Since the gas explosion in March that leveled three buildings, killed two people, and injured at least twenty-two more in the East Village, many of the affected businesses have moved past the tragedy and are focusing on rebuilding. Others, though, have been unable to get out from under the rubble.
As DNAinfo first reported, the popular Belgian french fry shop Pommes Frites found a new location near New York University, about a mile from the destroyed restaurant. The owners say the new space at 128 MacDougal Street, just below street level, will have seating for at least 25 people. It’s next door to a Tibetan store selling all kinds of Buddhist artifacts; other businesses in the neighborhood are similarly eclectic.
Having looked at more than 50 properties, owners Suzanne Levinson and Omer Shorshi are looking forward to the move.
“We’re definitely sad to be leaving the East Village after eighteen years, but the new location is very close to where I’d wanted to open when I wrote the original business plan in 1996,” Levinson tells the Voice.
The new space measures 800 square feet — 300 more than the old location. It’s also more expensive. Rent is $9,000 a month, as opposed to the $5,000 they used to pay. “Though losing 123 Second Avenue is a huge setback, we’re excited to put everything we’ve learned into designing and building the new space,” Shorshi says.
Ethan Hartman, a brand strategist who’s helping the owners with a crowdfunded Indiegogo campaign set to launch later this month, says rebuilding will likely cost close to $300,000. The money will come from multiple sources: an already approved $50,000 federal community investment loan, an online supplies business the partners run, and insurance. The rest must come from donations. A fundraiser through Square Cash netted the restaurant $2,500, according to Hartman. He anticipates the Indiegogo campaign will make additional loans unnecessary.
The owners also hope to win approval for a wine and beer license “to offer our customers a nice selection of Belgian beer to accompany the frites,” Hartman reports. But he cautions that the process can be lengthy — that selection of Belgian ales they envision remains a wish-list item for the time being.
Though Hartman declines to cite an exact opening date, he forecasts late September to mid-October. The fact that workers are already active at the new site is encouraging — and a marked contrast to what’s happening back at the blast site on Second Avenue.
“We are no longer in business,” says Sam’s Deli owner Roop Bring. “We are waiting for the insurance and we’re seeing what we can do, but right now there is nothing.” Bring, who has owned the deli since 1997, hopes to open another place in the neighborhood, where he has worked since 1982.
Despite his store’s popularity, Bring has declined to take donations. After his son set up an online charity account, Bring told him to shut it down. “I feel guilty if I take somebody’s donation,” he explains. “I’m a hardworking person. I will do that and build it up myself again. If I don’t find a store or something and I have to take a job, I will take a job rather than take a donation.”
B&H Dairy, a popular kosher deli located two buildings away from where the fire started, also remains closed. Owner Fawzy Abdelwahed wanted to reopen in late April after the installation of new gas pipes, but he was told the space needed more work — including entirely new gas, plumbing, and fire systems. Making those changes is also hard because the building is a landmark, and the city must approve any changes. “It’s been crazy,” Abdelwahed says. “It’s very difficult. Hopefully, it’ll take like another couple of weeks to a month from now.”
Abdelwahed was able to raise funds through the online investment site Smallknot, which allows users to pay for a particular business service. For example, investing at least $750 in B&H will pay for a two-hour party catered by the store for up to 30 people. Abdelwahed raised $26,505.
Sushi Park, the restaurant that was located next to Pommes Frites, is permanently closed. No one answered when the Voice called a number listed for owner Hyeonil Kim.
Marius Wesser, the attorney for Sushi Park chef Machendra Chongbang, filed suit against the building owners on behalf of his client over injuries Chongbang suffered as a result of the explosion. He says the corporation has not responded.
Wesser says his client is still recuperating from a chest contusion and knee and head injuries. “I get the sense from what I’ve heard from him that he’d like to get on with his life, but he has all these physical ailments holding him back,” Wesser says. “It’s not easy. It’s frustrating, demoralizing.”