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Sky Lounge

Photograph of traffic lights, by Alex Thebez
  • By Malcolm Thorndike Nicholson
  • Issue 10
  • On Beauty

My fire escape crawls skyward, corroded steel drilled into the side of a tenement. It is lawn and porch to New Yorkers: a seat of leisure, a permeable barrier, a precipice for contemplation. Alex and I use ours to grow plants, dry laundry, cool off, spy on our neighbors, drink Tom Collinses, and recover from hangovers. Fire escapes have nearly nothing to do with safety and a lot to do with aesthetics—Rear Window, Breakfast At Tiffany's, The Glass Menagerie.

I fear collapse, so my time on the escape is fitful: long enough to have a cigarette and recalibrate, short enough to avoid vertigo or inspect for structural flaws. Friends who grew up in the city are more relaxed. In good weather, they are content to hover for hours, retreating inside to only to empty a bladder or refill a glass. Before the invention of the air conditioner, “sleeping alfresco,” as the New York Times called it in 1927, was a practical solution to decrease suffocation.

Fire escape is a double misnomer. Difficult enough to navigate in times of calm, they are actively bad at getting people out of burning buildings. Flames make them fall to pieces, with potentially fatal results, as was captured in the Stanley Forman photograph “Fire Escape Collapse” (1976). Barely half a decade after mandating them—in the 1910s a series of gruesome fires, notably the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory conflagration, called attention to the need for fire codes—New York City legislators discontinued them for all new buildings in 1968. The Financial District, Midtown, and the Upper East Side are fire escape deserts for architectural reasons; likewise SoHo, Greenwich Village, and increasingly the Lower East Side, for cultural ones. Trendy new tenants haven't taken to them. They lead more private lives, perhaps, or else the anarchic bohemian vistas fire escapes afforded have themselves gone out of fashion. To look up and see a richly textured canopy of linen, national flags, begonias, folding chairs, flashes of activity through metal slats, I head north of Harlem, to Washington Heights.

Malcolm Thorndike Nicholson has written for The New Republic and Prospect, among other publications.

Photos © Alex Thebez