As fire marshals combed on Monday through the burnt wreckage of a Harlem clothing store that was closed during this COVID-19 crisis, many in the community fear a replay of the fires ravaging retail during the ’70s economic crisis.
While the FDNY says they have made no determination on a cause of the fire, an official from Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer’s office says they were told the fire was electrical in origin. Yet that claim has not allayed fears that additional fires will occur at a time when the 125th Street corridor can least afford any more economic setbacks.
With the vast majority of stores closed on the 125th Street retail corridor because of the COVID-19 shut-down, most store owners are hard-pressed to make rent, pay their bills, and reopen their stores in June. Some fire investigators fear a reprise of those “bad old days” when store owners would set fire to their establishments to get out from under economic disaster.
The two-story Lazarus Clothing store at 164 West 125th St. burned up in a massive 3-alarm fire that started at about 7:30 p.m. on May 17. The store had been closed that day and for the past several months since the COVID-19 crisis began. Firefighters poured water on the building well into the early morning as deep-seated embers continued to burn throughout the night.
Fire marshals on the scene were poking in and out of the burnt structure, much of which was impossible access because the second floor had collapsed into the main part of the popular clothing store.
One marshal exclaimed, “it’s a big mess.”
The damage extended into a Metro PCS store, where the Buildings Department slapped a vacate order on it. Also damaged was a Verizon Store and the Apollo Beauty Supply, which also shuttered during the mandatory closure.
Officials privately say they are concerned about the “insult to injury” on the 125th Street corridor, many businesses shuttered for the pandemic. Some fear a few businesses may never re-open and a recession will be most severe for Harlem and its residents.
“All these stores were closed for a couple of months so it looks like someone started the fire,” said Chuck Gonzalez, 54, a resident of 118th Street who said he rides his bike there every day. He says that is the talk on the street from many suspicious residents, even if it is not confirmed.
“If this was an accident, why didn’t it start a long time ago?” Gonzalez continued. “People can’t pay their rent and have a lot of money invested in the business – it’s just a funny feeling.”
Greg Carlrisian, 62, said he worried that 125th Street would go back to the dark days of the 70’s economic recession. He said he was suspicious of this fire.
“How can this start in the afternoon when nobody is in there,” said Carlrisian, a life-long resident of Harlem. “I’m 62-years-old and I remember there used to be a shoe store here. This is a very popular store for children – it’s been here over 30 years and it saddens me. So how did it start – who knows? They haven’t been open for weeks so is it an insurance job?”
Two elderly men sat across the street from the fire scene at the Adam Clayton Powell building plaza and both said it reminded them of “the ’70s.”
Randy Panton, 62, a long time resident of Harlem, said he fears a return to the ’70s of empty stores and burnt out buildings.
“There was a problem back then in the 70’s – people want to get back to work after coronavirus and people need something to do,” Panton said. “We gotta go back to work, pay our bills – nothing is free, so why don’t we get the economy to open back up. This fire is probably just the beginning.”
“I don’t believe there was no faulty wiring, I believe someone did this because nothing was open,” said James Cordell, 58, also a life-long resident. “People owe money and they act out and that’s how it goes. Someone should go to jail because someone could’ve gotten killed. I was here, it was coming from the side, and then, it just went up like wildfire.”
Officials privately say the fire is just another “nail in the coffin of Harlem,” weighed down by the economic shutdown. Officials were working on a more substantial statement and plan to be discussed soon.
Meanwhile, the Department of Buildings officials say they are determining the structural integrity of the building, though construction crews on scene said the fire-damaged critical metal beams and will require a full demolition.
In addition to the main fire building, DOB issued a Vacate Orders to 2081 Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard. A neighboring establishment, a Metro PCS store was also hit with a vacate sticker today.