Brooklyn Is Burning

It was a fire seen all over the metropolis, a dark, spreading plume visible even down at City Hall, should the mayor have looked out his window on the bright spring morning of May 2.

Once upon another kind of New York time, the East River waterfront occupied by the Greenpoint Terminal Market was a shipyard. The U.S.S. Monitor, the doughty little ironclad that fought to save the Union against the Merrimack, was built there. Circa 1890, the American Manufacturing Company, then the world’s leading maker of rope, built its factory on the site. In 1913, the company had more than 2,000 workers and was the second-largest employer in Brooklyn.

More recently, the sprawling fourteen-acre complex of seventeen buildings fell into postindustrial disuse, only to be retrofitted into one last bit of Big City functionality: Along with the rats and toxic mold, the terminal became a sub-rosa Art Land for squatters and punks. People with metal objects shoved through their skin moshed the night away to bands with the word death in their names. Skateboarders gleamed giant cubes through the rusting fun house, then thrashed the “sky bridges” over West Street. It was just so Blade Runner.

Now it was all going up in smoke. It would take ten alarms, 80 pieces of FDNY apparatus, and 400 firefighters 36 hours to bring the blaze under control. It was the city’s biggest single fire in more than a decade, the most extensive department operation since 9/11. When it was over, everyone—firemen, cops, Billyburg photo bloggers, and remaining old-line neighborhood residents alike—agreed on one thing: That was no accident.

No way it could have been anything else. Not right here in the middle of the biggest land rush to hit the fabled County of Kings since Barbra Streisand and Bobby Fischer moved to their own separate beats along the same buffed Erasmus hallways, not when piss-yellow Tyvek towers seem to sprout from every lot along the BQE. And is it any news flash that fire, elemental to the natural cycle of things in the primordial forest, is an equally eternal part of the New York real-estate business? That in the grand symphony of the city, the jackhammer and the siren play an indivisible duet?

The Terminal Market was probably the ¬second-largest single property on the erstwhile low-slung, bum-infested Greenpoint-Williamsburg waterfront, which had in 2005 been rezoned by the Bloomberg government for “density.” “Density” meant the owner, one Joshua Guttman of Lawrence, Long Island, who bought the tottering complex in 2001 for a paltry $25 million, was free to become really, really rich. Indeed, Guttman, who had once commissioned plans for building 2.6 million feet of luxury high-rises on the site, had recently struck a deal to sell the property for $420 million. (Down from the $481 million he asked on Craigslist, a number that no doubt stood out from the usual massage-parlor come-ons.)

But wait! An unexpected fly in this opulent ointment appeared in the form of the preservationist Municipal Art Society, which strongly recommended that the terminal be landmarked as part of New York’s rapidly dwindling industrial heritage. For a developer like Guttman, landmarking is akin to a mirror in the sight of Count Dracula, since changes (which would include bulldozing an old factory and replacing it with a 35-story luxury condo) to a structure so designated would be subject to approval by committees of flinty-eyed, blue-haired lady do-gooders. Guttman’s $420 million deal fell through. It was shortly after that that smoke began to fill the sky over the East River. (There is no evidence that Guttman is in any way involved. “Mr. Guttman has never been charged with any arson-related crimes,” his lawyer, Israel Goldberg, said to the Times.) And, as one heartbroken would-be preservationist from the Municipal Art Society said, “that was pretty much that, because you don’t landmark a hole in the ground.”

The fact is we’re in a burning season. Uniformed Firefighters Association stats say the 2006 “fire season”—the winter months when items like electric blankets and space heaters are in operation—saw an increase in “greater” blazes (of two alarms or more) of 50 percent over the record year 2005.

The market blaze was only one of the many, many “suspicious” fires to hit the Brooklyn development zones of late. Within three months, from December 7, 2005, to February 24, 2006, there were eleven such fires along Prospect Heights’ “Pacific Street Corridor,” formerly home to single-story factories and flat-fix establishments but now part of the realty zone sandwiched between the escalating rent sprawl of Williamsburg and Fort Greene and the proposed Atlantic Yards megaproject to the West.

Location, location, location. The proximity of the afflicted Prospect Heights addresses raises eyebrows: 1033 Pacific, 1084 Pacific, 1198 Pacific, 1440 Pacific. Other fires were around the corner, at 530 and 600 St. Marks Avenue. Two more occurred at 461 and 658 Park Place, with another at nearby 683 Dean Street.

