In the Aftermath of an Explosion
Sara Pepitone March 31, 2015, 3:25 p.m.
Last Thursday afternoon, carpenter Jeff Johnson was building benches for a restaurant near 121 Second Avenue when he heard an explosion.
“It sounded like a bomb. I ran around and it was blown out right into the fry place,” he said, referring to Pommes Frites at 123 Second Avenue. “People were coming out of the windows, bloody, like a war scene. We tried to bring out stools to help them. Then it was like the devil’s finger touched and—boom!” The former marine paused a moment, admitting it makes him emotional to recall the scene. “Now we understand it was a gas explosion. One police car and one fire truck showed up first. They immediately realized it was not enough.”
Two days later, Mr. Johnson was back to work, taking stock in the cold, gray morning. By then the buildings at 119, 121 and 123 Second Avenue were reduced to debris and two people were known to be missing still. (Over the weekend, the bodies of the two people reported missing—Nicholas Figueroa and what appears to be Moises Ismael Locon Yac—would be recovered.) Streets surrounding the northwest corner of Second Avenue and East 7th Street, where only rubble remains, were full of NYPD, NYFD, OEM, Department of Sanitation, ambulances, demolition and construction crews, Red Cross, Con Edison, news trucks, cameras of all shapes and sizes and face masks.
The faint aroma of 9/11—that indescribable odor that permeated nose to chest—was discernible depending on the wind. Older local residents reported Thursday night’s air was considerably more intense, without reaching the level it did in 2001. A masked police officer, who asked not to be identified, said the air was deemed “clean” but having “been around long enough” he was more comfortable this way. Plus, he added, “It’s a depressing smell.”
At East 6th Street in the middle of Second Avenue, a small crowd stood, taking pictures and sharing thoughts. Ahead, fireman appeared in the open windows of 125 Second Avenue, looking out and around.
“I’m so jumpy,” said Samantha Hirsch, recalling the sounds and nonstop activity of emergency workers and helicopters that were prevalent the previous days. She lives next to P.S. 63 at 122 East 3rd Street, where the Red Cross hosted a shelter Thursday night. Tompkins Square Library, at 331 East 10th Street, is the current site for residents who are displaced or have questions.
Ms. Hirsch and partner Clayton Schmidt were en route to Veselka at 144 Second Avenue at East 9th Street, navigating the partially closed streets. Second Avenue is closed to vehicles from East 14th to Houston Streets and along East 6th to East 8th Streets from First to Third Avenues. Second Avenue from East 6th Street to Saint Marks Place and East 7th Street from Taras Shevchenko Place to halfway between Second and First Avenues are closed to pedestrians, including residents of buildings nearest the collapses. Businesses in pedestrian-restricted areas are closed.
“We want to support local businesses,” said Ms. Hirsch. The couple planned to have dinner in the immediate neighborhood as well.
According to their Facebook pages, B&H Dairy at 127 Second Avenue reported the store is “O.K.” and Paul’s Da Burger Joint at 131 Second Avenue stated: “We will be closed until further notice…hoping the city will allow us to reopen in just a couple of days.” Ramen Misoya at 129 Second Avenue has not posted an update. None of the three restaurants that share the block with the incident could be reached for comment.
“For those looking to help us through the East Village fire/explosion, please buy gift certificates or become a patron,” reads the website of Jimmy’s No. 43 at 43 East 7th Street. All closed businesses will undoubtedly need support when they are allowed, and able, to reopen. Moishe’s Bake Shop at 115 Second Avenue at East 7th Street could not be reached for comment.
Just a few doors down, however, the news is good. “We sold out of pretty much everything last night,” said Angela Powers, store manager at Mighty Quinn’s Barbeque at 103 Second Avenue at the corner of East 6th Street on Saturday. The restaurant closed from Thursday afternoon until 4 p.m. Friday. “I did think we’d see a decline [in business] but we’ve seen a lot of support from locals, and the fire department.”
