National Elevator And Escalator Safety Awareness Week seems to sneak up on us every year. We might’ve missed it entirely, if not for a much-appreciated reminder from the New York City Department of Buildings that landed in our inboxes last week. The email was straightforward in its safety advice — do not attempt to exit stuck elevators; avoid jumping — while also lyrical in a way that city agency press releases are typically not.

“With more than 70,000 passenger elevators and over 2,800 escalators in DOB's jurisdiction, most New Yorkers are accustomed to the gentle hum and vertical pull that accompanies their regular use throughout our vertical city.”

Indeed, we’ve been lulled to sleep by the gentle hum, whisked away to our offices or tenth story apartments without ever stopping to think about how we got here. Hence: National Elevator and Escalator Awareness Week. While our observance comes a few days late, it's never a bad time to examine the relationship between this crucial machinery and our elevated metropolis.

New York City Would Be A Different Place Without Them

It's almost too obvious, but prior to the elevator’s arrival in New York, buildings were all but limited to five or six stories. Skyscrapers didn’t exist. Slender luxury condos bursting with leaks and whistling shafts weren’t yet a glint in a developer’s eye.

“The city’s design was facilitated by elevators,” Department of Building Commissioner Melanie La Rocca tells us by phone. “You wouldn’t have the vertical nature of this city without elevators to transport people.”

In addition to allowing the city to expand upwards, the elevator also transformed the way we think about vertical space. For most of our history, higher floors were reserved for the poor, while the wealthy sought to live closer to the ground. That didn’t start to change until the early 20th century, as more New Yorkers became comfortable with elevators.

The term penthouse emerged in the 1920s, along with the famed Ritz Tower on 465 Park Avenue, a building that “effected a new attitude toward an aerial city and an aerial home,” according to Andreas Bernard’s Lifted: A Cultural History of the Elevator.

New York City As Birthplace of the Modern Elevator

While hoisting devices date back to ancient Rome, New York City is the true home of the elevator. Most crucially, the invention of a safety break by Elisha Otis paved the way for the first ever passenger elevator, installed in a SoHo department store at the corner of Broadway and Broome Street in 1857.

The opening two years later of a steam-powered elevator at the Fifth Avenue Hotel led to a lengthy New York Times write-up on the raging “steam versus staircase” debate, and whether the elevator might ever actually help the common man.

“Is not the necessity of traveling up stairs the chief physical discomfort of the strong, and the daily misfortune of the weak?” the paper asked. “What a really good thing to do for Young America, to recline upon a sofa after dinner, pull a string; and find itself five or six stories higher up, in an ample library or smoking-room,”

While resoundingly pro-elevator, the author took issue with the new technology’s name, which he found “unpoetical” and overly commercial. Their proposal: "the movable room."

The Otis Electric Elevator from 1890

The Otis Electric Elevator from 1890

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The Otis Electric Elevator from 1890
Historia/Shutterstock

Elevators Are Pretty Safe Now. They Weren’t Always.

For much of the early 19th century, transport between floors relied on a system of hemp ropes, prone to fraying and with few failsafes in place (See this lurid Albany Register obituary: “The first intimation those below had of it was seeing blood trickling from the elevator.”)

Conditions improved with the Otis safety brake, and again with the first elevator codes in the 1920s, which governed switches, door locking mechanisms, and speed.

“The codebooks today are hundreds and hundreds of pages,” said Bobby Schaeffer, who’s worked in the elevator repair industry for four decades. “The industry itself is very, very focused on trying to keep the riding public safe as well as the employees,”

According to the Department of Buildings, there have been 38 elevator and escalator injuries in 2021, down from 104 injuries during calendar year 2016.

Still, the city’s oldest elevators — including the handful of operator-driven elevators clustered around Park Avenue — may be due for some safety upgrades. “There's equipment out there that's basically grandfathered in that operates as it was designed, and some of those designs from the 1940s and 1950s need to be updated to a more safety conscious mode,” Schaeffer said.

If You Find Yourself Stuck In An Elevator: Stay Calm And Stay Still

The most important safety tip, according to both Schaeffer and La Rocca, is to avoid trying to extricate yourself from a stuck elevator. “Usually when people get hurt it’s when they’re trying to pry doors open and get themselves out,” said Schaeffer. “Once the elevator is locked in place and on safety, it really can’t go anywhere.”

Here are a few more safety tips, courtesy of the Department of Buildings:

  • Be patient and don’t crowd an elevator, too many people crowding into an elevator can cause it to get stuck.
  • Never lean on elevator doors.
  • Look down and make sure the elevator is level with the floor before entering or exiting.
  • To hold the door open for a fellow passenger hoping to catch a ride, press and hold the designated door open button instead of using a body part to physically hold the door.
  • Keep clothing items like ties and scarves clear of closing elevator doors.
  • Avoid jumping, it can make an elevator uneven with the floor and cause it to get stuck.

Happy National Elevator And Escalator Safety Awareness Week (which is the second full week of November, so mark your calendars)!