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Famous Grand Concourse Apartment Building Devastated by Fire

May 12, 2007

Angry Tenants Complain About the Slow Cleanup

By JAMES FERGUSSON

It’s more than a month since a deadly fire whipped through an iconic Grand Concourse apartment building – killing one and injuring more than 40 – and tenants are still waiting for the building’s fire alarm to be fixed, the cooking gas turned back on, and their charred and unsecured front doors replaced.

“Everybody’s angry, scared, and frustrated,” said Nilsa Rivera, the president of the building’s tenants association, in an interview earlier this month. “They feel like they’ve been forgotten.”

The Fire

The April 8 blaze, at 1749 Grand Concourse, an imposing 278-unit complex called the “Lewis Morris,” started in a first floor apartment just before 9 p.m. Patricia Zenon, who lives in an adjacent apartment, said she heard glass smash and went to investigate. “I opened my door and came out into a wall of blackness,” she said, speaking the following morning. “I couldn’t see anything, so I came back inside. I was trying to keep my composure.”

Fire Truck

Zenon was eventually led to safety by a firefighter. She said she’d spoken to the woman who rents the apartment where the fire began. “She said it started underneath her son’s bed,” Zenon said. “First they tried to put it out, but ran out in a panic and left their door open. That’s how it spread.”

A spokesperson from the city’s Fire Department said the cause of the fire was electrical.

The flames, aided by strong winds, reached out in the building’s lobby, before licking their way up two staircases and along the corridors. Damage was reported on at least eight floors. Fortunately, because of fire proofing, few apartments were burnt inside, although the there was substantial water damage from firefighters’ hoses.

The injured were a mixture of tenants and firefighters. The Medical Examiners office identified the dead man as Jose Rodriguez, 69. He died of burns and smoke inhalation, at Jacobi Medical Center three days after the fire. Residents posted a photograph of Rodriguez in the building’s lobby, along with a vase of roses, and a card for condolences.

“He walked out [of his apartment] into the flames, that’s what I hear,” said Mara Oyola, the superintendent’s wife.

As they scuttled down the fire escapes, several tenants were forced to jump from the second floor because of problems with the fire escapes, according to a report in the Daily News. Rivera says a number of drop ladders became detached. The Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) has since slapped the landlord with three violations for defective fire escapes. (As of May 15, the building had a total of 399 open violations.)

“Why didn’t someone do something about these fire escapes before [the fire happened]?” asked an incredulous Rivera, who’s also angry that the building’s alarm system failed.

“The alarm hasn’t been working for three years,” she said. “How can a building this size, with this many apartments not have a master alarm?”

If the alarm had been operational, not only would it have alerted tenants, says Rivera, it would have automatically shut the fire doors on each floor, thus restricting the scope of the blaze, and the havoc it wrought.

A Glorious Past

When Rivera moved into the Lewis Morris in 1988, there was a skylight in the lobby, a chandelier hanging from the ceiling, and paintings on the walls.

“When I first came into this building it was beautiful,” Rivera said.

Lloyd Ultan, the Bronx borough historian, says that the Lewis Morris, was constructed in 1923 and designed very much like the apartment buildings on Manhattan’s Park Avenue. “It would have been one of the most elegant buildings in the Bronx when it was built,” he said, adding that it would have been home to “some very upper-middle class Jews.”

Certainly, the size of the apartments would have appealed to the wealthy: Rivera’s must be close to 1,500 square feet. Even the building’s name is grand. It’s named after a Mr. Lewis Morris, a prominent 18th Century Bronx landowner, and one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.

The building survived the destruction of the 1970s and 80s when many Bronx apartment buildings, just south of the Lewis Morris, imploded in an orgy of crime, arson, and neglect. But in recent years – just as this neighborhood is on the up – things have taken a turn for the worse, say tenants.

Drug dealers moved into the building, said Rivera and people started hanging out in the corridors at all times of the night, drinking alcohol and scrawling graffiti. Meanwhile, a series of fires (mainly electrical fires says Rivera, which she attributes to archaic wiring) shook the building – including one in her own apartment late last year.

All this coincided, says Rivera, when the landlord at the time, Lewis Morris Associates, cut back on security and staffing in the building, and essentially turning its back on the property and its tenants – except when it was time to haul in the rent.

New Landlord, Same Problems?

In February, the building came under new ownership. City investors Stephen Siegal, Andrew Goldberg, and Jeffrey Goldberg bought it for $28.3 million – one of the highest figures ever paid for an apartment building in the district, if not the Bronx. The purchase was part of a bigger deal that saw 51 Bronx buildings and something close to $300 million change hands.

Rivera’s yet to be convinced that the new landlord is any different from the last. After all, they didn’t fix the fire alarm when they took over the building, and they didn’t notice or get do anything about the faulty fire escapes. Moreover, they didn’t mend the alarm after the fire either: It’s still not working. “I’m living in fear [of another fire],” said Rivera (pictured below).

There’s also the issue of the 80 or so burnt front doors. Because of the damage, many won’t shut properly. Management provided tenants with temporary padlocks, but according to tenants, every padlock handed out could be opened by the same key, creating a security risk.

Nilsa Rivera

As of May 10, these doors – many of which are burnt to a crisp – still haven’t been replaced. The corridors remain blackened too, and heavy with the smell of smoke.

