It was just another fire story. Cities are riddled with them: images of flames gushing from an aging building, firefighters scrambling to contain the blaze, neighbors agape, traffic rerouted, burnt holes created in the crowded urban landscape.
This story appeared in the New York papers May 2. A five-alarm fire devastated a block of small businesses along White Plains Road in a working-class area of the Bronx. Cause as yet unknown. No serious casualties, except for the costly disruption of individual lives and the incalculable damage to a heartbroken neighborhood.
“I been coming here for a long time,” Bunny Lee, a chef, said of the commercial block turned to ash and cinders, as recounted in The New York Times. “This is a big hurt to these parts.”
My family can relate. Just 30 years ago, only a couple of blocks north, the cramped office where my late father, an optometrist, practiced for decades also went up in flames. His tiny storefront was on White Plains Road between 231st and 232nd Streets; this latest fire was between 225th and 226th Streets. The same elevated subway tracks roar overhead. The store owners’ names, faiths and countries of origin are different now, but the immigrant struggles resonate just as stubbornly. Then it was Jews and Italians, now it’s Dominicans, Yemenis and a hair salon owner from Burkina Faso. Fire doesn’t discriminate.
My parents received the phone call in the middle of the night. It was early December 1983. Since I was due to give birth to my first child at the end of that month, they wondered if I was calling to say I’d gone into labor early. Instead, my father rushed to see his life’s work subsumed in a flash.
His office was plain and narrow, with a waiting area that my mother would try to decorate each season, an examination room — I grew up believing that the “E” in the eye chart stood for Eisner — and a space in the back where he could grind lenses and fit eyeglasses. He would take notes about each patient on small index cards, and occassionally I’d help file, often fumbling to stuff the tattered paper in the right spot. The files had rows and rows of patients with the same last name, generations of families who came one after the other — with his assistance — to see the world a little more clearly.
Not that White Plains Road was idyllic, not in the Bronx in the 1980s. My father was robbed four times, twice at gunpoint, and the truth is that we were increasingly worried about his safety, considering that he worked six days a week, and many evenings, by himself.
Still, I was furious about the fire, which we were told was arson, evidently begun by someone with a grudge against the store owner down the street — a thoughtless act with devastating consequences. My father was not in a position to rebuild, even after neighbors circulated a petition begging him to stay. The city of his birth had disgorged him with no regard to what he had contributed. He earned the right to leave on his own time, but he was robbed of that too.
Eventually, he found a new job working for a suburban optometrist, without the satisfaction of running his own office but with safety and enough financial security to make it worthwhile.
I wish the same sort of redemptive ending for the victims of White Plains Road’s latest inferno. I hope that the grocery store owner who emigrated from the Dominican Republic, and the hair stylist from Burkina Faso, and the Korean immigrant who ran the laundromat, and the Yemeni who owned the Mini Mart, and the members of the Masjid Al-Huda mosque — I hope that they are able to recover personally and with enough capacity to knit their community back together.
Videos of the latest fire are easily found on YouTube, and the newspaper stories are accessible online. Try as I might, I can’t locate a story about the 1983 fire, so my memory may be as scratchy as an old LP. But you don’t forget searing events like this, and I don’t want to forget what it feels like to another set of working families whose lives are upended in a hot instant as ours were three decades ago.
Jane Eisner, a pioneer in journalism, became editor-in-chief of the Forward in 2008, the first woman to hold the position at the influential Jewish national news organization. Under her leadership, the Forward readership has grown significantly and has won numerous regional and national awards for its original journalism, in print and online.