Fire at City Towers: Random Tragedy or Par for the Course? Part 1: The February Fire

On the evening of Tuesday, February 15th, residents in Building C of the City Towers housing development in West Oakland heard fire alarms going off. False alarms are so commonplace there that many people thought nothing of it and stayed where they were – until smoke started to creep through the gaps between hallways and unit doors. Unfortunately this time the threat was real: a sofa that had been left to sit for months on an external balcony had caught on fire, probably as a result of drug use, a known problem at the development. As flames tore through the entire 6th floor of the 12-story apartment building, people scrambled down the two dark metal stairwells, some of them elderly and disabled tenants on high-up floors. Several people were injured in the rush and everyone stood outside for hours before the doors opened again. The Red Cross gave a few people vouchers to spend a couple nights at a motel. Anyone else who called after that point was on their own to deal with the lingering smoke fumes and busted lights in stairs and elevators, with no follow-up or mention of compensation from the building manager.

The 6th floor of Building C after the fire on February 15th. All door and elevator access to this floor remain open as of the writing of this article (April 18th), with conditions in the hallway largely unchanged.

This was the story we heard over and over when we went to knock on doors in Building C two days later trying to figure out what had happened. However, even after enduring two nights of smokey air, broken elevators, and pitch black stairwells, most of the tenants we spoke with were not surprised in the least that all of this was happening. It didn’t take long to see that nearly everyone had grievances going back years, if not decades, with the poor building conditions and criminal neglect from a long chain of corrupt landlords. The fire continued to confirm what people already know: this is not a safe place to live.

Electrical fixture hanging from a still-connected wire in the stairwell doorway, two days after the fire.

Many tenants are justifiably afraid of retaliation at this development: most residents agree that keeping a roof over their head is better than living in the tent camps, and hostile notices to quit and restraining orders are regularly filed against tenants who speak up. At the same time, people are tired of ongoing abuse in and around their own homes, and the “correct” channels for submitting complaints yield next to nothing in the end. Our true hope for positive change lies in the power of the people. As we continue to work together and build relationships among City Towers residents, we share here some of the accounts and information we’ve gathered so far.

[To be continued]

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