In the worst of these, the three-alarm arson fire at 1033 Pacific, a dowdy four-story apartment that had been sold and resold several times prior to the blaze (the deed shifting from 1033 Pacific Partner LLC to the 1033 Pacific Partners LLC), four people died. These included Assita Coulibaly, a 36-year-old immigrant from Burkina Faso, and two of her small children. Also dead was 24-year-old Sherrie Williams, who jumped from the fourth-story window. She landed on the concrete stairwell; another jumping tenant, Kassoum Fofana, fell on top of her, possibly saving his life. Months later, the building remained burned out, Williams’s name handwritten on the still-extant row of buzzers.

This was part of a larger pattern. According to FDNY stats, 2005 was the single busiest year in Fire Department history, with a total of 485,702 calls answered. This beat out the former record of 459,567 calls, set back in 1977.

You remember 1977, right?

That was when Howard Cosell, in pre-hip-hop cadences not unlike those employed by Raymond Burr describing Godzilla’s death march through Tokyo, interrupted the play-by-play of the World Series to declare, “The Bronx is burning.”

Those were the Fear City days, when Fort Apache’s territory was populated by miscreants like Joe Bald, who ran “a fire for hire” service that collected millions in insurance booty for landlords desperate to cash out of dying neighborhoods, and legendary pyro “Gasoline Gomez.” Accused of torching hundreds of buildings throughout Morrisania, Gomez is said to have loved to taunt firefighters with his “signature” blazes. One afternoon, he apparently lit a cigarette too close to his gas can, blowing himself out a third-story window. He survived, after which, according to one story, he was actually acquitted of arson.

“It was like the Khmer Rouge had come to town,” remembers one resident of Fox Street, marching ground of gangs like the Savage Skulls. “I was maybe 8, and this guy was in the lobby of my building with a can of kerosene. I pleaded with him not to torch the place because my parents were upstairs. ‘Okay, kid,’ the guy smiled, patted me on the head, and left. He went across the street and set that building on fire.”

That was the bankrupted nadir of then—the Abe Beame days of “white flight,” disco, and junkies running down the fire escape with your tinfoiled-rabbit-ear TV set. It was a time when arson, the ass-end of the real-estate cycle, seemed the fitting last flare of a fallen municipality.

But this is not then; this is the total fabulousness of now—29 years past Cosell’s comment, after Rudy’s Wyatt Earp–on–42nd Street act, far into the supposed Bloomberg boom. A town as haute as ours is not supposed to be on fire.

Paranoia—accompanied by myriad conspiracy theories—is striking deep in what is now routinely called “the Brooklyn burndown zone.” You hear assertions that the fix is in, that the city and developers have entered into some unholy, unspoken Katrina-esque bargain to clear out those in the way of ever-higher rises and rents. Such thinking was only encouraged by the strange aftermath of the Greenpoint market fire. With many an accusing middle finger thrust at owner Guttman (whose suddenly worth-a-fortune artist-loft properties in Dumbo burned down suspiciously in 2004), the authorities declared they had their man, i.e., one Leszek Kuczera, a 59-year-old homeless alcoholic known in the bars of still-Polish Greenpoint. Cops reported Kuczera had confessed to setting the fire while burning the insulation off copper wire he had hoped to sell for $1.25 a pound—a scavenging practice known as “mungo.”

Amid much guffawing that he’d been fitted for a classic fall guy—one former fire marshal said, “If that’s a mungo fire, its the biggest mungo fire in history”—Kuczera soon unconfessed. According to Sam Getz, Kuczera’s Legal Aid lawyer, his client, who speaks very little English, was “hung over” when questioned and his “confession” was nothing more than a jumbled memory of a different fire that had occurred the year before. Plus Kuczera had an alibi. Zbigniew Sarna, a contractor living in Pond Eddy, a small upstate town, near Monticello, swears Kuczera was working for him the morning of the fire.

This is how it works now, with so much money hungriness,” says June Davis, an “over 40” child-care worker originally from Port-of-Spain, Trinidad. Davis had followed the Greenpoint fire story in the paper but didn’t think all that much about it. She had fire problems of her own. On March 28, a suspicious fire in her building at 1299 Eastern Parkway burned her out of the one-bedroom apartment she’d lived in for eleven years, most recently with her daughter and grandchild.

The three-alarm blaze that required the services of 138 firefighters and rousted some 30 families started near the roof.

“I heard someone saying, ‘Fire … fire,’ ” Davis remembers. “It wasn’t loud, just a low, sad cry. Then there was crashing, glass shattering. I ran, took nothing, just ran out.”

That was the beginning of what Davis calls “my displacement,” a journey that currently has her living in the Amboy Street Shelter, a bleak series of low brick buildings in Brownsville where the Department of Housing Preservation and Development has long relocated people uprooted by fire.