An employee at mainstay Porto Rico Importing Co. at 40 Saint Marks Place, just east of Second Avenue, told customers—a local in black leather and tattoos and another in smartly cinched-up sweats—that Friday was busy with gawkers. She declined further comment. There was a more conservative line of about 10 outside trendy Abraço located at 86 East 7th Street near First Avenue. Food and beverage establishments that could open did not report much alteration in business. Many declined to comment.
Neighborhood support is taking place in the reverse as well. Frank Prisinzano, an East Village business owner for 17 years, is offering a free meal to any resident of an affected building at Frank (88 Second Avenue), Lil Frankie’s (19 First Avenue) and Supper Restaurant (156 East Second Street). Call in advance or bring something that proves residence. “We are horrified by this tragedy and deeply concerned for all involved,” said Mr. Prisinzano, who also sent food to people staying at the Tompkins Square Library and The Standard Hotel located at 25 Cooper Square at East 5th Street, which offered rooms to the displaced (though that offer has now ended).
Businesses like hairdressers and retail shops are not faring as well as those in hospitality. “I’m sorry for people,” said Jasna Juricek, proprietor of Jasna Hair Studio at 76 East 7th Street between First and Second Avenues, shaking her head in sadness for everyone directly impacted. In her salon a client was mid-blow-dry when the first explosion happened. “I’m not really chicken but it was terrible, like an earthquake.” She consoled her staff and clients but, she said, after the second blast, that was it. “It was really bad. Quickly there was smoke all down the street. Police told people to close. Now people don’t want to go to an area where something happened.”
Ms. Juricek opened the shop Friday but about half the appointments canceled, a scenario already repeating itself by 11 a.m. on Saturday. “Everyone has the same problem,” she said of neighboring businesses. Hers has only been open for four months. “I think this is going to be for a long time. It’s not easy.
Across Second Avenue along Saint Marks Place, the scene was unusual. The block was empty but for camera-wielders peering into a rectangular hole containing a couple of Con Edison workers at the southwest corner. “It’s bad. It’s terrible,” said employees of a souvenir shop who did not wished to be named. “There’s no business at all. Only pictures.”
James Famularo, a senior director at Eastern Consolidated, who has been in the East Village for 15 years representing more than 30 properties, offers some hope. “It will be very difficult for the next few weeks but everyone will support the area once the barricades are gone.”
Mr. Famularo is currently offering 800 square feet at 24 Saint Marks Place. “I don’t think this will have a long-term negative affect on the East Village; anything like this that happens in New York City seems to pull people closer together.” He said the area ranks in the middle of Manhattan retail values, estimating restaurant spaces at $125 to $150 per square foot.
Across the street, 6,650 square feet at 37 Saint Marks Place, a.k.a. 133 Second Avenue, is also available, represented by three Winick Realty Group brokers including Lee Block, who agrees with Mr. Famularo that while the event itself was tragic, it will not have long- or even short-term effect on leasing or real estate overall.
“This is a dense, highly populated neighborhood that will still need services,” said Mr. Block. “New places are popping up every day. I don’t see that changing. New Yorkers are resilient. A week from now, hopefully, the streets will be open and people will go back to normal.”
That sentiment is shared by everyone who Commercial Observer encountered, including some of the most significantly impacted. For them there will be a new normal. A resident of 41 East 7th Street took in stride the information that, though he was allowed into his home on Thursday, a new procedure required OEM escort, following registration at Tompkins Square Library. A policeman at the barricade on Taras Shevchenko Place and East 7th Street told him he’d likely be allowed in for about 10 minutes only. “My apartment is trashed but I want to try to get some stuff,” the resident said, not wanting a longer conversation.
The policeman and the few onlookers were sympathetic. The resident took a breath and accepted. As he turned away the door of McSorley’s opened at 15 East 7th Street, letting a man out and a couple in, while two tourists posed for a photo in front. Early afternoon Saturday—and normal was already having its way.