Mark Hayward's City Matters: Coming together to heal a West Side community
Anyone who's seen a fire grow on a cold morning knows how fast hungry flames can consume buildings, belongings, sometimes even lives.
No one died in a Nov. 25 fire at a three-story apartment building at Granite and Barr streets, but an early-morning fire certainly destroyed any post-Thanksgiving sense of security and stability for some 30 people who had made their homes there. Of course, the fire and resulting water damage ruined tangible items - such as wardrobes, furniture, food, electronics and everyday belongings that make up a home.
"It's been rough," said Brianna Michaud, who lost furniture, clothes, food and all her family's shoes. Since then, Michaud, her husband and infant daughter have been staying in the home of someone she barely knows, she said.
Luckily for her, some things are stronger than flames, namely the Manchester and New Hampshire traditions of helping out people stung by a sudden disaster. And some things travel nearly as fast as flames, namely Facebook postings about people who lose nearly everything in a fire.
So on Wednesday, 10 days after a fire drove them from their homes, residents returned to the corner of Granite and Barr streets.
There they found folded clothes, toys and books, neatly arranged on tables with hand-lettered signs that read "Infants" and "Tweens."
Five stainless steel racks held hangers with clean and neatly pressed jeans, sweaters and outerwear. More clothes hung in two vans pulled along the curb.
Another van offered neatly paired shoes and household goods. Around the corner, a fourth van housed televisions, mattresses, lamps and other furniture.
All was donated after Shelley Therrien put out a plea on Facebook for donations. She runs two dry cleaners for her boss, Oscy Cadran, who owns the building at 5-11 Barr St.
"There's a lot of stuff here," said Cadran, as he stood in the center of what looks like it could be a sidewalk bazaar in some distant country. "We can't replace everything, but this is at least a head start."
"Private donations are good, but we have a lot of rebuilding to do," said Jason Fournier, as his hands combed through men's clothing. He and his parents have been living at the Comfort Inn since the fire, he said.
"We lost everything," as he ticked off the living room set, television, couch, kitchen set, pots and pans, washer, dryer.
Therrien said she farmed off some of her responsibilities to co-workers, put her Christmas shopping on hold and did what she could to organize the spontaneneous clothing drive. Bags of donated items arrived daily at the dry cleaners. Some items were mailed from as far away as Vermont. Enough checks were sent to pay for six beds sets, including box springs, mattresses, even sheets and pillow cases.
Yesterday was nothing like a shopper's mad house envisioned whenever the words Black Friday sale appear on a billboard. Tenants directed their former neighbors to clothes that fit them. Donna Kuligowski, whose apartment was away from the fire, said she will be able to salvage most of her furniture, so she only wanted to pick up some clothes for the children she cares for.
Three months ago, I wrote about a building, just next door to Cadran's, with numerous code violations, unpaid taxes and city fees, and frustrated tenants. Odd that a building next door has a landlord with such a different approach to business. One who organizes an effort to restore what was lost, one who tries to find them a new place. One who mingles freely with them.
"I've had these tenants for years. You feel close to them," he said. He's offered them apartments in his other buildings, but most want to stay on the West Side. For example, Michaud has found an apartment that her family will move into with her mother-in-law on Putnam Street. She had moved into the Barr Street building Nov. 1, after getting married 10 days earlier.
"He was our first landlord," she said, "for our first landlord, he was really good."
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Mark Hayward's City Matters appears in Thursday editions of the New Hampshire Union Leader and UnionLeader.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.