“It’s been a long two and a half weeks,” City Council Member Rosie Mendez said today at a meeting with owners of East Village businesses affected by the gas explosion of March 26. Among those who’ve survived the aftermath of the tragedy are the owners of Italian restaurant Via Della Pace on East 7th Street, just across from the blast site.
“We’ve been fighting all winter,” said Giovanni Bartocci. “We had a very long and cold winter, and we were waiting for springtime as the oxygen.” The fire that leveled three buildings and emptied another came just before Easter, one of the restaurant’s busiest times of the year. It lost about $50,000 to $60,000 during the four and a half days tha tit was closed, Bartocci and his partner Marco Ventura estimate.
Ventura was in Via Della Pace the day of the explosion and called Bartocci, who could see the smoke plumes from his motorcycle as he sped down the FDR toward their restaurant. They’ve owned it for 13 years and it was unharmed, but when they saw the damages to the area they felt ready to “give up and just go,” Bartocci said. The flood of texts, emails, and posts on social media made them realize they had to reopen, and in the wake of the tragedy they stayed open late providing coffee to relief workers and free meals to displaced residents.
In the weeks that have followed, they’ve had momentous support from the Italian community, and one customer even started a fundraising campaign, “Home Is Where VDP Is.” Donors can vie for prizes including meals at VDP, a ride on Bartocci’s motorcycle, Italian lessons, a basketball signed by NBA player Marco Bellinelli, and a personalized barstool. “I have to take a lot of girls in a ride for the motorbike,” Bartocci laughed.
In addition to this grassroots support, the’ve received help from the NYPD, the FDNY, and the city’s Department of Small Business Services.
Representatives of all three were at today’s meeting at Middle Collegiate Church on 7th Street, along with others from the Office of Emergency Management, the Department of Financial Services, the NYC Business Solutions Lower Manhattan Center, and the Empire State Development Corporation. The forum focused on connecting owners to the various City and State agencies involved in the recovery effort.
Despite such support, Bartocci and Ventura fear for the next few summers, and worry that noise and dust from reconstruction will scare off would-be outdoor diners.
When asked what more the City could be doing, Bartocci, who is originally from Rome, joked, “I don’t speak English!” before admitting that he feels they should just release funding to the affected businesses. “[If businesses] start to shut down, it’s gonna be like a ghost village, you know, it’s gonna be a ghost corner, and we don’t want that,” he said.
Across Second Avenue, Jimmy Carbone is still reeling from the 15-day closure of his gastropub, Jimmy’s No. 43 (its block remains closed to vehicular traffic). “We will lose money this year because of it,” he said. He’s had to rely on emergency loans, including $10,000 raised through Kiva Zip, and is afraid of what the future might bring. “We have situations like lease renewals coming up, we have issues, you know, there’s many bills that need to be paid.”
But Carbone is also optimistic. He’s now focused on community efforts such as the annual Saint George Church Ukranian Festival. This year’s festival, running May 15 to 17, will be tied in with Lower East Side History Month and will highlight East Village recovery efforts by uniting local churches and community organizations. Two days later, on May 19, the Eastville Comedy Club will also hold a benefit headlined by Eddie Brill.