Chelsea Now: A Shaken Chelsea Quickly Finds Its Footing

September 22, 2016

September 22, 2016

The windows were still missing on every floor of the building whose street level space houses the King David Gallery. Next door at the St. Vincent de Paul Church, shuttered since 2013, there was similar damage above. Below, shattered glass was strewn on the ground and wedged into the sidewalk cracks as far as the eye could see. Across the street, the tall windows normally affording passersby a clear view into the intense goings-on at Orangetheory Fitness sported the top-to-bottom duct-taped “X” mark familiar to anyone who’s ever prepped for a hurricane.

Three days after Ahmad Khan Rahami’s homemade bomb exploded near 131 W. 23rd St., a shaken Chelsea had weathered the storm and was standing tall, albeit on new footing.

Barricades lifted, traffic and pedestrians had returned to this block of W. 23rd St., between Sixth and Seventh Aves., which had a stronger NYPD presence. It was a time for attention and assurances from Mayor Bill de Blasio, and other elected officials, that life could return to normal. And so they came.

On Tuesday, de Blasio walked the block with NYC Office of Emergency Management (OEM) Commissioner Joseph Esposito, US Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson, and a group of elected officials including NY State Senator Brad Hoylman, NY State Assemblymember Richard Gottfried, Manhattan Borough President (BP) Gale Brewer, and Councilmember Corey Johnson. With the 31 people injured from the blast all released from hospitals, officials turned to assessing building damage, and human resilience.

Selis Manor, the 14-story affordable housing residence for the visually impaired at 135 W. 23rd St., was visited since it was in close proximity to the explosion, and the mayor stopped in to assess the mood at Malibu Diner — which many neighbors consider to be Chelsea’s kitchen.

Waiting for the mayor to arrive at Malibu, Jesse Bodine, Manhattan Community Board 4 (CB4) district manager voiced an appreciation of the street cameras, the work of city, state, and federal agencies, and the community’s coming together in awareness and strength. “The reaction time and information transfer were so swift,” said Bodine. “You can walk down the street today and see the NYPD, [and] the FDNY are out. They’re looking for anything peculiar and that makes people a little more nervous, but I think it also gives them a safe feeling.” Any recommendations from CB4 for the community, Bodine said, would not come until after the board has heard from agencies such as OEM, FBI, NYPD.

As the mayor and his entourage entered the Malibu and made their way between counter and booths, Mayor de Blasio stopped to shake hands with customer Frank Connolly. “I work across the street,” said Connolly. “I told him I was very impressed with how quickly people came together and caught this guy, and it looks like everyone is working as one unit. He pretty much agreed with me that he’s impressed with the way everyone banded together, the police and emergency services.” While he has no intention of changing his routines, Connolly expressed resolve with apprehension. “I’m nervous. Every day I take mass transit, the subway, and it’s scary. This was too close for comfort.”

The mayor pressed on to a booth where Chelsea residents, husband and wife Steve Rosenthal and Jennifer Gilson, were eating lunch. The mayor accepted their invitation to have a cup of coffee and sat down with OEM Commissioner Joseph Esposito too, for about 15 minutes. “We want to have a normal life whether we’re a target or we’re not a target,” said Rosenthal. “We decided to stay after 9/11 and we’re staying again. We like this neighborhood.”

The mayor commended them on their “very good attitude.” Rosenthal then asked a question that is on everyone’s mind: “Do you know why he [Rahami] picked this block?” The mayor responded, “I can answer very comfortably that there are a lot of mysteries here, your block…”

The couple and the mayor found common ground in the fact that the couple’s three children all attend NYC public schools, as did his children. Rosenthal and Gilson are entrepreneurs, whose businesses, The Magic Shop recording studio and The Living Room performance venue, were both well known staples of the music culture of New York City. Both businesses were forced out of their spaces due to high-rent increases inflicted by landlords. In this coming together of community at the Malibu, de Blasio asked “Do you want any assistance from your city in terms of finding space?” and asked Bernadette Nation, director of Small Business Services (SBS) at the NYC Department of SBS, to confer with them in the booth as he departed.

Looking around, Boris Gacina, Malibu’s manager, commented, “It’s coming back to normal now. It’s still a situation where we’re talking about these things that happened, but we’re getting there.”

In a further exploration of how the community is recovering, Councilmember Corey Johnson invited a group to visit the residents of Selis Manor, where apartment windows on three floors were blown out and a number of visually impaired residents were stranded on lower floors since the building’s alarm system automatically locked the elevators.

Luckily, no one was injured. “That night the Fire Department hadn’t reset the elevators and our superintendent was out of the building and couldn’t get through,” says Joyce Carrico, President of the Selis Manor Tenants Association. “We had people on the first floor in wheelchairs who couldn’t get to their apartments because they couldn’t use the stairs.” During the Mayor’s visit earlier in the day, Joyce spoke to him about the need for providing collapsible electric wheelchairs that have bigger wheels and can be raised and lowered easily. This terrorist attack is bringing to light measures that can be put in place for safety in the future.

“Since the explosion it has been very busy,” said Carrico. “The OEM and Red Cross [American Red Cross of Greater New York] have assisted with meals which we’ve been distributing to tenants. We’re also making sure [to] find out those who would like counseling, and we’ve been making sure they get it. Visions [a service organization for the blind and visually impaired located in the building] offers counseling services as does the Red Cross.”

Nancy Miller, Visions executive director added, “What has happened due to the explosion being here is issues of blindness have resurfaced both on the city and the state levels. We’ve been talking about how best to meet the needs of the tenants who live in this building. They range in age from 18 to nearly 100, from very independent people to those who need assistance. With the closing of the street that occurred with the explosion, the question came up, ‘How do the blind people get around?’ ”

Miller has been advocating for a state-wide bill that requires the licensing and professional recognition of those who train blind people to find their way in the greater world. “We have professional mobility specialists with master’s degrees who train blind people in how to use their other senses in order to be able to navigate the outside world, and we cannot get a license for them in New York State,” says Miller. “We’ve been trying for 25 years to get the specialized professionals that train and work for blind people to be licensed. Manicurists are licensed, teachers are licensed, but those who teach a person without sight how to cross West 23rd Street or Seventh Avenue are not recognized.”

“A silver lining, if there is one in all this,” sayid NY State Senator Brad Hoylman, who was at Selis with BP Brewer, Assemblymember Gottfried, NYC Public Advocate Letitia James, and Councilmember Corey Johnson, “is that a lot of Chelsea residents are going to learn a lot more about Selis Manor and Visions and the wonderful work they do for the community.” However, he added that he has concern for the small businesses along the thoroughfare which, he hopes, will not be struggling for much longer. Johnson, who arranged the visit to Selis, has also been helping residents and businesses get back on their feet.

“We are a resilient community,” said Johnson, “and sometimes we have to sadly and strangely deal with the unexpected. That’s what’s happening in this case. We’re not going to be cowed by cowards who are trying to inflict fear and damage to our communities. People should be vigilant and stay safe, and also continue to enjoy their freedom and live their lives.”

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