Often Forgotten, But Not Gone

* Fire_Escape_SoHoWhen you walk through the older parts of American cities, if you stop and look up you’ll see fire escapes climbing up the outside of many older buildings, as in the photo.

The need for fire escapes – steel platforms (a place to stand on) and stairs attached to the outside of a building – grew in the mid-1800s in the U.S. Many people were moving to cities to work in factories and other jobs. And many of them moved into apartment or tenement (a building with rooms or apartments for poor people) buildings made of wood.

Most of these buildings had one open stairway in the center of the building. It was the only way to get in and out of the building. If a fire started, the central stairway made it easy for the fire to quickly spread to the upper floors*. And it made it difficult or impossible for the people in the building to escape (get out and away from the fire).

In 1860, a six-story New York tenement, where 24 families lived, burned when a fire started in a bakery on the first floor. Firemen’s ladders weren’t long enough to reach the people at the top of the building, and 10 women and children died in the fire. Soon, laws were passed that required outside fire escapes to be attached to large buildings.

In the 1920s, outside fire escapes began to be replaced by inside stairways that are designed to be safe from fire. New York City outlawed (made them illegal) outside fire escapes in 1968.

In a recent photo essay (group of photos that tell a story), Patrick Sisson describes the history of fire escapes and shows how they became an important part of city life.

For many people, the fire escape became an extension (part added to something to make it larger) of the apartment or room they lived in. On hot days, it became a place for people to escape a hot apartment; on a hot night, a mattress turned it into an outdoor bedroom.

Fire escapes provided quiet places to talk with a close friend or read or think alone. They also provided space to grow flowers or vegetables in pots or other containers.

Fire escapes became a front porch (platform attached to the front of a house) for many apartment dwellers (someone who lives in a particular place). People spent hours outside on their fire escape watching city life walk and drive by.

I encourage you to take time to look at Sisson’s photo essay and, if possible, to watch the short video in it from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 movie Rear Window. It’ll show you a little of what apartment living in New York used to be like, complete with fire escapes.

* “Floor” and “story” both refer to the different levels of a building – for example, the 51st floor or 51st story. In the U.S., the ground floor is the first floor or story; in some countries, the first floor is the one above the ground floor.

~ Warren Ediger – ESL coach and tutor and creator of the Successful English website.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

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22 Responses to Often Forgotten, But Not Gone

  1. Reza says:

    I confused 😐
    Actually, I thought fire escape have different from the porch…
    Cause fire scape is small place and if we use it for talking or watching or something like you said, that will unable for escaping…
    Sorry for bad English, I just started writing…

  2. Dan says:

    Hello Warren.

    This brings back memories from where I was a kid watching American Tv
    series where the bad guy or the good guy depending from the situation, escaped from those stairs.
    Right now I am working but as soon as I get back home, I’ll definitely check
    that out.


  3. Warren Ediger says:

    Reza – You’re right: a fire escape is different than a porch.

    When I wrote that “Fire escapes became a front porch….”, what I was saying is that people used their fire escapes as a front porch. We call that a metaphor – a way of describing something by referring to it as something different.


  4. Roberto says:


    Your article is great, Warren! I have never thought about the origin of USA fire escapes. I’ve seen a lot of films where murder runs away through one of these fire escapes,
    specially in detective films, and how main character chases him until fall down in a big garbage container!!
    I associate them with American cities in spite of I have never been in USA. Contrast between red brick walls and steel stairs is nice in a particular way. I wouldn’t know how to describe it
    but the photo of the article is fascinating (the violet color of the stairs, the shadows on the wall…)

    Before reading your article if someone says to me “I live in the 7th story”, I’m sure I hadn’t understood him.
    By the way, first floor is the one above the ground floor in Spain.

    Thank your for the article

  5. Roberto says:

    Hello Dan

    I think we have watched similar films in our youthfulness!!
    Check out the Sisson’s page… It is amazing!! And the Chinese man using the steel platform as a front porch, too!!!


  6. Reza says:

    Yeah I understand now
    I think that mistake was my little experience.
    Thanks for replying

  7. Dan says:

    Me again.

    Now that I think about it, I have even walked those external stairs.
    Virtually of course! You might have heard about an open world videogame
    called Grand Theft Auto.
    They are famous for reproducing in detail cities like New York, LA and others. It is amazing what they can do.
    Well, when I played the game taking place in New York there were all those buidings like the one in the picture and I remember taking those stairs many
    Regarding the movies, I saw so many scenes shoot on those stairs!.


  8. Dan says:

    I know, I know…me again. Sorry!

    Wow, I didn’t know those metal structure were so neglected and dangerous that even firefighters avoid using it.
    I know something about keeping balcony’s railings in good condition and well maintained because I do paint those in the building where I live.
    In fact I just finished doing one for my neighbor. All the scratching and painting took me 50 hours! I did that on my free time.
    They are old people, so I did it. I am going to get some money out of that.
    I like that job, and when you are done it’s a personal satisfaction.
    The odour of the antitrust is really intense though.
    In the building there are 6 balconies with quite large railings and I did 5 of it in the last years all painted white.

    Thanks everyone.

  9. Aecio Flavio Perim says:

    You guys are expert on this subject in deed. I’d like to be one of you but I have other issues in which I am quite expert and have studied a lot and can say about them, for instance, geometry. I also know a lot about life, ethics and moral concepts. See you soon.
    Aecio, Brazil, no sin, green and yellow, happiness.

  10. Mari Carmen says:


  11. Peter says:

    You spot a lot in U.S. , but just so many in Canada.