Warren Harr, of SG2 Management LLC, the building’s new management company, says he understands the tenants’ frustrations. “I know the tenants think nothing has gone on,” he said in an interview earlier this month, “but a lot is going on behind the scenes… I don’t think we’ve wasted a day.”

Management were already looking at fixing the alarm before the fire, says Harr. But now getting it working again will be a complicated business because much of the wiring on the lower floors was destroyed in the fire. He estimates it will take another four to six weeks. As for the damaged front doors, they’ll take time too, as each doorway need to be measured.

Another issue is the gas. While the heat and hot water are back on, the cooking gas isn’t. Harr says it could take two months to rectify, as a great deal of work needs to be done on the pipes. In the meantime, tenants are using electric hotplates supplied by management. This, say some, is eating into their electricity bills, and so too are the fans and humidifiers management lent to tenants to dry out the damp.

Tenant Victoria Pabon says her April Con-Edison bill was for $246. Normally, it’s $95. In the immediate future, however, Pabon is more concerned about her still water logged room, the mold growing in daughter’s bedroom, and kitchen cabinets which are slipping off the wall. “I just can’t be living in these conditions,” she said. (Harr said management will come to some kind of agreement with those tenants who can prove their bill has increased.)

Building repairs haven’t been carried out as fast as tenants would have liked, says Harr, because “it’s such an immense amount of work… in an immense building.” But he’s determined to see it through. “We’re committed to working with the tenants,” he said. “It’s a tremendous building with a lot of really beautiful people that we’re committed to doing good by.”

Signs of Progress

Certainly, there are signs that progress is being made. On May 9, a contractor started measuring the doorways. And Harr, tenants, Community Board 5, HPD, and the Borough President’s office have been meeting for regular talks.

Oyola, the super’s wife, said things are “slowing but surely” moving in the right direction.

Harr says his group wants to run safe, secure, well-kept buildings. When the aftermath of the fire has been dealt with, he says, work will begin on restoring the building to something approaching its former glory – without the chandelier and paintings, perhaps.

For Rivera, however, it may be too little, too late. “I want to make sure all my tenants are o.k.,” she said. “But after that I’m really considering moving out.”

Dress for Success Helps Women Look the Part

May 11, 2007

By CINDY LAU

In the basement of Davidson Community Center is a modest-sized boutique brimming with hope and inspiration. Amidst the racks – jam-packed with business suits, shoes, and cosmetics – a staff of three are hard at work serving women in need.

Here lies the only Bronx-based branch of Dress for Success Worldwide (DSF), an international non-profit that promotes economic independence by providing women with free business attire for job interviews, as well as career services and counseling.

The branch, at 2038 Davidson Ave., opened in 2004. To date, it’s served more than 1,400 women. According to Regina Howard, acting branch manager, they help women from all walks of life that are in transitional periods and need help stepping back into the workforce.

“We make it our business to make sure they’re well suited for the interview, so they feel comfortable and don’t have to worry about how they look,” said Howard (pictured), in an interview last month. “They can focus on answering questions and what the interview is really about, and not be self-conscious.”

Caridad Malone, 34, began coming to the Bronx branch in February, after being out of work for two years while she looked after her ill mother. Recently, she landed a job at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Breast Examination Center in Harlem, where she will be doing administrative work.

Malone said that coming to DFS helped her focus on herself for a change. She said that the organization turned her into a “more confidant, motivated woman who is positive and focused on what she wants to do,” and made her “feel she didn’t need to settle for anything that wasn’t worthy of her.”

Although the suits did play a role in her confidence boost, Malone said that she “honestly got more out of the communication… and one-on-one counseling.”

For on top of providing clothes, the organization helps women like Malone with their resumes, cover letters, and the interviewing process. As a part of a workshop, women participate in an exercise called a “30 second commercial,” in which they’re given 30 seconds to sell themselves. They’re also taught how to give an assertive hand-shake, introduce themselves and start conversations, and how to put their self-worth into words.

Malone says she’s learned how to speak positively about herself. Furthermore, she says, DFS helped her to realize and strengthen the skills she harnessed all along.

After being offered a job with Memorial Sloan-Kettering, DFS invited Malone to join their Professional Women’s Group (PWG), a program for DFS clients who have secured employment. The PWG offers its members the chance to be mentored by people who have been professionals in their fields for five years or more. The aim of the group is to ensure the women retain their jobs and move up the career ladder.

DSF is sponsored by major corporations including Bobbi Brown Cosmetics, Kerastase Paris, Dress Barn, Ashley Stewart, and Eileen Fisher, who donate clothing, cosmetics and accessories. But they rely on suit drives and private donations, too.

The organization, says Howard, is also on the look out for volunteers to help maintain the boutique, to act as personal shoppers to aid in the individual suiting process, and for data entry.

In an effort to make their services known, DFS has been reaching out to the local community, by visiting schools, churches, and community organizations. “Women are apprehensive of wanting help because they’re so used to being the ones who are giving it out,” Howard said.

Ultimately, she says, the idea she wants to get across is that “it’s okay to need help.”

Ed. Note: To find out about donating dress apparel, and for volunteer opportunities, visit www.dressforsuccess.org or call the Bronx DFS office at (718) 866-0666. DFS doesn’t offer a walk-in service. Instead, women are referred by one of 50 partner programs in the borough. To find out who these partners are, call the office.