(en)Illegal Demolition Leaves 26 Homeless

Allerslev (kzrt@bway.net)
Sat, 15 Feb 1997 20:47:35 -0500


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******* This is the most recent update on the situation here in the Lower East Side, NYC. Please widely distribute this information.

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Illegal Demolition Leaves 26 Homeless! [updated by a resident 8:00 pm, Saturday 15 February]

At 3:30 on Sunday February 9, 1997 a fire broke out in the second floor SW apartment at 5th Street Squat (537-539 East Fifth Street). The fire department arrived quickly, but neglected to turn the water on until bystanders yelled out. During the 20-30 minutes that stalled, the fire spread up to the fourth floor. No people were injured, although 2 dogs died in the fire. Immediately after the fire was out, the fire department escorted one resident, Roger Varela, all the way up to the fifth floor (of the 6 story building) to get a dog that the firefighters were afraid to approach. None of them wore hardhats or showed any sign that they were afraid that the building was dangerous. He was able to look in every apartment as he went by & saw that only the first 25 feet of the apartments on the SW corner had been burned. Varela was allowed to enter his own apartment on the fourth floor to see the bodies of Emma & Anakin, his two dogs. He was not allowed, however, to bring them out. He noted that there was no smoke or water damage to the rest of the building, and the stairs were intact. Damage to the building was limited to an area of less than 20% of the building and did not affect the structural integrity of the building. Fire department officials and police assured residents that the fire chief would return at 10 am the next morning to make the final assessment. However, an official from Major Guilliani's special "Office of Emergency Management" (OEM) arrived as the fire was still burning. Garth Vader, a musician living in the building, overheard the official telling the fire chief, "This comes straight from the top. The mayor wants an emergency demolition tonight." The Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) issued the emergency demolition order that night without doing a thorough inspection. That night after the fire, the police department cordoned off the block with a small army of officers, lights & vehicles. They drove a police vehicle to the back of the community garden next to the building (541) and stationed officers at the back of the building. They placed massive floodlights next to the building, lighting up the entire block. Despite assurances from HPD, fire officials & OEM that we would be allowed to reenter the building with escorts to retrieve belongings with the light of morning (Monday), the city began demolishing the building as soon as they had assembled the massive wrecking crane that arrived on the scene--hours before the fire officials had even shown up; the decision was obviously taken out of the their hands. They seized their opportunity to keep the residents out of the building once and for all. Most of the windows in the building had been knocked out, giving those in a neighboring building a clear view of the squat. Several witnesses in that building saw police officers using the squatters' own sledgehammer to try to smash stairs between the 3rd & 4th floors. OEM officials had earlier stated that there were no stairs remaining beyond the 3rd floor. Police officers were also seen COUNTING MONEY in the stairwells as far up as the fifth floor. Police and city officials were seen rummaging through the building all night and the next morning before demolition began. They never seemed concerned that they were in a building that had been officially declared in "imminent danger of collapse." Clearly, there was no such danger. Many residents lost hundreds of dollars in cash that was in the building. One resident was returned her purse--empty. Two residents were arrested on the roof of the building Monday morning while trying to recover the bodies of the two dogs killed by smoke inhalation. They used the stairs all the way up & down the building after the fire. Just before demolition, when my cat was spotted on the fire escape, a roommate excitedly pointed him out to emergency workers. She offered no help, saying only, "Oh, he'll get out." Boris is still missing. As demolition began at approximately 1:00 pm Monday, police were notified that someone was still inside the building. A call was received at Blackout Books from a building resident saying he was hiding inside. The noise of the demolition equipment could be heard in the background. Police refused to stop the demolition. Portions of the 6th floor were damaged by the crane when he emerged on the roof. Police emergency squads then entered the building, but could not locate him. After a two hour search, demolition resumed. Once again, he appeared on the roof. Soon thereafter, he was apprehended & the demolition continued unabated. Monday morning, lawyers representing the residents went to the State Supreme Court to get an order to halt the demolition in order to allow residents to (at least) collect some belongings. A hearing was scheduled for 3:00 pm. Representatives of the city took two hours to show up in court--apparently getting lost during the 5 minute walk--while the building was being demolished. Justice Barbara Kapnick granted the stay, ordering an immediate halt to the destruction, but the court order was IGNORED, and demolition continued throughout the night, 24 hours, sending thick clouds of dust (no doubt containing lead paint & asbestos) throughout the whole neighborhood. Neighbors were not given any advance notice of the demolition, and suffered the noise, lights, dust & police occupation all night long, for three days and nights. Those in the area complained of rashes, coughs and kidney pains. Despite many calls to measure the asbestos content in the air, the New York City Department of Environmental Protection Hazardous Materials Section and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) refused to send inspectors on the grounds that the building had been taken out of their jurisdiction by the city. The destruction was so wantonly aggressive that the building next door (533) sustained severe damage. Holes were knocked in the wall, windows were smashed, new cracks formed in the stairwells, and phones were knocked out for a couple days. Four neighboring community gardens also sustained damage, including the complete annihilation of the only green space on the block, at 541. Neighbors are outraged by the city's orders and the police department's defense of these illegal actions. The New East Fifth Street Block Association is now considering legal action against the city for negligence. Tuesday morning, the hearing continued. Judge Kapnick was clearly disturbed by the city's disgusting disregard for both human life & personal possessions. After hearing testimony from architects & residents who had been in the building after the fire, she set another date for a hearing (24 February). Until then, she ordered the city to not only stop the demolition, but also blocked them from removing rubble from the site. Seventy-two hours later, they had not paused with the demolition or cartage for even a minute, and the lots now stand vacant. Less than half of the residents of the squat were given a few token possessions on Monday morning, brought out in garbage bags. We lost almost everything. Not only was our home reduced to rubble trucked out to Queens, but the city has been hell-bent on ruining our lives by needlessly burying our things in the debris. I have lost all my art, books, records, personal papers, musical equipment, tools, etc. This continued relentless aggression on the part of the city to demolish & remove this building from the block has raised suspicion that they are trying to cover evidence of a possible arson. The city was more interested in destroying the building than in investigating the cause of the fire. The mayor's special OEM team does not swoop down on the site of every fire in NYC ready to demolish the building on the spot--especially on a Sunday night. This demolition was politically and economically motivated. An empty lot can be sold to private developers for market-rate housing, rather than used as low- and moderate-income housing. There are now twenty-six more homeless people in NYC, all at the expense of taxpayer money.

Call these people to express your outrage.

Assistant to the Director, HPD; Vito Mustaciuolo (212) 386-8594 Borough President Ruth Messinger (212) 669-8300 Community Board 3 (212) 533-5300

......updates to follow.......

-->Kurt Allerslev P.O.Box 20470, NYC 10009 kzrt@bway.net

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