Recently, I wrote about the Grenfell Tower disaster in London, noting that the unusual severity of the fire, and its unusually high death toll, was a function of Europe’s second-rate fire safety culture — and that something similar would simply not happen in the U.S. At the time, I brought up a 2014 high-rise fire in New York as a perfect counterexample; that is, an example of a high-rise fire done right, with minimal casualties and destruction.
Today, I take notice of a recent high-rise condo fire in Honolulu which illustrates the point yet again. The funny thing is that the American press does not regard this Hawai’i incident as a particular mark of success. Three people died, several were injured, and a fair bit of damage was done to a number of condo units. I pause for my usual statement: May God have mercy on the souls of the dead, bring healing to the injured and comfort to the bereaved.
The building which burned in Hawai’i was an older building which lacked a sprinkler system; sprinklers were not required at the time the building was built and Honolulu has no law requiring retrofits. Had sprinklers been installed, the toll would have almost certainly been lower — and this is the point that all observers are stressing, disappointed with the fatal outcome in this case. Still, compared with a death toll of nearly 100 and the total loss of an entire high rise structure (the outcome in London), the recent outcome in Hawai’i is a smashing success.
In the early hours of June 14, 2017, a high-rise residential building in London caught fire. As of the most recent update (June 19th, 2017), at least 79 people are dead, or missing and presumed dead, in the ensuing towering inferno — with the number expected to rise further. I pause for my usual statement: May God have mercy on the souls of the dead, bring healing to the injured and comfort to the bereaved.
I was quite struck by the dramatic way in which this fire unfolded. By all accounts, what started as a small fire in a low floor of the building (some reports put it down to an electrical fire in a faulty refrigerator) spread rapidly and powerfully throughout the entire structure, putting the residents of all 120 apartments in mortal danger. This sequence of events floored me. Surely, in [Present Year], high-rise high-density structures are not supposed to go up like roman candles. But this apartment tower in London did just that. I mean, Londoners sure like their towers, and they sure like their great fires — but not like this.
This is a painful example of a point I have emphasized for years: While the soft-headed liberal left loves to venerate all things European as inherently superior to all things American, the hard truth is that very commonly Europe gets things dead wrong. By which I mean, Europe on many key measures often performs far worse than the U.S. It is good to remind ourselves of this from time to time.
To make this point crystal clear, let us put this high-rise fire in London side-by-side with a similar recent incident in New York.
Here is a picture of the London tower with the overnight fire at its peak intensity:
First, to my American readers: Happy Thanksgiving. It is my hope that each of you has a good time with family and friends over the holiday. Try to avoid being killed or injured on Black Friday — I recommend staying away from shopping malls over the entire fall/winter season.
I hit a slow patch at work recently, so I let my well-known bad online habits run wild for an afternoon. Last time I did that, I dwelt upon the murder, mayhem and real estate situation in Baltimore. This time I chose St. Louis, mainly because my brother lived there for a long time and — speaking of spending time with family — I have very fond memories of visiting him in that city. It is truly a lovely place.
And I have a bonus: Last time, when discussing Baltimore and the patterns I uncovered in that city, I said that “untangling the arrows of causation will have to await another post.” Well, I’ve finally figured it out: My working hypothesis, which will be tested as we explore St. Louis, is that some areas are mysteriously afflicted with Tragic Dirt. That is, certain neighborhoods are cursed with some evil feature of the geology or soil or local flora or fauna which compels the local inhabitants to kill each other with alarming frequency and suffer from below-average educational and health outcomes, even while luckier residents of similar, adjacent neighborhoods avoid such a fate by being blessed with Magic Dirt. Unfortunately, there is no known scientific test which allows one to detect Tragic Dirt directly, so you have to infer its presence entirely from its deleterious social effects.
So, without further ado, I start with my usual snuff-film antics: I found a homicide map maintained by the local newspaper, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and pinpointed which neighborhoods in the St. Louis metro area showed symptoms of Tragic Dirt. Here’s what I found:
There is a certain type of thinker on the Rabid Right. You know, the kind of person who never misses an opportunity to blame the Democrats for their follies in the most vitriolic of terms. And who also never misses an opportunity to blame the Democrats for the things they haven’t, strictly speaking, done. Yet upon further investigation you find this enthusiasm for deriding the Democratic party — for social ills beyond its proximate control — is actually a form of politesse. You see, it is far more acceptable in polite society to blame a party headed up by aging White folks than it is to cut out the middleman and blame any actual miscreants of color.
The faces of the Democratic Party
I am thinking of something specific here. Public figures who identify as right-wing are frequently quick to point out that cities run by Democrats suffer from uncommonly high levels of… take your pick… income inequality, crime, civil disorder, municipal bankruptcy and doubtless many other ills. Very frequently, the talking head will find a ranked list of cities and observe that most of the ones on the bad end — of whatever metric — tend to be run by Democratic politicians, while on the good end many municipalities tend to be run by independents or Republicans.
Everyone has bad habits. This includes bad online habits. Whether it’s reading the headlines, checking stock quotes, following sports, betting on fantasy football, catching up on celebrity gossip, watching cat videos, or porn, everyone with an internet connection wastes time that could otherwise go to paying bills, reading great works of literature, doing one’s job, or porn.
So I’ll let you in on a little secret: My internet bad habits have a dark streak. They include a daily check on the murder and mayhem statistics of various American cities. It’s morbidly fascinating. The Baltimore Sun does an excellent job of mapping all homicides which have taken place in that once-great city since 2007 and, for more recent periods, all shootings across the state of Maryland. For Chicago, there is good data on homicides as well as nonfatal shootings in a more statistical and tabular format, but still very readable. This stuff is endlessly fascinating.
I withdraw today, a bit, from the endless flow of current events. Diverting as they are, my interest is tempered by my knowledge of the iron law of newspaper journalism: There will always be 126 column inches on a page, and there will always be printed as many pages as are needed to run all the ads sold for that day, even as the quality and importance of the journalistic material available to fill said pages varies. Corollary: Headlines vary in true importance from day to day, and not strictly in proportion to the size of their typeface; or, newspaper editors are fundamentally in the business of selling cars, furniture, TVs and clothes — only incidentally are they in the business of enlightenment, so don’t rely on them for it.
So I take the opportunity to reflect on some timeless, nearly religious topics that are close to my heart: the left’s endless faith in the inherent power of objects, and housing policy. Trust me, there is a connection.