The real cause of the deadly Philadelphia fire is our unequal society. Let’s make it a turning point


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The blaze and its large death toll shocked not only a major American city, but the entire nation – the speed with which it spread through the building, the desperate attempts to escape by those trapped there. inside, either crammed against a locked door, or jumping far onto the sidewalk. below, the lack of basic safety procedures that could have prevented the tragedy.

But today, almost 111 years later, the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in New York City is not just remembered for 146 lives – many of whom were poor immigrant workers in their teens and twenties. – which were lost that Saturday afternoon of March 25, 1911. The anniversary is still marked after more than a century because it was essentially the day a nation – after a golden age economy in Booming had created an extremely unequal society, where the masses worked under dangerous conditions for long hours and low wages – finally said enough was enough.

Although 350,000 people marched through Manhattan in a funeral procession, a generation of activists did not stop lighting candles for the victims. The years immediately following the Triangle Shirtwaist fire saw a concerted push in New York State that led to 20 new fire and worker safety laws, as well as a new political spirit of reform. radical. One of the main post-Triangle Shirtwaist investigators, Frances Perkins, would eventually become Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labor and tell historians that there was a straight line between the fire and New Deal social reforms – that moment that fades into American history when a belief in “a public good” energized a large section of the working class.

When shocking news broke that 12 people – including nine children – had died Wednesday in an early morning fire that swept through a three-story townhouse in Philadelphia’s Fairmount neighborhood owned by the Philadelphia Housing Authority and counting up to 26 residents, I reacted with deep sadness but also with anger.

The details that quickly emerged of both overcrowding and the lack of some basic fire safety measures were certainly shocking. But the reality is that this Fairmount fire that smothered the promising young lives of victims like 14-year-old basketball prodigy Destiny McDonald, his 16-year-old science-loving brother Quintien Tate-McDonald with his “absolute sweetness,” their mom, and nine others did not take place in a vacuum. On the contrary, it sounded like the exclamation mark of a year of dangerous life in America’s sixth largest city.

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Philadelphia’s deadliest fire in decades came just after the end of a 2021 year that saw its all-time record for homicides shattered with some 562 murders (and that may be an undercount), with far too many from victims of teens or even children who were just walking, riding or sitting in the wrong place at the wrong time. Incredibly, but with less fanfare, the same 12 months may also have brought the city record for drug overdoses, with more than twice as many deaths on the streets of Philly from this epidemic in course than gunshots. And of course, the city’s working-class blacks and brunettes – many with little to no health coverage, suffering from pre-existing conditions or tied to “essential jobs” – have accounted for a disproportionate number of more than 4,300 deaths. due to COVID-19 in Philadelphia since the pandemic arrived in March 2020.

How many needless deaths can a city tolerate before it collapses? How much longer are we going to keep bragging about the economic health of a city because of so many towering cranes building luxury apartments for the glow of wealth that a city center lives in, so that in the very shadow of these cranes, some 26 people are crammed into two apartments, because the only alternative is roaming? How much will we continue to tout Philly as an upscale tourist destination as we barely audibly whisper the rate of deep poverty that remains the highest of any major American city?

Is this unspeakable tragedy, and the loss of nine beautiful children, the moment we finally cry out – as America once did, after the Triangle Shirtwaist fire – that enough is enough, this is is finally enough?

It’s hard to say, because America is a different place than it was in 1911. Today we have the “personal responsibility complex” of right-wing politicians and radio stations so eager to talk about families. many (even if it’s not the “freedom” they always speak of?) shine through our unequal society.

The “enough is enough” moment occurs if we keep talking about what happened in Fairmount long after the candles went out yesterday, and if we push for change on three different levels. Immediately after the fire, my colleagues at The Inquirer already did an expert job exposing what you might call the “micro” level of our failures to keep residents safe. They wrote about the lack of hard-wired, tamper-evident fire extinguishers, sprinklers, fire escapes or smoke detectors in the upper unit where the victims died. And if Philadelphia doesn’t change the laws and find the dollars to change the culture around safe housing, then this city is even more dysfunctional than we thought.

Second, we need to recognize that Philadelphia, like most coastal cities in the United States, is in the throes of an affordable housing crisis. We almost never talk about the fact that 40,000 people are on a waiting list for public housing that was finally closed for most applicants eight years ago, or that PHA only responds to around 12 years. % of estimated demand for affordable housing, or agency needs. about $ 1 billion to repair the units it has. No wonder the plight of families like the two cramped inside this Fairmount townhouse remains largely unseen. No wonder it’s so easy for longtime residents to tear down much-needed new units in their neighborhoods, or continue to demand giant parking lots instead of housing density that drives down prices. .

Third, and most critical, is that we need to change our societal mindset, just as America once did at the start of the New Deal, to lift so many people out of poverty and despair. We need to take a close look at our priorities and those of our leaders – spending billions on new fighter jets or collecting interest on massive “rainy day funds” – as people live in buildings with no stairs every day. rescue.

Shame on the Republican-dominated state legislature in Harrisburg that chose last year to simply sit on the vast majority of a $ 10 billion windfall in COVID-19 relief money and tax revenue of State. He has resisted calls from advocates from groups like the Poor People’s Campaign to increase funding for the state’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund and to stimulate a number of programs that would benefit low-income families and poor people. the working class by expanding childcare services and paid sick leave and by restoring the fight against poverty. cash assistance that ended in 2019.

Shame on Congress – both the solid wall of Republican opposition to anything that boosts “the public good” but also Chamber-backed Democrats like the Senses. Empowering Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema – to have allowed a child tax credit to expire after a brief, brilliant moment when monthly benefits of up to $ 300 per child cut child poverty in half in United States and showed us what is possible. And shame at the lack of state and federal support forcing Philadelphia this week to shut down its pandemic rental assistance program that has helped 39,000 families, even as COVID-19 cases peak .

But also shame on Mayor Kenney and the city’s Democratic leaders for a passive approach that too often denies that Philadelphia really is a city of overlapping crises – a state of denial that prevents the major and accelerated action needed to deal with it. them. And shame on a company – me, you, all of us – that again and again prioritizes our own convenience and thus keeps things like affordable housing or supervised injection sites, which have been shown to be able to prevent overdoses. and to save lives, beyond our limits. neighborhoods for rent.

Senator Bernie Sanders, in his failed 2020 presidential campaign, got to the heart of the matter when he asked his supporters, “Are you ready to fight for this person you don’t even know?” I’ve never known Destiny, Quintien or the others who perished in this Fairmount townhouse, but their deaths are burning me inside. There is only one way to go from there, to make January 5, 2022, the day Philadelphia said enough was enough.

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