    In fact ,for a specific period in US history the external emergency fire escape stair cases were a thing ,In particularly ,in downtown cores of
    U.S. Major cities.
    Well ,I m not coming from big books of U.S. history. I got that from tons of Hollywood movies in 60s and 70s that one way or another including the external cases in the body of their stories; I m talking about those lovey dovey movies in 60s ,early 70s.

    In fact , I think , the wire-metal external fire stare cases in the cities across U.S. are an inherent part of US culture.well, at least for one or two decades. By that I mean people can relate to them in a more profound way.
    I myself ,got a bit nostalgic reading Warren posts.

    Well,as the fabrics of cities changed over time ,the building safety codes changed along with it.
    Nowadays ,the fire escapes are something of a memorial than anything else.
    Well, they still contribute to the whole tone of the cities but in a whole different way. Nowadays , more than anything else they give cities an antique, touristy look which ,in a way , contribute to the city economy.
    U know ,if anything , they do bare the dust of history on them. They do talk about a lost art, they do narrate a past culture.
    Well, u don’t see much of those external emergency exit In Canada though. Most building around here are equipped with exit doors and stairwells that are inside the building but with big outward openings.
    I don’t know exactly why , I m too lazy too look it up, but u don’t see much of those external stair cases across Canada. Maybe part of the reason is that Canada is a relatively Yong country comparing. Well ,so is its cities. In fact , most of the cities across Canada are still in the making.
    Even Toronto which is the capital of the biggest province of Canada is still developing.
    One look around the cities u can spot a lot of grassed open spaces and empty lots.
    So , one may include ,back then , there was not much of urban development in Canada.
    I may be totally off here.
    But ,one thing , I know for sure , there are not much external fire escapes stair case around here. Well , u know , I don’t think even back then there were much of use in case of exit emergency situations. For one thing , they are too narrow and too flimsy to begin with.
    They don’t have the capacity to fully accommodate typically a lot of panic-strikes people who are escaping the engulfing fire.
    Just imaging , the blaze is advancing towards u and u need to take the stares two people at a time in an orderly fashion. 🙂

    There is one building with a set of external fire escape stairs though, situated in downtown core ,Toronto which has a historical value.
    In fact , it is one of the landmark of Toronto. U see it in a lot of Toronto postcards.

    A learning guide member


  12. Omid says:

    Old town San Francisco is where you would see lots of fire scape stairways attached to tall break buildings. Running down any of them needs a lot of guts! I would say only a huge fire behind me could force me down from them!!

  13. Dan says:

    Next year when Trump will make America great again, he’s going to
    use all that old iron to build up the famous/infamous wall.
    Hey that not bad as idea!


  14. Peter says:

    I just checked the latest result.

    Man,Brokered convention is becoming more and more probable.

    It is good news, as I m betting on an open convention.

    A learning guide member


  15. Aecio Flavio Perim says:

    Trump is a dreamer.

  16. Dan says:

    At times I find it arduous/tedious reading such articles because of the adjectives they use or terms that I would probably never use in my life due to
    my simple and basic vocabulary.
    I am not blaming them, it’s me of course.
    I do not particularly like people that are hard to understand because of, can I say high-brow talking? Fancy talking? Or maybe refined language?
    Nothing wrong with that, I am not policing people’s way of communicating.

    Anyways…just thoughts.


  17. Mari Carmen says:

    Hello everyone

    I agree with you, Dan. There are some people who, pretending for example a pleasant way of talking, are nothing but a sort of narrow-minded and/or intransigent ones.

    To my view, those are merely fundamentalists, though it may be hard to tell apart at first sight (even at second sights!).

    Certainly, birds still sing every morning.

    Have a nice weekend

  18. Aecio Flavio Perim says:

    Verborragia is the Portuguese word for too much words and least actions.
    Aecio (Brazil, no sin)

  19. Mari Carmen says:

    Hello again

    It’s a shame, Dan say nothing.

    Dan, you said you are esl’s moderator, didn’t you?. Do you think this is moderating?

    Dan, are you feeling good? Is there anything wrong?

    Won’t you say what you think about what I said? Have you seen that I mentioned you?

    It isn’t fair because I always answered when you questioned me!

    The only excuse I’d admit is that you worked today in night shift. Unless…

    …when you were referring to high-brow talking you were referring indirectly to me… Should I feel sensitive or paranoid right now?

    Never mind, bye, thanks

  20. elcomandant says:

    I’ve seen the short video from Alfred Hitchcock that Warren Ediger suggest in his post and I realized with surprise that it’s a sequence shot.

    I’ve always liked the sequence shot. It is, I’m sure most of people know, a large sequence filmed with no interruptions. This sequence is not the most difficult to film but is capable to show us in one shot all the environment where will take place the whole movie.

    If you want to see another of these sequences shot you can take a look at: [search for “Hijos De Los Hombres escena secuencia” on YouTube].

    In this movie there are more of these kind of sequences.

    Greetings 🙂

  21. Dan says:

    Hi there Mari Carmen.

    I never said I was a moderator, I said I would be a great one.
    So, to be clear, I am not a blog’s moderator. I am a nobody.

    When I commented about high-brow stuff, I was talking about certain articles online.
    By that I mean stuff that it is too intellectual for me.
    Again, I am not blaming them. It’s me that is ignorant.

    Hope this makes things more clear.

    Bye thanks

  22. emiliano says:

    Nice description Warren and even best recomendation when you mention “Rear Window”
    one of the best Hitchcock´s movies.
    May I suggest also to see “West Side Story”?, one movie where the fire steel stairs are
    so important for the two lovers, Maria and Tony and the plot.
    If you look at the poster of the movie “West Side Story” the steel fire stairs are in it as
    being quite important in the plot.

    Thank you Warren interesting subject indeed. emiliano

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