At the end of the first week of January, a symbolic time of new beginnings and plans for the future, seventeen people died from inhaling smoke in their home, a nineteen-story building in the West Bronx. Eight of them were children; one was two years old. A space heater in a third-floor apartment started the fire. When the residents of the apartment fled, their front door remained open, despite a self-closing mechanism, as required by municipal regulations. Other residents said their doors also didn’t close on their own, and as the fire spread, smoke filled the stairs and suffocated those who tried to escape. More than sixty people were injured and fifteen remained in critical condition last week. Almost all of those who died, and many more who live in the tower, which is part of the Twin Parks North West complex, are of Gambian origin. (There are also Latino and Black American residents of the building.) They spent time together and went to a mosque a few blocks away and treated each other like family.
And, as tenants in New York, they expected basic services: heating, hot water, functional exits in the event of a disaster. What they found instead was life in a fifty-year-old building, once a model of affordable housing, which had received more than two hundred complaints and violation notices since 2010, about infestations of rodents, lead paint, mold and security doors that weren’t. that works. (A spokesman for the building’s current owners – three real estate investment companies that bought it two years ago and benefited from low-interest loans from the government – said the violations had been resolved; records show that at the time of the fire, seventeen violations were still open.) What many immigrants receive, in lieu of safe and affordable housing, is a sense that they should be grateful to be in this country, in New York. What residents of Twin Parks experienced on January 9 were apartments so cold that a family had to run a heater for several days near a child’s bed, then a fire so devastating that the community couldn’t don’t know how he will recover.
“It’s really traumatic,” Momodou Sawaneh, the founder of the Gambia Youth Organization, which is coordinating a relief effort for victims and their families, told me. “It’s bad. We knew people who lived in this building, and they are part of us. If they were here, they would volunteer, they would work with us, the teenagers, the children. When the leaders of the city, the news of which Eric Adams, the new mayor, heard, they expressed collective grief. “When there is a crisis in this city or this state, we stand together,” Adams said. “And we will only succeed not if we’re not united.” The mayor’s office established a Bronx Fire Relief Fund, which received more than two and a half million dollars in donations from the public, but over time Adams’s response faltered. quickly turned into personal responsibility.’If we take a message out of this’, he said last week, it’s to ‘shut the door, shut the door.’Media later reported that Rick Gropper , co-founder and director of Camber Property Group, one of the companies that owns the building and the company responsible for its day-to-day operations, was a campaign donor for Adams and served as his transition team’s housing adviser.
The precariousness of life in New York for working-class immigrants reminds me of when I lived in Lagos, Nigeria’s megacity. When I was writing about Lagos in 2015, at least 135 buildings had collapsed in the previous seven years, including apartment complexes and schools. Developers were building buildings cheaply and quickly to meet the demand of newcomers to the city, who could not afford better housing, even though they were paying a high percentage of their salary in rent. A Lagos State official told me, “We have the most expensive slums in the world.
According to a 2019 report from the mayor’s office, nearly a quarter of city households considered “energy cost burdened” — families who spend more than 6% of their income on utility bills — lived in the Bronx. . Low-income New Yorkers often face higher energy costs due to poor insulation and outdated heating systems in their buildings. Some use several radiators, which consume a lot of energy.
The tragedy of the Bronx fire evoked that of thirteen New Yorkers, mostly in Queens, who died late last summer during Hurricane Ida when heavy rains drowned them in their homes . Eleven of these victims lived in basement apartments, almost all illegally rented by landlords. Illegal basement apartments usually have only one way in and out, have no windows, have low ceilings, and are easily flooded. They are also often overcrowded – the people who live there tend to be working-class immigrants. Most of the people who died in Queens were of Asian descent; others were from the Caribbean. According to Time, there are probably tens of thousands of such apartments in the city, which seem to go largely unnoticed by local authorities. The budget of a pilot city program launched in 2019, to transform basement apartments into habitable spaces, was reduced in 2020, for reasons related to the pandemic, by approximately twelve million dollars, in three years , at only ninety-one thousand dollars .
“Housing is an ongoing problem that has gotten worse over the covidsaid Lina Lee, who heads the tenant advocacy organization Communities Resist. “Asian American immigrants have the highest poverty rate in New York City.” But basement apartments in “appalling conditions” can have rents of nearly a thousand dollars a month. In the absence of better and more accessible housing options, residents of these apartments face a dilemma: if they complain to the city about violations, they can receive an evacuation order and, if their apartments are legally rented, they can eventually move to temporary accommodation. social housing. But, if they rent illegal space, a release order means they have to find another place to live without help.
“This is a wake-up call,” Sawaneh of the Gambia Youth Organization said of the Twin Parks tower fire. “One thing we need to do now is educate our people.” In the absence of any real responsibility from building management or the city, he said he and other community leaders explain to people what to do in the event of an emergency. fire, the dangers of radiators and the benefits of renting safer accommodation instead of putting themselves at risk to build up savings. A couple who survived the fire filed a class action lawsuit, on behalf of the residents of Twin Parks, seeking $3 billion in damages from the owners of the building, accusing them of failing to maintain the building or respond to reports of unsafe conditions. (The consortium of owners said it was cooperating with a fire department investigation.) Last Saturday, the day before a mass burial for the victims, at the Islamic Culture Center in the Bronx, Sheikh Musa Drammeh, an activist Gambian, spoke to relatives of the victims and community members who were planning the service. “The system doesn’t recognize our value,” Drammeh told them. “This is not a normal funeral.”