To many, fire escapes are utilitarian structures with little physical appeal. But in New York City, they’re as much a part of the street scene as yellow cabs and the Empire State Building. In this article, we join New York-based real estate broker and avid photographer Tim Simmons as he captures Lower Manhattan’s fire escapes in all their functional elegance.
Simmons took a trip through Hell’s Kitchen, a former hotbed of Irish American gangs that has seen major gentrification in recent decades. His images capture the ornate styles of fire escapes on the traditional New York tenements, many now occupied by fashionable independent retailers.
These characteristic steel structures have a fascinating history dating back to 1784 England, courtesy of inventor Daniel Maseres. Anna Connelly secured the first patent in 1887 and by 1888, 1,099 patents of “many forms, and of every possible material” had been granted in the United States.
As twentieth century building codes ushered in tougher regulations, landlords were obliged to install escape routes from their properties. Many opted for the low cost external steps, but increasing urban sprawl during the 1950s and ’60s saw many fire escapes in poorer districts of New York and Chicago used for anything but their intended purpose.
On hot summer nights, some residents would sleep on the steel platforms, inspiring Cornell Woolrich’s 1947 short story “The Boy Who Cried Murder“. This practice also inspired Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” and Weegee’s Lower East Side photography, while the shadows cast by fire escapes were a popular device of film noir.
The famous balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet also inspired a similar fire escape moment in the musical West Side Story, underscoring the place that these ornate steel structures have come to occupy in popular culture.
Keep browsing – check out more of Tim Simmons’ photos at Dropbox.