The view from Nicky’s Pizza on the corner of Bainbridge Avenue and East 204th is devastating: dilapidated, graffiti-riddled planks of plywood fence in an empty lot on what was once a bustling corner of shops. The view serves as a grim and constant reminder of the horrific Halloween morning fire that destroyed 10 businesses there nearly one year ago.
Local residents and merchants, including Nicky’s owner Nick Delija, say the neighborhood has yet to rebound — economically or psychologically — from the fire, which was compounded by another blaze, one block down and two months later, that engulfed the area’s sole supermarket.
“It’s sad, it’s a shame, it’s bad, very bad,” Delija said on a recent Friday afternoon while furiously cleaning his small kitchen and selling the occasional slice. “I don’t have words to say [how bad it is].”
Because of the fire, Delija and others in the area say there’s less foot traffic in the area, meaning fewer people shopping at all the stores that remain standing.
Zulma Torres grew up in the south Bronx during the infamous “Bronx is burning” days of the 1970s, but now lives in Norwood. “We left the south Bronx to get out,” she said. Now, she said the empty lot in her new neighborhood is unpleasantly familiar.
“The whole neighborhood went down with [the fire],” said David Graham, who has lived in the neighborhood for seven years. “It’s an eyesore — reminds me of the south Bronx in the ’60s and ’70s.”
Graham, wearing a Mets jacket, had just picked up some goods at Hillside Meat and Deli, which was busy with customers last Friday afternoon. Hillside, just four doors up Bainbridge from the empty lot, sustained minor damage in the fire, but managed to open up five days later.
Hillside owner Sal Mirra said while business is good for him (he’s expanding and adding a new freezer section to offer more options), the area is still suffering. “It’s a shock,” Mirra said. “Nobody wants to see this happen to their neighborhood. It’s like a depressed area.”
Mirra’s wife Debora grew up in the area and said she “cried for like a month” after the fire. The fire and empty lot that remains has affected the neighborhood “terribly and in every way. You don’t really want to walk around here. There’s nothing here.”
Both Mirras expressed optimism and said they thought the area would heal, eventually. “The community will be alright once they put something on the corner,” Sal Mirra said.
The strip destroyed in the second fire, which investigators say was an act of arson, is showing signs of rebirth. The Bank of America on the corner of East 204th Street and Perry Avenue reopened in September (see sidebar), and construction of a new and improved Foodtown supermarket is under way and scheduled to open in January, according to the owners who were scheduled to update residents on their progress at a community board meeting on Tuesday night.
But the site of the first fire, the scene across from Nicky’s, remains desolate. Some of the businesses have relocated elsewhere — such as the Bainbridge Bakery, which is now Anna’s Bakery and Café in Morris Park — but some have not.
“It’s depressing to see that much of a burned out area without much of an effort to do anything with it,” said Allan Freilich, the owner of nearby Freilich Jewelers, an anchor in the community for decades.
The lot is controlled by a limited liability corporation called West Bronx Stores, which is owned by Evelyn Jacobsen. After the fire, Jacobsen said, “The plan is to get the building back up as quickly as possible.”
Since then, Jacobsen’s been difficult to get hold of, but it appears as if her plan has been to do nothing with the property. She hasn’t filed for any permits to begin any type of construction and the building doesn’t appear to be for sale, according to finance records and a handful of real estate websites.
Fernando Tirado, the district manager of Community Board 7, says Jacobsen has not responded to several attempts to contact her by mail and e-mail. Tirado wants to talk to her about the zoning changes the Board introduced earlier this year that are currently being reviewed by city planning officials.
The Board’s plan is to “downzone” the whole commercial strip to maintain the character of the block. With the current zoning regulations, Jacobsen could conceivably build a 10-story building on her empty lot, which would tower over the block’s one-story storefronts. Tirado said the new zoning would limit Jacobsen or anyone else looking to develop property on the strip to a maximum height of two stories. The changes could be adopted by early next year.
Jacobsen didn’t return several calls seeking comment.
Last week, however, a woman who said she was Jacobsen’s “secretary” (some local merchants who know her said they didn’t believe she employs a secretary) asked which property the reporter was interested in. When she heard it was the Bainbridge property, she asked “Why? Do you want to rent it?” Then she said Jacobsen would call back later in the afternoon.