At least eight people died and more than 60 were injured, as a result of a likely gas leak explosion that collapsed two apartment buildings at 1644 and 1646 Park Ave. in East Harlem in mid-March. There are several community efforts to help bury the dead, as well as help provide basic healthcare for those who survived—one created by local teachers hopes to raise $10,000 for the Hernandez-Barrios family. La Casa Azul bookstore also collected much needed basics in coordination with a local assembly member. Residents in New York City’s East Harlem neighborhood are still mourning the lives lost in the catastrophic apartment building collapse. They’re also mourning the loss of their homes. Here, writer José Vadi reflects on the loss through the lens of his father.—Jamilah King
On March 12, 2014, my father forwarded a New York Times article with the headline “At Least 2 Killed in East Harlem Building Collapse.” A brief note from my Dad followed: “
Dear Friends, This is the building where I grew up until I was 22 years old (1646 Park Avenue, apartment 7). If those walls could speak! They would tell a tale of immense suffering with small periods of joy.”
Growing up, my sister and I heard stories about East Harlem every day from our dad. Tales of unscrupulous landlords. Our abusive grandfather. Stories of newly arrived Puerto Rican squatters filling his apartment to the brim, toiling in the family-owned bodega and the years it stole from my grandmother. My father would describe coughing up soot in the morning, filling shoe soles with cardboard, fighting Italian gangs on the way to school, and singing du-wop in his school hallways. For these reasons, I always associated New York as a place to overcome and leave, instead of a place to live and settle.
I read the article on my phone riding on BART between Oakland and San Francisco and was shocked to hear about the explosion and subsequent collapse of 1644 and 1646 Park Avenue, two neighboring tenements off 116th Street that shared an eastern view with the elevated Metro North line. To date, eight people have died despite rescue efforts to find trapped and missing residents. But in the context of what I know about my father’s life, this was the last of many remaining threads connecting him to the neighborhood he calls home, slowly eroding with every passing year.
I called my dad that night from the kitchen table in my studio apartment. As my elbows rested on the faux wood grain, I remembered my father earned his undergraduate diploma from CCNY - the “poor man’s Harvard” —using an ironing board for a desk until the age of 22. I asked him how he felt about hearing the news. He breathed a heavy sigh. “First, the neighborhood went away - La Marketa’s no longer there, 125th Street’s a mall, the people are all gone. Now, my building’s collapsed. I really don’t have a home anymore. I have no connection to my city anymore, my neighborhood. I’m totally uprooted.”
In February 2010, my father, who lives in Los Angeles, went to New York for the first time since the early ’80s to participate in a lifetime achievement ceremony for East Harlem community activist Rev. Norman Eddy. Rev. Eddy hired my father at the age of 18 to be the director of housing relocation for the Metro North Citizens’ Committee. The program worked heavily along 100th Street, temporarily relocating tenants so that their homes could be refurbished while maintaining their original exteriors. This was Eddy’s attempt to prevent the community plight and disruption currently associated with gentrification and rising rents. His plan lead to cooperative ownership of buildings among tenants, to them having a stake of ownership within their East Harlem community.
Before the collapse, I wanted to document the stories I heard growing up as a kid, no matter how painful for my dad or myself. The goal was to visit 1646 Park Avenue, Apartment 7. I borrowed a FlipCam from my friend, and asked another to film my Dad and me together in his old neighborhood, for the first time. It snowed that day. Still, my father’s pace quickened as he walked across his former neighborhood pointing out where along La Marketa previously existed; his technique for selling shopping bags to patrons for five cents; the high school formerly named after Benjamin Franklin where my father trained for the Millrose Games; where he ran laps inside the hallways during the winter. He showed me the top of the subway stairs where he and his brother would fist fight with the other shoe shine boys, desperate to catch a customer. My pops noted the racial divides by block between Puerto Ricans and Italians along 3rd Avenue and the sewer caps on 117th Street that served as a stickball diamond for their ragtag neighborhood gang. I knew if I ever had the opportunity to walk alongside my dad down the streets where he grew up, I’d go along. I wanted to feel as close as possible to the trajectory that somehow lead to my own existence, starting at its root: 116 and Park.
The fragility of human life was apparent for quite tragic reasons after the collapse, yet I was grateful to have taken the opportunity to have filmed my father in a place he once called home. I wonder now if any of those whose lives were taken last week were living in the building while we were filming; if their stories could have been told to preserve, to share what went untold in homes whose exteriors never truly represent what’s held inside.
When a building falls, do those stories ever die?
I wonder whether Eddy’s plans of cooperative, resident-owned housing would fly in today’s New York economy. I wonder how you preserve a bruise while healing from the original blow? And what of those few moments of joy my father described, how do they shine through a building that to my father’s recollection is a recurring travel through a thorn-lined Babel? And of whatever walls are built in the wake of these building’s collapse, I wonder if future generations will know their true history and who laid the first foundation of East Harlem.
This piece is excerpted from a longer one titled “What Memories Remain.”
José Vadi is a writer/performer based in Oakland, Calif. who recently earned his MFA in Creative Non-fiction from Mills College. He is also the founder and director of the Off/Page Project.