Burned Out of Their Homes, They Gathered for Thanksgiving

NYTimes.pngBy Luis Ferré-Sadurní

The apartment building on 144th Street and Broadway remained vacant on Wednesday night, still scorched from the colossal fire that raced through it last week. The fire had rattled a tight-knit community of longtime tenants and displaced more than 50 families from their homes in the Hamilton Heights neighborhood of Upper Manhattan.

But on the eve of Thanksgiving, five blocks away from the charred building, tenants young and old, Dominican and Mexican, tearful and grateful, dined on turkey and sweet plantains. Despite losing their possessions, dozens of families gathered to celebrate an American holiday they had grown to cherish, thankful because they were still breathing.

“We can replace our belongings, not our lives,” Alma Rosa Gonzalez, 56, a tenant from Mexico, said.

The early Thanksgiving dinner was organized on short notice by the Dominican consulate and a handful of elected officials. The food was donated by a local restaurant. The Fortune Society, a nonprofit that helps people coming out of prison, offered its building near Riverside Drive as the venue.

The fire was a close call for Ms. Gonzalez. She fractured her knee as she evacuated her third-floor apartment. Faced with six weeks of recovery and the task of finding a new home, she is currently sleeping on her son’s couch.

Ms. Gonzalez spoke of the Thanksgiving dinners she would host in her apartment, where she would celebrate the holiday with her two sons, grandsons and friends. They celebrated it their way: not with turkey, but with pierna rellena, or stuffed pork leg.

“We’ve adapted to the culture here on our terms,” she said as she took a bite of turkey, her fractured knee extended in a brace.

There were no fatalities, but the massive fire injured nine people, the Fire Department said. It drew more than 250 firefighters and emergency personnel, destroyed the top two floors of the six-floor building and left the other floors with heavy water damage. The cause is still under investigation and the building has remained closed as the Buildings Department investigates safety conditions.

The Red Cross relocated 11 families to hotels and shelters immediately after the fire. Other tenants moved in temporarily with family members and friends. Now, local officials say they are working with nonprofit organizations and the Department of Housing Preservation & Development to find vacant and affordable apartments for the displaced families.

“That building was like a village where people came to be almost like an extended family and the collective loss was felt by everybody whether they were on the top floor or the bottom floor,” said the City Council member Mark Levine, whose district includes Hamilton Heights.

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, members of the Dominican community and neighbors of Hamilton Heights pitched in. Mr. Levine said his district office has been flooded with boxes of donations: clothes, medicine, personal hygiene products. Most of the donations were handed out to families after the dinner on Wednesday.

In a modest setting — a bare, white room that overflowed with people sitting at folding tables — the tenants feasted, briefly forgetting their ordeal. They said they felt reassured by the presence of their elected officials: Representative Adriano Espaillat, a Democrat of New York, and Gale Brewer, the Manhattan borough president, were in attendance.

Before the meal, Aura Añasco, one of the older residents of the building at 79, stood and led a prayer in Spanish. Tenants held hands, closed their eyes and listened.

“Lord Jesus, here you have a group of your sons and daughters, giving thanks because we are alive,” Ms. Añasco, originally from the Dominican Republic, said. “We thank God, the United States, and this community that has supported us.”

After sitting down, Ms. Añasco didn’t touch her food as others ate turkey, rice, potato salad and avocado. Other concerns loomed: Her residency documents might have been destroyed; she still hadn’t recovered the medicine to treat pain she had been feeling after eye surgery; she needed another place to live.

She had been sleeping at her daughter’s apartment since the fire, taking the bed while her daughter, Susana, slept on the couch. But she wants to give her daughter privacy and feels she must soon move out.

“I want to have an apartment again, where I can be comfortable,” she said, playing with her food and staring at the families at other tables. “I don’t think I’ll eat because I’m not cheerful enough, but it’s marvelous to see everyone else so cheerful.”

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