Monthly Archives: April 2014

The Mayors of East Harlem: Part 1

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. It’s hard to quantify the value of this picture in words, but here’s the story.

The day after the explosion

The day after the explosion

“You got it? You good?” asked Jean.

“I think so—I just wanna get a few from this angle,” I said as I scampered about the roof.

Even if time were not limited, I don’t think I could have taken more pictures. My fingers were rendered immobile by the cold and it felt like I was taking pictures in slow motion. The scene below looked like something Godzilla would have left in his wake. The two buildings were nothing but a pile or rubble that continued to belch smoke up several stories. The fire department directed several hoses at the smoldering pile with a zeal that suggested the Godzilla’s progeny might actually be somewhere hidden in the ruins.

After the blast the police cordoned off a four-block area and were not letting any press in, but I had to get a picture of the rubble. The only way to do that was to infiltrate one of the surrounding apartments after somehow getting through the barricades. Some residents in the barricaded zone weren’t even allowed to go home. Their apartments were too close to the blast site and had been evacuated. One woman tried to get past the police who were guarding the zone, saying she had to go to her apartment and get medication for her son. The police remained unmoved by her plight.

From the barricade you could smell the devastation, but could see nothing but clouds of smoke still billowing from the last vestiges of the fire. A Jamaican guy who was standing nearby griped that East Harlem felt like a military occupation. Jean later introduced the man to me as his friend, Patrick, who was the super of the building that housed the local council member’s office—which was also inside the barricaded zone. Jean’s apartment was on the opposite side of Park Avenue from where the blast occurred. His apartment had not been evacuated, and he promised me I’d get some good pictures from his roof and he also promised me he’d get me through the barricade.

“You can see everything from my roof,” he said.

I wondered how many people would sneak a complete stranger through police barricades and into their building to take a picture for which they would get no credit, no money, no nothing. Maybe Jean did it because he felt like it was his civic duty to conspire with the press, or maybe the disaster had elevated people’s sense of generosity. Maybe that’s just the way Jean is. Maybe the world is divided between people who let random people come into their apartment to take pictures and those who don’t.

When Jean, Patrick and I felt like we had stared at the smoke long enough, we walked down Lexington Avenue from 117th Street. At least ten people greeted Jean and Patrick as we walked down the street. Jean gave each of the doñas a kiss on the cheek, and greeted the men with a hug and a pat on the back. Patrick, who was tall and lanky, gave loose handshakes.

“See! We’re da mayors of East Harlem,” he said.

“We’re just the mayors of these blocks,” clarified Jean.



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