Fire Guts Bronx Stores in 2nd Major Blaze in 2 Months

NY Times - December 22, 2009


A five-alarm fire engulfed a commercial stretch of a Bronx neighborhood for nearly five hours on Monday morning, gutting a supermarket, a diner and a dental office, and raising concerns in the community that their area is the target of arsonists.

It was the third fire in a block-long stretch of the businesses on East 204th Street in Norwood since April.

"This is just a devastating blow to a beleaguered neighborhood," said G. Oliver Koppell, a Bronx councilman. "And to me it looks very suspicious."

All morning, residents huddled on the sidewalk behind police tape at 204th Street and Perry Avenue, wondering what had become of their neighborhood. They shook their heads and floated conspiracy theories, while 168 firefighters fought the flames.

A block away, the boarded-up corner of 204th and Bainbridge Avenue stood as a reminder of the last time firefighters swarmed into the street. On Oct. 31, another early-morning fire wiped out at least seven businesses there. A bakery on that same corner was hit by a fire last April and was due to reopen in November.

The Oct. 31 fire is still under investigation by the Fire Department, and the authorities have not ruled out arson as the cause, officials said on Monday.

"It's too close together," said Helaine Lesniak, 65, who has spent the last 30 years in Norwood. "We're really scared."

Fire marshals are investigating how Monday's fire started; what is known is that it began around 4:30 a.m. in the basement of the diner, according to Deputy Assistant Chief Edward Baggott. It then spread to an adjacent Foodtown supermarket and the dental office, severely damaging all of them. All that remains of the diner is a shredded blue awning with the words "Diner, Breakfast, and Lunch." A bank and a funeral home were also damaged.

Yamashai Carroll, 30, moved to Norwood three years ago and just obtained a license to open a beauty salon. But she feared for the future of businesses in the neighborhood. A bad reputation, she said, could drive away new customers and investors.

"It's got me worried about opening," which she plans to do soon, she said. "You don't want this to become a deserted place with everything boarded up."

In a McDonald's restaurant across the street, the manager of the Foodtown gathered many of his more than 50 employees and began the process of reassigning them to other stores in the chain.

The supermarket was the only one of its size in the area. Among the people on the sidewalks, grocery options were a topic of serious conversation. The nearest supermarkets are around half a mile away and on the other side of Mosholu Parkway.

Tommy Lund, 52, a retired construction worker and lifelong resident of the neighborhood, was most worried about his 83-year-old mother.

"I don't know where she's going to go now" to shop, he said.