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Patrons of assembly spaces have a reasonable expectation of safe and healthy indoor environments, the subject of planned efforts to ensure safety from officials ranging from politicians to building inspectors. These efforts include inspecting building fitness, management and safety governance. A key component of guaranteeing safe assembly spaces is policy enforcement, an area overlapping inspections and governance. In New York City impartial inspectors are a necessity, due to the potential for local bribery and extortion. Quid pro quo, or a favour granted in expectation of a favour returned, is a symptom of a corrupt process of governance and can negatively impact the legitimacy of building safety enforcement when that enforcement is influenced by politics or corrupt agents. Requirements for building occupant safety are vulnerable to election cycles and priorities tend to shift in the aftermath of specific motivating events. They are further complicated by omissions in, and overlapping of, responsibilities for enforcement. Fire safety in New York City has been of distinctive relevance because of the role the New York Fire Department played as a building inspector and due to the Knapp Commission outcomes in 1972. This article has two aims: to use case studies of New York City social club fires to identify limiting factors in improving buildings for occupants in the wake of motivating events and to contextualise these factors within the broader history of politics in New York City. Policies are tracked through governing administrations to shed light on how political decisions can contribute to catastrophes in places of assembly. The resulting analysis highlights a typical conflict between political pressures on mayors while in office and occupant safety in social club venues, as well as how confusing rules for the enforcement of safety regulations contribute to unsafe conditions for building occupants. Vulnerable communities were especially at risk in the cases examined; specifically, immigrant communities as they migrated to and settled in New York City, moving to older neighbourhoods and socialising in converted spaces. Key issues identified relate to venue operations in building conditions, occupant behaviour and regulation and enforcement. Failures on all three counts were identified in each of the cases examined in this article. However, due to its recurring cycle of failures and its overarching relationship to the other two factors, regulation and enforcement stands out as the most pressing issue for improving safety for occupants of social clubs and other assembly spaces.


Susan Brandt and Anne Marie Sowder. Contextualising tragedy in places of assembly through cases of New York City social club fires. Architecture_MPS. 2023. Vol. 24(1). DOI: 10.14324/111.444.amps.2023v24i1.004

This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Licence (CC BY) 4.0


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