A fire in Inwood

Posted: January 6, 2012 by shawnfury in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , ,

Late Tuesday night a fire erupted at 207th Street and Broadway in upper Manhattan, eight blocks south of our apartment. Sirens of all kinds – fire trucks, police cruisers, unmarked cars, ambulances – are a normal occurrence on Broadway. But when they keep coming, when there’s no letup and it’s obvious this isn’t a cop racing to a scene or an ambulance headed over the bridge to the hospital, I notice. And when that happens, I take to Twitter and search for breaking Inwood news, my neighbors serving as first notifiers, just as the first responders are arriving. The reports from residents said a large fire had broken out and people mentioned some of the businesses affected – a dentist’s office, a longtime law office, a couple of banks, a new hardware store, a beloved pharmacy, a laundromat, and a yoga studio that had become a gathering place for families.

By the time firefighters extinguished the flames four hours later, after battling the heat in the frozen conditions, nine Inwood businesses had been destroyed, along with many more dreams.

Thankfully no one was killed. The only injuries were minor, suffered by two firefighters. The FDNY says cleaners – working in a space formerly used by a Chinese restaurant, which was going to be turned into a new eatery – started the blaze with a torch that ignited grease. That provide the how, though didn’t do much to answer the question of why?

The fire ravaged the second floor of the building but the entire structure has been condemned. The city will tear the whole thing down. No one knows what will rise in its place, though there’s hope those same businesses will find a new home in the same spots as their old ones.

I wandered down the street at about 1 a.m. to watch the firefighters battle the flames. Dozens of others stood on the sidewalk taking it all in. Many of them shot the action with their camera phones, others provided hot chocolate to the firefighters. People in nearby apartment buildings stared out from their windows, often joined by their pets. One report quoted a person who said it seemed like something out of a movie, a cliche that’s somehow simultaneously fitting but wholly inadequate to describe the reality. Standing there watching that most public of spectacles felt as if you were intruding on the most personal of moments, as businesses built up over decades were destroyed in the time it took us to walk from our homes to gawk.

A large fire is an amazing sight, terrifying to see, unstoppable, the only hope being that the flames don’t spread to neighboring structures. Fire remains about the only thing I fear in the city, my imagination conjuring up images of a bored 6-year-old playing with matches on the second floor while everyone sleeps at 3 in the morning. Everything gone in a second, with everything in the best case simply being possessions and a home.

This particular building that burned Tuesday night sits at one of the major intersections in Inwood. 207th Street is a loud, raucous area. Now, a doomed, condemned building sits on Broadway, the road in front of the structure still closed off to traffic. The day after the fire, a clearer picture of the losses emerged. We heard the story of Manny Ramirez, the pharmacist at Dichter Pharmacy who started in the same business as a stockboy as a kid before taking ownership of it as an adult. Gone. Bread and Yoga, a haven and gathering spot, its workers and owner taking to social media to thank those who pledged their help in rebuilding. Gone. The pet store – Furry Fiends – which takes up a spot on the ground floor. Were the cats okay? The cats were okay. Was the business okay? The business was not okay.

No one knows what comes next. On Friday, a community meeting will be held in a local church. More than 100 residents have already committed to attending the gathering, where people will discuss ideas with the business owners on what steps can be taken next. They’ll talk about concrete things like fund-raising and new locations, but also offer intangibles that might prove just as valuable – hope and support.

Inwood has a way of helping out.

We had lived in the neighborhood for just a few weeks in the spring of 2004 when I walked down to the local Subway at 207th Street for an afternoon sandwich. When I reached for my wallet to pay for the foot-long cold cut trio, I found nothing. For a few seconds, I willed my brain into believing I’d simply left it back at the apartment and I did such a good job convincing myself I made the five-minute hike back to our place, even though a part of me knew it was a hopeless search.

The wallet was gone. I had it when I walked out the door and now I didn’t. Somewhere between 215th Street and 207th it had fallen out of my shorts. It contained money and my Minnesota license and my credit cards and now all of that was somewhere on the big, bad streets of New York, just waiting to be scooped up and put to use by someone who didn’t own the wallet.

I retraced my steps. About 100 yards from my apartment, four guys standing around a truck yelled “Mister!” as I walked past them. They held up my wallet, which they had found on the sidewalk. One of the men was on the phone, talking to the man whose name adorns this website today, Terry Vandrovec. The men had found Terry’s business card in the wallet and called him up. He didn’t really understand what they were looking for or who or why but they made the effort. Before handing it over they insisted I count all the money, but at that point it seemed completely unnecessary.

Certainly this could have happened anywhere in the city and it’s not necessarily unique to Inwood and probably says more about the hearts of those specific men than society in general, but this was still my introduction to my new neighborhood, to my new home. In a city of 8 million, Inwood felt a bit like a small town, even if instead of knowing everyone, I knew practically no one.

In the seven years since, I’ve grown to love the neighborhood and the community, cherishing its beauty at the top of Manhattan island, enjoying the relative peace and quiet of the residential area but savoring its closeness to everything loud, crazy and historic you’d possibly want to enjoy in New York City.

Various news stories reported on how the businesses lost in the fire were mom and pop stores, a quaint phrase more likely to be associated with a small town instead of the biggest city in the country, even if it’s those stores that play such a crucial role in making the city what it is. Our small town – our small neighborhood – lost a lot on Tuesday night and early Wednesday morning.

Possessions can be replaced. So can businesses. But even if the stores and offices and studios that burned take shape in the same spot, no one in Inwood will forget what was lost on Tuesday night. And that’s why residents will be there to help in the future.


  1. […] LIVE FROM NEW YORK, IT’S TVFURY! Life is never dull in the big city, except on those lonely nights in upper Manhattan when I’m alone in our apartment, eating cereal and watching videos of Lakers games from the 1984 playoffs. But lots of things have happened since TVFury started. An earthquake hit. Kevin Durant dunked on Michael Beasley five minutes from my apartment and then Michael Beasley shoved a dude in the face. Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed banning giant sodas, and I whimpered. A fire devastated my neighborhood. […]

  2. […] A few years ago a terrible fire started in a Chinese restaurant and destroyed several area businesses. The space where the Laundromat stood remains empty, though apparently a bank will go there next year. That fire also destroyed Dichter Pharmacy, which is operated by a beloved local pharmacist named Manny Ramirez. People simply call the pharmacy “Manny’s” more often than not. He opened a temporary space a few blocks north but finally moved into his new/old location earlier in the year. It’s a cool place inside, with an old-fashioned ice cream shop feel to it, which also serves, according to my wife, amazing turkey sandwiches. They also deliver medications. […]

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