“Amboy Street is famous, like the Rikers Island of fire,” says one current resident, still dripping wet in the 100-degree heat after an afternoon dip in the pool at nearby Betsy Head park. “I was living near Bushwick. I knew the landlord wanted the people out. The rents were too low. One day, this guy comes by. ‘Can you fix my ceiling?’ I asked. He told me to shut up or I’d find myself living on Amboy Street. I didn’t know what he meant, but after the building burned, I found out.”

Paranoia—accompanied by myriad conspiracy theories—is striking deep into the heart of what is now routinely known as the “Brooklyn burndown zone.”

Watching Jeopardy! in the kitchen of her modest fourth-floor walk-up at 199 Amboy, Davis continues to pay the $1 a month that the city says will guarantee she can return to 1299 Eastern Parkway when the building is repaired. But she is “not that optimistic.” After the fire, when she went back to retrieve her possessions, a man claiming to be the super extorted $70 from her just to let her in the door. Inside, she found all her jewelry had been stolen. “They even took the bottles of rum I brought back from Trinidad.

“I am not a child,” says Davis. “I go to work every day. I am a responsible citizen, not a drug addict or someone who was evicted. I always paid my rent … Fire is sinister. It spreads inside your mind. It haunts you. The stress I feel now is like that.

“Neighborhoods like mine are changing. The landlords want to attract the tourists, people from Manhattan or wherever. Even if I get back into my apartment, chances are the rent will be much higher. It is the same in Harlem, Bed-Stuy. I am not saying anyone did anything. All I know is my home is gone, and now I am here, like a refugee. Because that is what this place is, a refugee camp right here in New York City.”

Bill Batson has strong views on what’s behind Brooklyn’s fire epidemic. “You can’t compare the Brooklyn burnout of 2006 with what happened in the South Bronx,” he says. “But it is just as insidious because it shows how the city has abdicated public authority to private real-estate interests. This is the politics of overdevelopment in the Bloomberg era.”

Batson first came to Prospect Heights as a Pratt painting major in 1979, and recently could be found in neighborhood hangouts like Tom’s Restaurant on Washington Avenue campaigning for the State Assembly in the 57th district on what he calls “the anti-Disneyfication-of-Brooklyn-through-arson platform.” (Batson lost the primary.) A mixed-race bohemian presence amid the ethnic imperative of Kings County politics (childhood memories include being bitten by blind jazzman Al Hibbler’s seeing-eye dog), Batson, like most “fire activists,” became radicalized in 2003 when the Bloomberg administration closed six firehouses, four of them in Brooklyn. The closings met with a near-universal outcry, including a monthlong 24/7 sit-in at Engine Company 212 in Williamsburg.

As signaled by the whiff of festering feta cheese over grid-blown Astoria, runaway development without the requisite expansion of infrastructure and services is a coming issue for anti-Bloombergians like Prospect Heights City Council member Letitia James, who says, “If you’d told me I’d miss Giuliani, I would have said you were crazy.” When the lack of adequate resources includes fire protection, this becomes “mad-scientist city planning,” says James. “A recipe for disaster.”

With things as they are, the fire committee of Community Board 8, responsible for Prospect Heights, stands ever vigilant. It’s co-chaired by Batson and the five-foot-tall demon letter writer Holly Fuchs Ferguson, a secretary of the Society of Old Brooklynites (SOB), and bolstered by 100 percent engaged, 100 percent enraged old-school activists like Connie Lesold, Josefina Sanfeliú of Latinas Against Fire Cuts, and 72-year-old Doris Heriveaux, who in 2004 was burned out of her apartment of 22 years by an arson at 852 Classon Avenue.

No one was arrested in the fire at 852 Classon, but Heriveaux says that doesn’t matter. “Everyone had to move out. The building needed to be renovated. The idea was, you had to leave.” But Heriveaux did not want to move. “I raised my children in that apartment. It was home.” She took the landlord to court and managed to win the right to move back into the building at the same $800 rent. It took almost two years, but it was worth it, says Heriveaux, since all the new tenants are paying over $2,000 a month more for similar apartments.

This is fairly typical in torched buildings, say Community Board 8 fire-committee members. “The buildings burn down, and the rent goes up,” says Lesold. Many of the fire committee’s meetings concern seemingly prosaic FDNY operational issues like “response time”—the duration between when a company gets a call and the time it arrives on the scene.

No issue, however, raises the ire of activists like the mayor’s assault on the fire marshal’s office does. It is a fire marshal who figures out how a fire started and whether it was set on purpose. By law, no fire can be certified as an arson unless a marshal files a report saying it is.

“This job is not for everyone,” says one marshal. But for the meticulous few who, through copious interviews and analysis of factors like “accelerant residue” and “burn patterns,” determine whether fire was the result of an “incendiary” process, the job has deep rewards.

