Building Fire Brings Neighbors Together

A fire on the Upper West Side destroyed homes and belongings but brought out the kindness in a surrounding business


Footage of the Upper West Side fire on Friday night. (Video courtesy of James O’Connor/ @fetalcore)

On Tuesday morning, residents of 509 and 511 Amsterdam Avenue stood on the sidewalk with bags in hand as they prepared to go inside the building that used to be their home. It was the first time since Saturday that they were allowed to enter their apartments and retrieve any salvageable belongings following a four-alarm fire that swept through the building on Friday evening.

“They said they were going to let us back into the building today,” said Whitney Steen, who shared an apartment on the third floor with her boyfriend. “So, I brought a bag to put a couple of things we realized we didn’t grab on Saturday.”

The fire in the building on Amsterdam between 84th and 85th Streets started in an extension cord in an apartment on the third floor, according to Frank Dwyer, a spokesperson for the Fire Department of the City of New York. It spread through the five-story building, displacing all residents. Two ground floor businesses, E’s Bar and Jacob’s Pickles restaurant, have been closed temporarily.

“The whole building is affected,” said owner Marc Shore, who estimated that about 50 people live in the building. He could not predict how long repairs and renovations will take or when residents would be able to return. .

The fire was first detected by staff members of E’s Bar who smelled smoke and went to check it out, said the bar’s owner, Erin Bellard. The bar, which has been open for three years, is a popular gathering spot for some of the building’s residents. The staff quickly alerted residents and also called 911.

On Tuesday, a sign on the door of E’s Bar read, “Dear Friends, our thoughts and prayers are with our neighbors upstairs who have lost their homes.” Bellard said she knows a lot of the residents and that the bar plans to do what it can to help them recover.

Steen, who arrived home during the early stages of the fire on Friday, was not immediately allowed into the building to retrieve her things. “There was a bunch of people across the street, and the fire trucks just kept coming,” she said on Tuesday. “They kept pushing us further and further back away from the building.” Steen was especially concerned with the well-being of her pet cat, Romeo, who was fine when she finally retrieved him on Saturday.

Steen has lived in the building with her boyfriend for about eight months. “We really like this apartment a lot,” she said. “We’re kind of upset right now that we can’t live in it.” She was grateful that damage to her apartment was not extensive. “I’m sure if the fire trucks had been any slower to get here that we would’ve suffered quite a bit,” she said.

Steen said she and her boyfriend have been staying at a pet-friendly hotel. Some other residents, including Rosa Torres, found shelter for a few nights at the Vanderbilt YMCA through the help of the Red Cross. Torres said the Y was, “very comfortable.” The Red Cross also provided residents with a $250 Visa card to purchase groceries and personal items that may have been lost in the fire.

Even though the fire has caused extensive damage, it has also brought a small community of people closer. Upon reopening, E’s Bar plans to host a fundraiser to assist residents, said Bellard.

The bar’s gestures have not gone unnoticed. “My boyfriend and I both want to go over there and thank their staff,” said Steen. “It was their noticing that something was burning that got the fire trucks here that quickly.”