Massachusetts Daily Collegian

East Village explosion painful, revealing

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(Stacie Joy)

(Stacie Joy)

As a New Yorker and native of Greenwich Village, this week was hard to swallow.

On Thursday, three old tenement buildings on 2nd Avenue and 7th Street burned to the ground. It all began in the Sushi Park restaurant with a gas explosion. The fire engulfed the entire building of the restaurant – located at 121 Second Avenue – and destroyed the two neighboring buildings, 119 and 123 Second Avenue. So far, 22 people have been injured, four are firefighters, and rescuers pulled two bodies from the debris Sunday.

I grew up on 3rd Avenue and 10th Street, two blocks north and one block west of the explosion. I can’t tell you how many times I walked those blocks and down those streets, spending time in the businesses and shops that have now been laid to rest.

For those who are unfamiliar with this area, allow me to provide a sketch of the neighborhood. It’s a tight-knit community where the residents look after each other. A couple of years ago, an elderly woman was walking out of Commodities, the neighborhood health food store, and dropped her bags. She was struggling to pick up her most recent purchases. At the time, I was not in a generous mood and managed to turn a blind eye to her struggles. Shortly thereafter, a fellow pedestrian, another veteran of the neighborhood, proceeded to yell at me, saying, “You’re not going to help?” I quickly stopped myself in my tracks and proceeded to help out. The elderly women thanked me while the veteran pedestrian gave a grin.

I was called out for my negligence. If you grow up in the East Village and you appear selfish, you will be reminded to give others a helping hand.

Many on Thursday needed this helping hand. A worker at the restaurant, covered in ash and smoke and clearly in pain, shouted “help me” as he made his way out of the burning building.

Among the destruction are three small businesses, key elements to the vibrancy of lower Manhattan.

Sushi Park always prided itself on authentic Japanese cuisine, along with half-priced specials. The place was known for its kind and compassionate staff, who always displayed courtesy and gratitude towards customers.

One of the other shops was Sam’s Deli, a bodega owned by an Indian family where sandwiches, coffee and cigarettes were purchased on a frequent basis. It was the kind of place that used to be commonplace in a neighborhood that has now become populated by up-scale yogurt shops, banks and nail salons. Sam’s, as it was commonly referred too, didn’t cater to Brooklyn hipsters interested in treating themselves to a five-dollar latte. It prided itself on serving the neighborhood with cheap on-the-go coffee that customers poured themselves.

Another staple of the block minus the longevity of Sam’s was Pommes Frites, a swank Belgian french-fry restaurant that reinvented how good fried food can taste. Opened in 1997 by women from the Bronx, Pommes was a regular stop for high school and NYU students alike. Its hardwood interior gave the place a homely atmosphere. All the tables had pre-constructed holes so the cone-shaped paper that held one’s late afternoon snack had a place to stand as napkins were used to wipe the excess grease and ketchup off of fingers and faces.

The 500 square foot space was small and compact with a regular overflow of customers forming clusters on the sidewalks on hot summer nights in August, chomping at the bit to get the frites they had been waiting for after a long day. And in the afternoon, mothers and babysitters could be seen pushing strollers through the door. Although it seems like eons ago, I remember being pushed in a stroller by my mother. Pommes Frites was always a treat – my mother feared that such occasions would turn into a regular habit. The addiction was hard to fend off.

The outpouring of support and help after the explosion is a testament to the strength of the neighborhood. Over 250 firefighters were on the scene along with countless police officers and other city officials. Before first responders arrived, pedestrians could be seen running into the building and up fire escapes to help those in harm’s way. Even Moishe, the owner of Moishe’s Kosher Bake Shop across the street from the site of the explosion, handed out fresh baked goods to the firefighters as they carefully calculated their next move from across the street.

But amidst all of this lies a much larger problem that has yet to be dealt with. The three buildings that collapsed were all over 100 years old. This is not to say that old neighborhoods should see a flood of brand new buildings, but upkeep is needed in old tenement buildings to ensure the basic safety of the tenants and the neighborhood.

Landlords need to be held accountable for the safety of their buildings. If they aren’t, more people will die. Parts of these buildings were under construction at the time of this disaster and it’s unclear whether the landlords of these buildings employed certified union workers on these jobs. Early reports suggest that with the gas shut off in one of the buildings, the landlord illegally ran a gas line from her neighboring building, a clear violation of safety protocols.

All of these businesses were family-owned and gave the neighborhood character. What is now wreckage were once shops and homes that represented a pocket of many neighborhoods interdependence. As a Manhattan native raised to take advantage of the city’s cultural diversity, it will be hard to return to a neighborhood where such shops are no longer open for business, shops that once defined New York living.

Isaac Simon is a Collegian columnist and can be reached [email protected]

1 Comment

One Response to “East Village explosion painful, revealing”

  1. Ed on April 5th, 2015 12:50 am

    “Certified Union Workers” make mistakes too — a couple of years ago, BayState Gas employees (who are union) punched a hole through a high pressure gas line and literally blew a 3-story brick building off the face of the earth. This was down in Springfield — it was a strip club which had been evacuated due to odor of gas (from a different leak) and there is some impressive video of the explosion on the internet — google should find it. The only reason the gas guys lived was that they were able to get behind their truck before the explosion and the heavy truck — badly demolished — protected them from a certain death.
    .
    And I mean “off the face of the earth” — a big hole in the ground and debris found blocks away.
    .
    My point: It doesn’t matter if you are in the union or not — it matters if you are licensed and have some idea what you are doing. Don’t confuse safety with union workers — union guys do stupid things too.

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