Ed Burke, who was a Brooklyn firefighter and spent eleven years as a fire marshal, says that what’s going on at his old job is “unbelievable … You think it can’t get worse, then it does.”

“When you hear Chief Fire Marshal Garcia in front of the City Council saying arsons are not up, I just have to laugh,” says Burke. “Of course arsons are not up. How could they be up when only a fire marshal can call a fire arson, and there aren’t any fire marshals? Back in the late eighties, around the time of the Happy Land fire, there were something like 400 marshals. In the middle nineties, we had 292. Now we’re down to 80, and 20 supervisors. That means that at any given time, you’ve got 35 or so guys actually working, and two of those are Scoppetta’s bodyguards. And only eight of them are in the field.

The logic of arson is simple: “The buildings burn down and the rents go up,” says a fire activist.

“We investigated every fire, from a garbage can in a project hallway to a brush fire in Staten Island. Now we don’t. They stopped investigating all car fires until people started screaming. If you once looked at 1,000 fires and now you look at 500 or 250, that knocks out three quarters of your potential arsons right there. It’s sick what they’re doing with those numbers.”

Another marshal, still on the job, says, “The department keeps saying, ‘We’re doing more with less,’ but they never say exactly how much less is less. At night, when most of the fires happen, we have exactly four fire marshals working.

“Four! Four guys, in two cars, for the whole city!

“I am not a conspiracy guy, but you can’t help thinking they made a conscious decision to get rid of us. It bothers me, because those fires on Pacific Street were extraordinary. In almost every case, you had doors kicked in and gasoline spread so flames immediately made their way up the staircase. Staircase fires are terrible. You can’t get out, people panic. The fire at 1033, where people died—we were late on that one. It had to do with our pagers. They suck. The mood here is very, very strained. It’s enough to make you cry.”

It is also enough to make people wonder what exactly Mike Bloomberg has against the New York City Fire Department. A sweaty officer climbing out of a smoking Brooklyn manhole in the 102-degree August heat expresses the near-unanimous opinion: “Since Bloomberg showed up, we’ve gone from heroes to zeros. That guy has tried to screw us every way possible.”

A couple of mornings later, Bill Batson, Connie Lesold, and Holly Fuchs Ferguson held their weekly 5:30 a.m. vigil in front of 1033 Pacific Street. That’s when the fire that killed Sherrie Williams and the others broke out, so that’s when the fire committee pays its respects.

Attending vigils is a fire-committee duty. Only the night before, Lesold and Josefina Sanfeliú made their way to 103-15 169th Street in Queens. This was a bad one: five buildings burned, two dead. Marshals declared the fire an arson. Adding to the shock was the fact that the wood-frame houses had been demolished within 24 hours. Nothing remained but an acre of dirt, as flat as an Iowa cornfield, surrounded by a fence.

About 100 neighborhood residents holding candles assembled by the fence. Some said the fire was the result of a dispute between tenants and the landlord of one of the buildings. Whatever the reason, everyone agreed neither of the people killed, 83-year-old James Crocker and his son’s girlfriend, Alexandria Roberts, were involved. Again, the horror of arson’s uncontrolled, random criminality was manifest. If the quarreling parties had simply shot each other in the head, they’d be dead, sure. But everyone else would be alive, and the 50 or so displaced people would still have a place to live.

Local City Council member Leroy Comrie addressed the mourners. “I’m not a preacher,” he said in flat tones. “But I’ll tell you one thing, this neighborhood is under siege. We’ve been rezoned here. We’re in the sights of real-estate speculators. We have to pull together so this doesn’t happen ever again.”

People nodded their heads wanly. Said one unconvinced resident, “Sure, we got to stop it. But how?”

Back in Brooklyn, Ferguson was watering the plants in front of the empty 1033 Pacific Street. Keeping the flowers healthy shows someone cares, the Community Board 8 members say.

“Fight the blight,” said Ferguson while checking basement doors on an adjacent building. “If the doors are left open, people start hanging out. Then, wham, it’s on fire.”

There was some news on Pacific Street. It was discovered that someone had paid $885,000 for a ramshackle building down the block. Another, less-expected item was that the family of Kassoum Fofana, who’d fallen on top of Sherrie Williams the night of the 1033 fire, had a new apartment. This was good news, since the Fofanas had been more or less homeless since the fire. Weirdly, the Fofanas’ benefactor was the Forest City Ratner Companies, would-be builder of the hated Atlantic Yards project, which may do more than any fire to change the landscape of Brooklyn.

“Ratner got the Fofanas a place to live,” Batson said, shaking his head at the irony.

The Community Board 8 fire committee was chewing that one over as an engine company, 219 from Dean Street, roared by pumping full lights and sirens. Something was on fire.

Brooklyn Is Burning