Echoes of Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables in NY

Seventeen people were killed by the smoke they inhaled from a fire that broke out in an apartment building where they lived in the Bronx, NY. It was the deadliest fire in New York in 30 years.

Accidents do happen. This is not something enigmatic. Mistakes are made. An employee may not have done his job properly, neglecting to fix the door. The heater may have been defective too. These are things that cannot not be justified, but they are understandable.

However, for me, the problem in this case runs deeper than errors and accidents. And I will explain.

In New York, people fall into roughly three economic categories: one is the rich; the second is the middle class, those who live in the various boroughs, like Queens and Brooklyn, or in the suburbs; and the third is the poor.

The last category includes the so-called working poor, people who, although they are often employed, do not earn enough to live on and basically rely on the state for food and housing. Also in this category are people who often have psychological problems or are substance abusers. They are at the bottom of the social pyramid, barely surviving human beings. They are ‘Les Miserables’ – the ‘wretched’ Victor Hugo wrote about.

These people are at the mercy of fate. But the state is not completely indifferent to their fate. It offers them the basics, such as welfare – a monthly amount for food and subsidized or free housing. But waste and corruption are such that these people live in conditions unacceptable for humans.

The buildings in which they live belong to large real estate companies, some of which are unconcerned with their situation. They often do not have heat or water. Crime, drugs, filth, and stench are everywhere.

We are talking about the so-called slumlords, the owners of buildings where horrific, tragic conditions prevail. How is this allowed? They have close relations with politicians who ensure that conditions are ignored. Do the tenants themselves have a responsibility? Of course they do. But the companies that are paid for the services that are provided offer the bare minimum, and also bear a great responsibility.

This unconscionable and criminal treatment of the poor is not something new. It is therefore not just about the terms of office of given governors or mayors. It is timeless. And while we sometimes read that a property owner was arrested for the miserable conditions in his/her buildings, most become rich without the slightest inconvenience.

It is a matter of human greed. And the political system relies on campaigns being financed by the contributions of individual citizens. And for politicians to continue to enjoy their support, they offer various favors.

Something similar happens at the national level when a member of the House of Representatives or Senate, and even more so, a candidate for the presidency of the country has to raise huge sums in order to be able to pursue the position he/she is aiming for with some possibility of being elected.

It is a shame and at the same time a crime for the system to close its eyes and ears to the misery in which hundreds of thousands of people live in America.


My name is Charles Robbins, the chief correspondent of the Chicago Daily Tribune in Constantinople.

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