History Written in Flame

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On the sidewalk lay heaps of broken bodies. A policeman later went about with tags, which he fastened with wires to the wrists of the dead girls, numbering each with a lead pencil, and I saw him fasten tag no. 54 to the wrist of a girl who wore an engagement ring. A fireman who came downstairs from the building told me that there were at least fifty bodies in the big room on the seventh floor. Another fireman told me that more girls had jumped down an air shaft in the rear of the building. I went back there, into the narrow court, and saw a heap of dead girls. . . .

This quote is from an eyewitness to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of March 25, 1911, in which a Manhattan garment factory went up in flames. The vivid accounts from that day tell of desperate young women leaning out of windows and crying for help; of people hurling themselves out of the building; of victim’s families studying bodies charred beyond recognition. In all, 146 people met their deaths from the fire.

But as grisly and tragic as the fire itself was, it was the political impact of the Triangle fire that would sear its place in our history. The negligence of the factory owners who allowed (and even encouraged) the unsafe conditions that resulted in so much loss of life were suddenly subject to widespread attention. There had been other industrial disasters in the United States, some with death tolls nearly as high as the Triangle fire. But what made this one unique was both its visibility—the sight of dead bodies littering a Manhattan sidewalk shocked New York society—and its timing, occurring at a moment when an ascendant labor movement had already been doing battle against capitalists, police, and Pinkertons on the streets of New York. In the ensuing grief and outrage, the Triangle fire would prove to be a defining event for the left and labor in America.

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Bodies of workers who jumped from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on March 25, 1911

Something very similar appears to be developing in London, as the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire unfolds. It’s not just that a massive and completely unnecessary loss of life—79 lives at last count—has occurred. Nor is it simply that the fault lies with negligent officials and decades of bad government policy. It’s that this fire has forced a city accustomed to stark inequality to seriously consider the implications of that societal divide. And it’s the timing of this disaster, coming at a moment when leftist politics are on the rise in Britain for the first time in decades.

High-rise public housing—both in the U.K. and the U.S.—has a troubled history, with many notorious examples of Le Corbusier-inspired projects with shoddy construction and even worse upkeep. Far from lifting the masses, as had been the hope of their designers, these projects tended to segment and isolate the poor, marking their residents as targets of contempt. Rather than promoting a more integrated society, their clean lines and simple forms only seemed to throw our divisions into starker relief.

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But while previous failures of public housing led people to write off their worthiness, something very different is materializing in the wake of Grenfell. Where projects like Pruitt–Igoe and Cabrini–Green were held up by the political right as examples of failed left policy and government waste, Grenfell is becoming a case study in the neglect of the right. Instead of calls to get rid of public housing, we’re seeing public outcry for better public housing, more public housing, and for the British government to go much further to provide for its citizens. When Jeremy Corbyn suggested requisitioning empty luxury homes to house Grenfell Tower victims—a practice that has precedence in British history—the proposal was mocked by Tories and the mainstream media. But then a poll found that a majority of Brits surveyed responded favorably to the idea. Something has shifted, and it is a hopeful sign.

High-rise public housing hasn’t been in vogue for a long time; the failures of so many mid-century designs led public housing advocates to adopt different strategies that avoided the concentrated poverty that marked high-rise projects. Projects nowadays tend to be smaller and mixed-income, and housing developers are often required to set aside a certain percentage of units as affordable. Today it was announced that an example of the latter is going to be used to house Grenfell survivors. But there’s widespread recognition that it’s not enough to incentivize developers to set aside a handful of apartments; a whole lot more needs to be done.

The Grenfell Tower fire could prove to have a huge impact on British society, beyond just the matter of public housing. Coming at the moment that it has, with an ascendant left led by Corbyn that seems to be on the verge of taking power, the reverberations of this event may be felt for a long time. The smoldering ruin now towering over Kensington has become a terrifying and apt symbol of the indifferent machinery governing our society. But it may also herald much that has yet to come.

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