When the lessons of history are ignored the result is unnecessary death. The disastrous fire at the Grenfell Tower in London is one of many historic events where ideology and human greed conspired to create catastrophe.
Jonathan Freedland writing for the Guardian stated in the aftermath of the horrific events of June 14th:
“But most obviously, 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.
Grenfell Tower should mark a point of no return. No return to the frenzied deregulation, cost-cutting and rampant inequality of the last four decades. These are not new evils. They have been lurking for many years. But it took the light of a burning building for the whole nation to see them.”
Not new evils indeed.
History shows a pattern of disaster whenever urban planning progresses at the behest of abstract economic values in conjunction with greed and corruption. The decades old pattern of deregulation and rampant inequality that Freedland cites is hardly new. It has been repeated elsewhere and the results are every bit as horrific.
The events that led to the Fire at Grenfell are reminiscent of the negligence of the San Francisco city planners before the 1906 Earthquake. The same indifference towards the victims of Grenfell was displayed by George W Bush after the destruction of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In both cases, the dominant ideology aggravated circumstances to cause human misery. And always it’s the poor who suffer the most. Usually the destruction of life and property is preventable.
The fire at Grenfell Tower was preventable and the building’s dangers well-documented. In 2013, a residents association, the Grenfell Action Group published a risk assessment performed by TMO Health and Safety that described multiple safety concerns. Fire extinguishers and other fire-fighting equipment had not been maintained. The response by the Kensington and Chelsea Council was to threaten the group with legal action for “harrassment” and “defamatory behaviour.”
Such a response is indicative of abstract management practices in service to vested interests, rather than to constituent democracy. Faced with criticism the council opted to close ranks. Rather than admit error and address the safety issues, the Council ignored the problem.
It was indifference to the building’s residents that fed victims to the flames. According to ITV journalist Joe Hills, the cost of installing automatic sprinklers in the building would have cost approximately £140,000, yet the matter was never discussed by the Council.
Instead superficiality rather than function was promoted: some £9 million pounds was spent giving the building’s exterior a face-lift. The Tower’s edifice was covered with aluminum cladding of a type banned in both German and US construction as a known flammable material.
When considering the financial scale of these projects, it’s clear that the Council was motivated by the concerns of its true constituency: the contractors and wealthy residents for whom it relied on for patronage.
Similar patronage was visible in the years leading up to the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, the most lethal natural disaster in modern US history. City planning had been overseen by Mayor Eugene Schmitz, a notoriously corrupt official with ties to organized crime. Schmitz was later convicted of extortion and bribery, but his real criminal behaviour occurred during his development of San Francisco’s inner city.
San Francisco’s wealthiest areas sit on the surrounding hills and in order to ensure that his wealthy patron’s homes had an idyllic ocean view, Schmitz and his cronies invested heavily in reclaimed land near the waterfront. Using sand and other loose materials, construction crews built up low lying ground near the ocean, eventually pushing back the high-water mark. On top of this reclaimed land, Schmitz’s cronies built wooden housing and apartment blocks serviced by gas-lines. These buildings became home to the urban poor who couldn’t afford housing on higher ground.
When the earthquake struck the shockwave rippled through the loose sediments on which downtown San Francisco rested, levelling houses and rupturing gas-mains. The quake – estimated at 7.8 on the Richter Scale- was barely felt in the surrounding hills due to geologic differences in the uplands. The hills surrounding San Francisco are deep-rooted rock formations that repelled the shock of the earthquake. Damage to the homes of rich San Franciscans, with the exception of the Nob Hill district was minimal. However in the downtown, eighty percent of the city was destroyed.
It’s estimated that some three thousand people died in the 1906 Earthquake but the actual number may be even higher. Fearful that the true scale of the destruction would frighten away investors Schmitz and his cronies were quick to downplay the extent of the loss of life. There is little evidence to indicate that relief forces bothered to count the dead among the city’s resident Chinese community, using the destruction of the City Hall and its records office as an excuse to avoid accounting for the victims. In the aftermath of the devastation, city planners even tried to expel the Chinese population to the outskirts of the city but were met with staunch resistance.
The result of the earthquake on city planning? Very little. By 1915, the downtown had been rebuilt on the same reclaimed ground that so aggravated the effects of 1906 Earthquake.
