Fighting for the Peoples Firehouseby Dan Schneider
High noon. McCarren Park, corner of Bedford and Lorimer.
The rally met up on a Saturday in late November to support Williamsburg’s Northside firehouse, Engine Company 212. The company was on the city budget chopping block for the third time in its history and the neighborhood was making some noise.
Mostly Northside residents, the group also included firefighters from other parts of town—"We gotta come out and support the brothers," a Manhattan firefighter was saying—and the Hungry March Band, a full-out brass-and-bass-drum marching band.
Some of the residents had been there the first time the city tried to close 212 in 1975 and the second time in 1991. "We’re prepared to do it again and again and again until the City realizes this is not their firehouse," said Daniel Rivera, executive director of the People’s Firehouse, the neighborhood-activist association born out of the 1975 firehouse occupation.
Through his megaphone before the march headed down Bedford, Rivera declared: "This is our firehouse, it’s the People’s Firehouse." Meanwhile, the cold afternoon’s winds whipped at the corners of the fire-engine-red signs—"NO CUTBACKS! NO WAY! FIRE CUTS KILL!" in white letters.
That same evening, the City Council and the Mayor’s office agreed not to close any firehouses, in response to the uproar that had been building ever since talk of closing them started to become part of city-budget talks. But by mid-December, word was that the firehouses were again on the chopping block. The rally reaffirmed that the neighborhood is prepared to fight city hall to keep its firehouse.
The first time Northsiders saved 212 was in 1975 when the city made good on its threats to shut it down. It was the night before Thanksgiving and the city was in a budget crisis. At 6 pm sirens sounded. The city was set to close the firehouse at the end of that day’s shift.
"One of the firemen, don’t know which one, kept ringing the air raid siren," recalls Martin Price. He was then 23 and among the first of the neighbors to arrive at 212. By the time the 24 firemen the city had appointed to remove the engine truck arrived, more than 200 people had massed outside on Wythe Avenue. When the firemen inside opened the doors, the protesters stormed the firehouse, taking the engine and the firemen hostage.
"When the guys were leaving to go home at 6 o’clock, they opened up the door and that’s when we rushed in," Price says. "It was about 9 o’clock that night we told the firefighters if they didn’t want to stay, they could go."
The police were told to remove the protestors, but the Battalion Chief of the 11th division told them, "We’re not going to remove them. It’s the people’s firehouse." The name stuck and to this day, the "People’s Firehouse" is emblazoned on the emblem on the side of 212’s truck.
Organized into shifts by Adam Venezki, a local grocer turned neighborhood activist, and aided by Jeff Poulaski, an injured factory worker laid off on disability, the Northsiders occupied the firehouse at 136 Wythe Ave. for 18 months until the city re-commissioned 212 as "Utility Unit 1."
During the months it was closed, eight people died in fires that 212 would have been the first to respond to. As a "utility unit," the company could only respond to fires in its immediate vicinity, called its "first due," and watch from its doorway as other engine companies drove by to respond to calls in what had been second and third due. This did not sit well with residents, who put up a sign calling the firehouse "O’Hagan’s Vacation Camp" after NYC Fire Commissioner O’Hagan.
"We didn’t want a personal firehouse," Price says. "We wanted one that would serve the whole community." So the Northsiders once again occupied the firehouse, this time for a year, allowing the firefighters to respond to their first-due calls until the city restored 212 to a fully functioning engine company.
The concerns of the Northsiders in 1975 were different from those of the late November rally. Back then, Williamsburg was dying from a City-enacted "planned shrinkage" policy under which police, education, maintenance and other budgets were slashed. The City was letting abandoned buildings crumble in order to avoid the cost of boarding them up. In fact, a building burning down saved the City the expense of demolition.
"There was a high rate of arson at the time," notes Daniel Rivera. Landlords who couldn’t make any rent money out of their dilapidated buildings were setting them ablaze, hoping to cash in on insurance policies. In nearby Bushwick and Bedford-Stuyvesant, burned-out buildings stood as testaments to the City’s abandonment of those neighborhoods. Empty firehouses only magnified this pattern of neglect.
Even with the rapid infusion of hipsters and artists into Williamsburg in the later 1990s, some of the same concerns about preserving North Brooklyn’s identity could be felt at this year’s rally. Five of the eight firehouses initially slated for closure are in Brooklyn.
"The city government thinks we are asleep here in Brooklyn but I can assure you we are awake," said State Assemblyman Joseph Lentol in a speech at the firehouse at the end of the march. "When they try to close five firehouses in Brooklyn and only one in Manhattan, we know what’s going on."
The latest 212 rally also expressed anger over the city’s still-standing plan to eliminate 49 individual fireman from engine companies throughout the city. "There’s only one way to put out a fire and that’s to put water on it," said Les Eser, a Northside resident and off-duty firefighter. "And when you lose men, that’s fewer people in the hall pulling the line."
The rally also made it clear that Northsiders would question the city’s budget priorities anytime public safety is not on top. "I think its disgraceful that the city can keep pumping money into special interests, Olympics, sporting events, any pet project that comes along," Eser said. "But when it comes to public safety, the last in line for funding is the fire department, and we’re on the front line.
Dan Schneider is a writer based in Fort Greene.