GREAT NECK, NY – The borough of the Bronx, in which on January 9, 2022, 17 West African Muslim immigrants died, including among the eight children who perished, a two-year old boy, two five-year old girls and a six-year old boy, in a late-morning fire at the 19 story apartment building named The Twin Parks North West, has been long described as the NYC county that “is first in all things bad and last in all things good.”
That sorrowful, but sadly accurate description, both applies to and precedes an even more deadly catastrophic Bronx fire which occurred more than 30 years before. At about 3am, on March 25, 1990, 87 people died while trapped in a fire at an unlicensed social club eerily called Happy Land, located in the borough’s West Farm Section.
Unlike the fire at The Twin Parks North West, which NYC Fire Department Commissioner Dan Nigro later stated was ignited by a malfunctioning apartment electric space heater, the Happy Land fire was not caused by a mechanical failure.
Rather, it was set by a 31-year old arsonist. The man, whom I will not dignify by writing his name, set the fire at the club shortly after having an argument with his ex-girlfriend, who worked there as a coat checker; to make certain that there would be few or no survivors, the fiend found a way of blocking the club’s only exit.
Sadly, there is a tragic historic context about the 87 lives lost in Happy Land and the 17 doomed in the Twin Parks North West inferno: in the last half-century every one of the deadliest fires in NYC occurred in the Bronx. A study of demographics of the borough might reveal the underlying factors contributing to this unfortunate fact.
Since the late 1960’s, The Bronx has become home to a large and increasing number of the non-working and working poor, composed largely of Black, Latino and new immigrant African families. While approximately half of these families earn less than $42,000 annually, an amount 40% under the city average, Bronx tenants are burdened with the highest rent to income disparity in the city, paying on average 35% of their income to their landlords.
Such factors, seemingly making the process of saving enough money to buy a house or apartment very difficult, are seen by many in the Bronx as the main reasons that private home ownership in the borough is the lowest in the city. As it stands today, the Bronx, at a dismal rate of approximately 19%, has the lowest percentage of home owners in New York City, compared to almost double that number on average in the rest of the city, leaving approximately 80% of Bronxites as renters of the houses and apartments in which they live.
And, an equally alarming demographic, a majority of these renters have been burdened with still another unfortunate reality of the life of a tenant in the Bronx: while exact figures were unavailable, the Bronx is known to have the highest percentage of absentee landlords in the city, with many of them living outside the city and even state.
Included in that list of absentee landlords are the real estate tycoon Alexander DiLorenzo the 3rd and the multi-million-dollar real estate developing behemoth Bronx Phase III Preservation LLC. The former was the owner of the building rented by the Happy Land social club, and the latter have been the owners of the Twin Parks North West since 2019, when they purchased the approximately 50-year-old building. However, such untoward ownership arrangements might soon be in for a needed transformation.
In the aftermath of the loss of 17 lives at the Twin Parks North West coupled with the nightmares of the horrors of the Happy Land club killing inferno it sadly revived, Muslim Cleric Sheikh Musa Drammeh, the publisher of three Bronx based newspapers, a well-known and highly-respected community leader and himself an immigrant from West Africa (arriving to America in 1986), launched an organization named the African Rapid Relief Mobilization (ARRM) to end this vicious cycle.
Composed of educators, elected officials, business-owners, renters, home owners and a number of empathetic landlords, ARRM was formed by Drammeh to address the conditions that precipitated those two as well as countless other fire tragedies in the borough, and correspondingly, to ensure that such tragedies are never repeated in the future.
“The days of the tragic status quo in the Bronx are over,” Drammeh – who bore the heartbreaking responsibility of coordinating the funeral arrangements for the 17 Twin Parks North West victims- told me in a recent telephone interview.
“We [ARRM] will no longer remain quiet and accept the current circumstances where the majority of landlords are from out of town, some of whom seem not to care about the conditions of their buildings, as long as they are receiving their rent payments every month.
“While,” Drammeh elaborated, “we are not opposed to landlords making a profit from their investments, and we are not demanding that they move to the Bronx, we are demanding that they fulfill their legal responsibility to their tenants, which fundamentally includes ensuring that their buildings are safe, clean and well maintained.”
Drammeh, whose three print and on-line award-winning weekly newspapers report on Bronx, NYC, NYS, national and foreign news (full disclosure: my syndicated column appears in his three outlets), also referred to the dismally low rate of private homeownership in the Bronx and described ARRM’s plan to address that problem.
“The borough has been an overwhelmingly renters’ county for at least three generations. For many of the tenants, renting best fits their personal and financial needs,” Drammeh stated. “However, there are countless thousands of home buying desiring renters who qualify for federal government assistance, which offers supplemental financial aid to eligible first home buyers. Such federal programs include home purchasing grants, down- payment assistance and low-interest loans.
“The problem, though,” Drammeh continued, “is that many of these home owning oriented current renters are unaware that such programs exist. So our organization [ARRM] will make an all-out multi- dimensional effort to inform them of the federal help available should they want to become homeowners. In addition, we plan in the future to be able to provide volunteers to help loan applicants successfully navigate through the often complex process involved in securing this federal financial assistance.’’
Still, even as he divides his 14-hour work day between operating his three newspapers and further organizing and staffing the embryonic ARRM, Drammeh, the married father of 3three young adults, said the recent tragic fire remains constantly in his mind.
“The death of every one of the 17 victims is impossible to accept, but as a parent, I find the death of the eight children the most difficult to accept or comprehend,’’ Drammeh stated.
Drammeh then poignantly added that without the acts of courage of firefighters that tragic day, the death toll would have been even higher.
“The 200 or so firefighters who responded to the fire that awful early morning battled smoke, flames and severe heat as they raced into the burning building and rescued dozens of trapped residents,” Drammeh stated. “Without their heroism the fire would without question have claimed the lives of many more women, men and children.”
As our conversation was coming to an end, Drammeh, a self-described “reasonable optimist” told me that he was and continues to be inspired by leaders and members of the diverse ethnic, religious, political and professional communities who have come forward in the aftermath of the tragedy to show their solidarity with the West African Muslim community.
“Although all the deceased tenants were Muslim immigrants from West Africa,” Drammeh stated. “New Yorkers from all backgrounds- including the governor, the mayor, members of the city council, clergy and lay people from different faiths, business and professional leaders and charity organizations- came forward to provide a significant amount of money and supply an array of needed household items to all the families devasted by the fire.”
Drammeh, who over the past two decades has developed very close ties with the NYC and NYS Jewish communities, added that he was particularly touched by their kindness.
“The Jewish community quickly treated the tragedy as its own,” stated Drammeh. “Without fanfare and without seeking any kind of publicity, they were among the first relief providers to bring Halal food [food acceptable in Muslim law] to affected Muslim families.
“In addition,” Drammeh recounted, “Jewish organizations and private Jewish individuals donated large sums of money, even paying for the costs of the funerals that took place in Gambia (a West African nation) for the families who wanted to bury their loved ones in their ancestral home.”
Let’s pray that such funerals under such horrible circumstances never take place again.