Posted on 29 October 2010.
A year later, the boarded up site of Norwood's October 2009 fire. Photo: Elisabeth Anderson
A field of dust and debris emerged in the heart of Norwood’s shopping hub on Bainbridge Avenue last Halloween, when a five-alarm blaze destroyed 10 retail shops in one large lot and badly damaged four more. A full year later, the rubble remains at the first lot and no redevelopment has begun. Two local small business owners are speaking out about their anger over the lack of action.
“I think it’s outrageous that the property hasn’t been developed,” said Allan Freilich, whose Freilich Jewelers is just over a block from the blaze site on 204th Street. “This is a community issue. It makes us look like what the South Bronx looked like in the early 1970s.” Freilich remembers those days. The 58-year-old Bronx native starting working part-time in his father’s store 40 years ago and would eventually come to take over what is now the oldest family-run jewelry business in the borough.
His friend Bill Curran, 37, who owns and directs funerals at the John F. McKeon & Son Funeral Home, added that the fire created a big burden for residents, including him; he lives in an apartment above the funeral home on Perry Avenue, around the corner from the location of the fire. “It’s affecting people’s ability to get essential day-to-day items in their community, and many people don’t have a way to go to a neighboring community to get those items,” he said, mentioning everything from fresh fish to baked goods.
Forty-five percent of residents in the jurisdiction of Community Board 7, which includes Norwood, receive public assistance, according to the Department of City Planning. Traveling for everyday supplies simply is not practical for most.
As the Norwood News reported on Nov. 5, 2009, it took 198 firefighters more than five hours in the early morning hours of Oct. 31 last year to extinguish the flames that enveloped two buildings. Ten storefronts had addresses ranging from 3083 to 3105 Bainbridge Ave. in one building. Four others, from 3109 to 3119 Bainbridge Ave., were located in a second; these stores have since re-opened. The destroyed stores included minimarts, a Mexican restaurant, a Dunkin’ Donuts, a fish market, a barber shop, a nail salon, a record store, and a realty group.
Rumors swirled then and until recently about where the fire originated and what caused it. According to Community Board 7 district manager Fernando Tirado, the fire department reported at last week’s general board meeting that the investigation is now complete and there was no evidence of any criminal activity. The fire was deemed accidental.
Construction crews were frequently on the site for the month or two after the fire to demolish what little remained, Curran and Freilich said. They returned to wrap a plywood fence around the remaining dirt pit, and have not been seen since.
There were happy endings for at least two of the stores affected; European Minimarket moved to a vacant storefront down the street. Bainbridge Bakery made a fresh start with a new name, Ana’s Bakery, on Williamsbridge Road in Kingsbridge.
But that is not necessarily a happy ending for Norwood, Freilich said. The neighborhood no longer has a bakery. The other shops that have not reopened mean lost jobs, lost services, and lost foot traffic on Bainbridge Avenue.
“People want to shop where the neighborhood looks clean and the businesses are thriving,” Freilich said. “Having a huge series of boarded up property doesn’t make for an inviting shopping area.” He thinks the entire 204th Street/Bainbridge Avenue retail corridor, which spans more than six city blocks, is hurting.
Curran worries about what the issue could mean for the community, and how that might ultimately hurt his business. “This has not impacted my business immediately,” Curran said. “However the continued condition as it is will force people to relocate to other neighborhoods, which will then impact me.”
Freilich says the fire has also taken an emotional toll on people here. “It’s a psychological attitude of depression, of look what’s happening here,” said Freilich, who once headed Norwood’s now-dormant 204th Street/Bainbridge Avenue Merchants’ Association. He said that in all the years he has been in Norwood, he has never seen the neighborhood struggle so much.
While many Norwood residents and retailers look optimistically eastward to Webster Avenue, where a proposed zoning plan promises plenty of new retail and housing space, Curran and Freilich urge Norwood officials to pay attention to the area that has long been this community’s commercial heart.
There is speculation that the affected lot will be sold. It is run by West Bronx Stores Inc., which is owned by Evelyn Jacobsen. Jacobsen did not return repeated requests for comment.
“If the owner doesn’t want to build, sell to somebody else who will develop the property,” Freilich said. “All the residents and business owners are suffering over this condition.”