An explosion blew the front off a tenement building on Second Avenue in the East Village yesterday, leading to a raging fire, which caused the complete collapse of two buildings, and devastated several others in the immediate area. Nineteen people are injured—several of them critically—and at least one person has been reported missing. The explosion and subsequent fire are believed to be caused by a gas leak, and the New York Times reports that Mayor “de Blasio said workers from the utility Consolidated Edison had been on the site about an hour before the explosion and had found the work being done there to be deficient. But he said there were no calls reporting gas leaks before the explosion.” A gas leak was also the cause of a building explosion which killed eight people in East Harlem in March of last year.
As news of the blast and seven-alarm fire spread, social media was flooded with horrific images of flames reaching upwards of 60-feet high; cars, which were blocks away from the blast site, covered in ash; and the burned-out shells of buildings barely standing on this once vibrant block. And, of course, there were also scenes of hope and humanity, like a video taken of people helping a young woman climb down a fire escape, just moments before the building was consumed by flames. There was little doubt that there was huge effort being made to help all those who could be helped, to rescue all those that could be saved.
Interspersed between the all the still and moving images of the destruction, though, were lamentations of a different sort, ones that centered around the long-standing businesses on this stretch of Second Avenue that now appeared to be gone for good, places like Pommes Frites, B&H Dairy, and Paul’s. (B&H and Paul’s appear to have been spared much damage; Pommes Frites might be closed permanently.) The tweeted wails came fast and furious, and were so often tone-deaf to the fact that more than just french fries were lost in this fire, that it was difficult not to be annoyed.
“We all know that they can take the recipe for Pommes Frites and open a new location, right? You can’t bring people back from the dead,” Meghan O’Keefe responded, and it was easy to understand her frustration.
And yet. Beyond the pretty obvious fact that human beings are fully capable of lamenting the loss of more than one thing at a time, and can simultaneously mourn for the injured and missing people, while also feeling dismay at the utter destruction of one of their favorite restaurants, there is something significantly different about feeling upset about the potential closing of B&H or Pommes Frites than there was about, say, despairing over the destruction of the Twin Towers without recognizing the accompanying loss of life. Simply put, the businesses that people were worried about losing yesterday were small businesses, many of which had been in the East Village for decades, and were as familiar—if not more—to people than their own homes. New York, after all, is a transient city of renters; there’s a reason people become attached to their local businesses—sometimes they feel more permanent than our own apartments.
In the last 20 years or so, the East Village has undergone one of the most complete transformations of any neighborhood in the entire city. What used to be a scruffy, affordable neighborhood, populated by small shops and family-run businesses, has seemingly become a combination of one huge NYU dorm and condos full of bankers. Storefronts that were once filled with, well, stores, are now home to banks; affordable restaurants have been replaced by ones that serve $25 appetizers. It seems like every week brings news of the demise of a long-standing favorite bar or cafe. None of this is news, of course. It’s become business as usual. But it does put into context why people would feel the potential loss of a place like Pommes Frites or Paul’s Burger Joint—which might be the only burger place in the city not to use a Pat La Frieda blend in its patties—so hard.
The loss of these places is not the equivalent of losing an office building or a Bank of America kiosk; the loss of these places is not like losing a Starbucks or a Dunkin’ Donuts. Losing these places, and losing century-old buildings that are now, more likely than not, going to be replaced with condos with a Whole Foods or something on the ground floor, means losing some of the East Village’s history. Of course our sympathies should be with the injured, with the missing people and their families, with the dozens of people who are suddenly homeless or jobless or both. But it is also ok to recognize that the death of this one city block isn’t just about the loss of a good french fry place, it is about losing a connection to the past, and worrying about the future the whole city is entering. And that is as justifiable a reason to mourn as any.
Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen