On Sunday morning, a fire broke out in an apartment building in the Bronx. It seems to have started with a malfunctioning space heater in an apartment on the second and third floors. Within minutes, flames and smoke quickly spread through the building. Soon, at least 19 people were killed — including nine children. More than 60 people were injured by the smoke, with 13 in critical condition.
New York City’s recently elected mayor, the former cop and Democrat Eric Adams, referred to the fire as a “tragedy,” but this was no act of God.
The 19-story tower on East 181st Street opened in 1972 as part of a public-housing project. It is now owned by private investors who claim “that the fire alarm system was working and that there were no known problems with the smoke alarms,” as they told the New York Times. But they would say that, wouldn’t they? The building had a long list of violations, including mice and cockroach infestations, and one of these owners, Mark Gropper, had been named as part of Mayor Adams’ transition team for housing before he took office, revealing where Adams’ priorities lie and who he really represents.
It appears that a malfunctioning door allowed the smoke to spread. Had it closed automatically, as is required by law, smoke might not have been able to flood the building. Some residents at first ignored the alarm, as it went off at least several times a week.
New York City is the richest city in the world. Capitalists from around the world invest in properties that largely stand empty. Jeff Bezos, for example, has four apartments in one building valued at over $100 million dollars — just in case he ever wants to drop by the city. Wealth and resources are dedicated to building luxury condos — a fourth of which are not even sold, while many more are sold but remain unoccupied. At the same time, more than 100,000 children in the city are homeless. Every single year, New York City evicts 20,000 people from their homes. Despite a brief moratorium during the pandemic, this brutal machinery will restart soon when the moratorium ends in just five days.
Meanwhile, working-class people who do have housing are often forced to live in overcrowded and decaying apartment buildings. Even basic maintenance that could prevent tragedies like this is denied — supposedly for lack of funds.
In the history of capitalist urbanism, fires have often been a spark for change. The most famous example happened in 1911 right next to Union Square in Lower Manhattan. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire killed 146 workers — the owners of the sweatshop had locked the doors to prevent workers from leaving before they inspected their purses. The city’s working class responded with a wave of strikes and organizing, leading to new legislation to protect workers’ lives.
In 2011, the Grenfell Tower fire in London killed 74 people. Here too, residents had pointed out how cost-cutting measures were putting people in danger. In 2004, a fire at the Cromañón nightclub in Buenos Aires killed 174 mostly young people. Owners had chained most of the fire escapes shut to supposedly prevent people from entering without paying.
In all these cases, the fires were caused by capitalist greed. Eric Adams wants us to think of this fire as a tragedy, and he wants the city to come together. As socialists, we do want working-class and poor people to come together — in opposition to the real estate speculators and landlords who put our lives at risk. When workers die, capitalists act like we are all just a big family, but this is false. Politicians like Adams and capitalists are not on the same side as working people. So let us remember the works of socialist activist Rose Schneider, who said after the fire in 1911:
I would be a traitor to these poor burned bodies if I came here to talk good fellowship. … Too much blood has been spilled. I know from my experience it is up to the working people to save themselves. The only way they can save themselves is by a strong working-class movement.