The rapid rebuilding of San Francisco left a negative legacy on urban planning in California that continues to this day. Despite the prevalence of wild-fires, wealthy home-owners continue to build luxury properties in the Malibu Hills above Los Angeles. Successive Californian governments have created tax and insurance incentives to homeowners in order to rebuild in those areas. This amounts to poorer people in the downtown areas effectively subsidizing wealthy landowners to rebuild properties in what is a natural fire-plain.
Like the Grenfell Tower, it is the poor who suffer so that the rich can have a better view. There is an architecture of disconnect and social class at work.
Like San Francisco and Los Angeles, London, England has been built up in recent decades without consideration of geology or the prospect of natural disaster. Much of London and its surrounding suburbs sit on the Thames flood plain. In 2007, south west London and the downtown were submerged under two feet of water. Rising sea levels too, threaten the city. Yet despite these obvious dangers, urban development under both Labour and Conservative governments has been unregulated with scant regard given to the realities of geology and climate change.
The drivers of this urban insanity are economic and social. Driven by a desire to speculate on real estate British banks have financed a building boom. The beneficiaries of that boom have been landlords and bankers, both of whom provide key financial and constituent support to the Conservative Party.
It would unfair to place the blame for what happened at Grenfell Tower entirely at the feet of Theresa May. Much of the deregulation and austerity responsible for aggravating the horrific events of June 14th occurred under her predecessor David Cameron. Yet May’s response to the disaster at Grenfell Tower is the same as her true constituency: the wealthy banking and landlord class and their indifference to the plight of the urban poor.
While Jonathan Freedland correctly views these events as the result of decades of deregulation, the fundamental socioeconomic thinking behind that deregulation is a regurgitation of discredited ideas from the Victorian Era. During the 1970’s both neo-liberals and neo-conservatives “re-discovered” with virginal ecstasy the hierarchical and dysfunctional norms of the 19th century. There’s little difference between May’s Conservative Government’s contempt towards London’s urban population and the laissez faire attitudes of both local and central governments to the British public during the 1800’s.
While Freedland argues that the Grenfell Tower Fire should mark a point of no-return on those policies, if past precedent is anything to go by, an adequate response to these 21st century Victorians won’t originate amongst the ruling class. Nor will the catastrophe at Grenfell Tower alone – as horrific as it is- discredit the status quo thinking.
During the 1840’s with cholera rampant in Europe’s cities, Britain’s central government of landlords and industrialists did little for the urban poor. Westminster MPs were either indifferent to urban misery or philosophically opposed to the organising relief out of fear of trampling on local “self-government” and promoting “dependency”. The driving force for reform came from the middle classes and from local officials such as the Mayor of Liverpool – and only after cataclysmic events.
The 1848 Public Health Act (the first of many) owes its motivation to pressure from the Mayor of Liverpool who when faced with thousands of displaced Irish famine victims landing on the Merseyside was outraged by the lack of relief efforts from Westminster. The populations of Liverpool and Manchester became vocal proponents for reform. It’s no surprise that the Anti-Corn Law League and the Chartist Movements emerged at that time and in those cities.
The modern observer would do well to study that period in order to better fight for meaningful reform in the wake of the Grenfell Tower Fire. Over the coming months there will undoubtedly be noises from Westminster hinting a reforms, mostly out of Conservative efforts to shore up a weak minority government. In the aftermath of every disaster man-made or otherwise in Western cities, the same rhetoric and promises for reform are trotted out – and in most cases, the lessons of the tragedies that sparked demands for reform are quickly forgotten.
For reform to occur in Britain and elsewhere it is the urban populations who must lead the charge and in order to defeat the forces of reaction, they must do what their enemies have failed to do: learn from history.
Only then can the rotten architecture of corruption be dismantled and replaced with a more equitable social framework.
“Grenfell Tower will forever stand as a rebuke to the Right” Jonathan Freedland June 16th 2017 The Guardian
“Fire safety concerns raised by Grenfell Tower residents in 2012” by Robert Booth and Calla Wahlquist June 14th 2017 the Guardian
“Grenfell Tower blogger threatened with legal action by council after writing about safety concerns” by Rachel Roberts June 15th 2017 The Independent
The San Francisco Earthquake by Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan Witts
Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster by Mike Davis
City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles by Mike Davis
Reaction and Reform, 1815-41(Britain in Modern Times) by J.W Hunt
Mid-Victorian Britain 1851-1870 by Geoffrey Best