The Fire This Time

06/30/2017 04:54 pm ET Updated Jun 30, 2017

In 1666, the Great Fire of London started in a baker’s shop by the Thames. Back then, roofs were thatched, water was carried in buckets, and fires spread quickly from one home to the next. The blaze lasted nearly five days, burning down some 13,200 houses. Yet, looking back, what’s remarkable about the Great Fire is how few people are said to have died—just six, according to the official record. For a fire that reduced one third of London to ashes, that sounds like a miracle.

But the reality is all too familiar.

Many wealthier families were reasonably safe from the fire: They lived in expensive stone houses, in what is now the West End. Meanwhile in Central London, the poorest residents were crowded into flammable wooden tenements and tar-paper shacks. Today it is impossible to know how many people actually died because in 17th-century London, if you were poor or middle-class, your death was not registered. You literally didn’t count.

I thought about that history as I drove past the charred husk of Grenfell Tower—the 24-story public housing building in North Kensington that went up in flames on June 14. There are 80 people currently reported missing or dead, but the true number may never be known. Grenfell’s “black skeleton” is a brutal reminder of lives cut short, of stories that will go untold.

We can only imagine the terror that anyone inside the tower must have felt that evening, as the orange and red flames raced up the building’s exterior, trapping occupants inside a cage of fire. As the world now knows, the residential tower was encased in highly flammable cladding—material banned for use in tall buildings in the United States and most of Europe.

How could this have happened? As with any disaster, no explanation is sufficient. But public fury is focused on a policymaking environment that valued money—saving money, making money—over poor people’s safety and lives.

It wouldn’t have cost much to do things the right way; to give the residents of Grenfell Tower a fighting chance. The press has reported that for an extra £5,000—roughly US$6,500—the building’s exterior could have been upgraded with materials that are more fire-resistant. Yet, a national fire-safety investigation of 137 other tower blocks has exposed a 100% failure rate. These buildings were subpar not by accident but by design.

Indeed, tower block housing itself is a model of what happens when low-income or vulnerable people are denied the agency and voice to speak for themselves. When local communities are involved in urban planning, they make their preferences clear. They value mixed-use, mixed-income areas that provide natural opportunities for social interaction; that make it possible for people to congregate with their neighbours, and for communities to be healthy and whole.

Yet, too often, low-income individuals are simply shunted into architectural ghettos: ugly high-rises that segregate “haves” from “have nots” and that undermine social cohesiveness.

I believe these realities have their root in prejudice, ignorance, and fear; in allowing ourselves to conflate “low-income” with “low-value,” such that fellow citizens are seen as less important, less deserving—even less human. Because when people are othered, devalued, and discounted, it is much easier to justify cutting corners—to push them to the periphery, employ substandard materials to build their homes, and ignore their repeated safety concerns.

Grenfell Tower is a story of inequality, of the poor herded into a cramped building made unsafe because it was prettified to improve the view of the nearby rich. One woman I met wondered if the fire had been started “deliberately, to get rid of us all.” She instantly withdrew that allegation, ashamed of herself for saying it. “But that’s what people feel,” she said.

Necessary reforms are sure to rise from the ashes of Grenfell Tower. Building codes will be revised, housing inspectors hired, fire alarms and outside sprinklers installed. But superficial changes cannot solve our deeper problems. At best, they merely mask them like flammable facades—making the next tragedy inevitable.

The Great Fire of London, Charles Dickens wrote in the 1850s, “was a great blessing to the City afterwards, for it arose from its ruins very much improved—built more regularly, more widely, more cleanly and carefully, and therefore more healthily.”

“But,” he warned, “there are some people in [London] still—even now at this time, nearly two hundred years later—so selfish, so pig-headed, and so ignorant, that I doubt if even another Great Fire would warm them up to do their duty.”

History’s great catastrophes have always challenged us to make things better than they are. The question is whether we can reform ourselves—whether we can treat those with less as our equals. This kind of reform takes more than pity or charity. But in the words of Nigerian writer Ben Okri, “Sometimes it takes an image to wake up a nation from its secret shame.”

Today, our duty, as we think of the people who called Grenfell Tower home, is to challenge ourselves to reach out to one another, and to see in every “other” ourselves.

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