Business owners affected by the Second Avenue gas explosion met Thursday morning, some of them for the first time, at Cafe Mocha, across the street from where three buildings collapsed two weeks ago today. There was talk of struggles with insurance companies, frustration over not being able to reopen, and despair over lost businesses, but many said they feel lucky things didn’t turn out worse.
“Luckily none of my customers or workers were hurt,” said Omer Shorshi, owner of Pommes Frites. He said there were seven customers and three employees in his popular French fry shop at the time of the explosion. “The wall moved and the wall collapsed — the deep fryer fell — and nobody got a scratch somehow,” he said.
Shorshi said he would like to start over at a new location, but pursuing a new shop on Second Avenue seems out of the question because the rent is now much too expensive. He’s not sure where or how he might be able to make a new location work, especially given that over the last 18 years he had finely honed operations at the tiny restaurant so he could make a decent profit while maintaining low prices. He told Bedford + Bowery that it would be difficult for his concept to translate over to a popup or a festival setting, though he’s considering both options just to keep the Pommes Frites name alive and create work for his employees.
“I think we are lucky to be alive,” Roop Bring, owner of Sam’s Deli, told the group. His store was an East Village fixture since 1997, and he’s now trying to make sense of his insurance company’s requests. “The insurance wants us to write down every single item inside the store,” he said with bewilderment, echoing a complaint he shared with us last week. “I cannot write everything down because there’s too much to write!” Bring said he just happened to be at the front counter of his deli at 123 Second Avenue because he was supervising an employee for whom it was the first day on the job. Ordinarily, he said, he would have been in his back office, where he may not have survived. “I lost every single thing in there,” he told Bedford + Bowery.
Bring and many others said the hardest thing about losing their businesses so unexpectedly is that they suddenly don’t feel like a part of the everyday life of the neighborhood. “We used to see people walk through the door and have their order ready before they even tell us because we know them so well,” Bring said.
Tarun Kundg, owner of King’s Copies, had just finished placing his lunch order with Bring when the earth shook and he fell from his chair. There were two customers and one friend in the store at the time, but all escaped unharmed. “We were lucky,” he said. Still, the experience has taken an emotional toll on Kundg. “It’s really hard. I can’t sleep at night. When I close my eyes, I see my store,” he said, wiping tears from his eyes as he gazed out the window at the rubble-strewn lot. “When I see it I feel bad.”
“It’s important for members of the community to be able to support one another,” said the meeting’s organizer, Jimmy Carbone, owner of Jimmy’s No. 43. Carbone is still waiting for permission to reopen his shuttered bar. With debris being removed just feet from his door, the entire building is still under an evacuation order, including the two bars located above Jimmy’s, Burp Castle and Standings. “None of us use gas,” he said of the three bars. “It’s really about securing the site for safety.”
Roman Diakun, owner of The Stage Diner, located at 128 Second Avenue, across from the blast site, expressed his frustration at not being able to open his shop because of issues with the gas lines in his own building. “After 35 years they are accusing me of stealing the gas,” he said. Fawzy Abdelwahed is distressed that his vegetarian restaurant B&H hasn’t been able to reopen yet, either. “That store is my life,” said Abdelwahed, who yesterday launched a fundraiser that has netted over $5,500. He did say that the meeting was helpful. “There was a lot of information about how we can get help from the city,” he said.
“I’m expected to pay rent,” said Marianne Marlowe, owner of Enz’s Rockabilly, which opened in the East Village in 1978. “This is a part of East Village history,” she said, her face crumbling. “It’s something that created this whole movement.” One of Marlowe’s employees started a fundraiser on Youcaring.com that has collected over $9,700 in donations. “You should start your own,” she said to Chas Bring, son of Roop Bring, the owner of Sam’s Deli, sending him the link to the fundraising site. (Enz’s also has a popup this week in the LES).
Officials from several organizations were on hand to offer their support. A representative of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation pointed out that the buildings’ location within the East Village/Lower East Side Historic District, as well as in a neighborhood-wide “contextual zone,” will guide the type and height of buildings that are rebuilt on the site. Sara Romanoski of the East Village Community Coalition reminded everyone there would be a cash mob this Saturday. It will begin at noon at Gem Spa and coincide with the Taste of Seventh food festival, which is donating profits to the Red Cross this year. Several business owners said they would encourage customers enjoying one event to also participate in the other.
Carbone stressed that it was important that local businesses owners band together because small businesses are the “heart and soul of the East Village.”
Correction: The original version of this post was revised because it misidentified the name of the organization whose representative spoke about the collapsed buildings’ location within the historic district, and was imprecise about what she said.