Looking two centuries backwards, back in the 1800s, many European citizens moved to the US looking for job opportunities and trying to leave behind the famine they where living. Most of them did not even speak English but they where eager to learn as fast as possible in order to find a job. They where looking forward to living their own “American dream”.
However, the situation for them was not wonderful in New York either, where they had to live in the poorest areas. Fires were so common in buildings mainly made of wood causing the death to the people living there. One of the most horrible ones occurred in Elm Street (today Lafayette Street) on February 1860, started from a bakery in the basement and continued through the hole building provoking the death to the families living in it.
Only two months later a decision to stop with this situation was made and an “Act to provide against unsafe buildings in the city of New York” was passed. This rule required tenements for eight or more families to have fire-proof stairs or balconies. It could have been a good policy but landlord chose the cheapest option: installing rudimentary iron ladders in the walls of their buildings. This way, no big construction works were needed and a lot of money was saved.
Nevertheless, some of those stairs where still made of wood, something that did not make any sense but nobody cared about it. What is more, some of those fire scape balconies served as a place for storage or to hang the wet clothes.
25 March 1911 there was a huge fire at a garment’s factory and many young women working there died because the stairs immediately collapsed due to the heat.
After that, politicians in New York realized those stairs did not make any sense at all because they would not be useful when needed so they changed their laws and safety plans in order to include safe emergency stairs from inside the buildings to make sure workers would be able to quickly leave the offices in the event of a fire.
Still, some antique fire stairs and balconies remain visible on NY buildings and make thousands of tourists every day wonder about their existence.