapes [Curbed]