A recent apartment building fire in Hell’s Kitchen was determined not to be caused by controversial lithium-ion e-bike batteries — but the investigation and ensuing public outcry have cracked open a broader battle over allegations of threatening tenant behavior, additional building hazards and city accountability.
764 9th Avenue caught fire the morning of Sunday February 5, in a multiple-alarm blaze that sent 60 firefighters and EMS personnel to the scene. There were no fatalities, but there was one civilian injury and enough damage to the apartment building to warrant a temporary residential evacuation.
In the meantime, fellow residents of 764 9th Avenue remain displaced from their homes, forced to find shelter elsewhere until they can return to the building. In addition to the damage to the apartment building itself, neighboring buildings also remain affected by smoke damage and must campaign city agencies to receive support and repair.
While the fire was eventually confirmed to be caused by faulty electrical wiring within the building, the presence indoors of dozens of lithium e-bikes owned by one set of tenants sparked a neighborhood renewal of long-standing complaints over the hazard and the people who own them. Other residents of 764 9th Avenue allege that the tenants who own the e-bikes stored inside the building charge them in the hallways, pour gasoline, leave trash and other debris, and buzz in unauthorized persons who loiter and use drugs in hallways and stairwells and steal packages — and threaten anyone who confronts them.
Residents, representatives from the NYPD and elected officials gathered at a public HK49-54 Block Alliance meeting on Wednesday, and many locals expressed frustration over the circular process of trying to get the e-bikes and contested tenants removed. “Unfortunately, these people live at a departmental intersection where people don’t want to go out of their way to do the work to get things done,” said one resident of the building. “I’ve called 311, 411, 911, the FDNY, Child Protective Services, the super and the management company. No one wanted to do more than what was in front of them to fix the problem.”
Jordan Feiner of Council Member Erik Bottcher’s office told attendees they were aware of the situation and the lack of city response. “This was brought to FDNY, to HPD, to DOB, it was brought to our office. We passed it along to the city agencies and enforcement was not as strong as we would’ve liked,” said Feiner. “I don’t want to point fingers at any city agency, but it exposed that there is this larger gap in city response to these sort of situations.”
Bottcher’s office and the NYPD told attendees that the police are not able to remove the contested bikes from the building as “stolen” without definitive proof. “Unless an actual owner can prove to me, ‘that’s my bike, it was stolen, I want it back,’ unfortunately, I have to leave it,” said Detective Anthony Bellatoni of the 18th Precinct.
Feiner added that the Council Member’s office had been in touch with the building’s management, The Gershon Company, and wrote on behalf of tenants to demand resolution for the many safety hazards. In regards to the risks around storing lithium batteries, Feiner added: “The Council Member has co-sponsored a whole package of legislation that the city council has passed, regulating these lithium batteries, ensuring that nothing is bought secondhand and everything is certified — we think this is a good first step, but certainly not the last step that we need to get done to make sure everyone is safe.”
“It would be a good thing to focus legislation on the batteries, but it would be a mistake to think that’s what should come from this — the fire didn’t end this,” said one resident.
Other residents who spoke to W42ST — many on condition of anonymity due to threats made against them by the tenants in question — agreed that the problems surrounding their neighbors went back much further than the fire and would likely continue without actionable city interference.
“To say that it has been a nightmare living with these folks there would be an understatement,” said one resident, who described months of dodging trash, debris and e-bikes blocking the hallways and enduring broken front doors and unauthorized loiterers. “I stopped using my own stairs,” said former resident Clare, who eventually broke her lease and resorted to couch surfing to get out of the building. “I would go up to the roof and go down the stairs at the other building to avoid them, because they would scream at me, ‘snitches get stitches.’” Clare documented the conditions on her TikTok account.
“I would call 311 any time I knew [the commotion] was starting, and they would just close out the report,” said fellow resident Jeffrey Galaise. “The police would come and say, ‘you have to call your management company.’ I would text the super and the super would text [the tenants] and then I would hear them in the hallway saying, ‘This f*****, he’s calling the super on us, we’re gonna get you.’ They would scream outside my door, ‘we’re gonna get you.’ So I just stopped complaining about it.”
Another longtime resident and tenant organizer said the same tenants broke into their apartment as a threat, but were never charged for the crime. “They broke through the fire gate into our apartment, and trashed it completely,” said the resident. “Took every single drawer, every refrigerated item, everything cereal, anything canned and just trashed and smashed it. It was a threat to us.” They said the police were not able to gain fingerprints from the scene and the suspects were not charged.
The same tenant added that the contested residents were unlikely to stop their activities without police or city intervention. “These guys are running a hardcore narcotic drug ring. That’s where the money is. It’s not the chop shop — that’s just the fricking delivery. If or when the management takes their bikes, they’ll just get some more — when you’re making huge profits off of dealing drugs, you’re not worried about a few bikes.”
A tenant from the contested apartment who identified themselves as “Jennifer” in a public comment on W42ST’s initial coverage of the fire denied the allegations of creating a safety hazard, writing: “It was not an illegal chop shop, it was a hobby that got out of hand and if anybody hasn’t noticed. we slowed down a lot with the bikes and the mopeds — and it wasn’t a bike or a moped or even this so called illegal chop shop that we supposedly had going on that even caused the fire, it was a scumlord who hasn’t done any work in an apartment for over 30 years that caused this fire. I wasn’t bothering nobody, I was not out there selling or doing drugs — I respected everybody as long as I was respected, no children or animals were getting hurt in the process of what I was doing. We contacted the super more than once about these ongoing electrical issues and he hasn’t done anything to fix it. I hope this doesn’t happen to any of you, because then you’ll see what it’s like to be in my shoes.” W42ST followed up with Jennifer about the allegations of threatening other tenants and we will update this story if we hear back.
As for the future of their stay in 764 9th Avenue, an attorney representing The Gershon Company told W42ST: “The landlord is represented by counsel and has a case pending for nuisance conduct for the illegal drug activity and chop shop taking place in apartment 5S, and another case pending for nonpayment against [the tenant]. We were hopeful that courts would help us resolve these issues before an event like the one this past Sunday would occur but these cases have been adjourned numerous times by the Housing Court for appointment of legal service providers and for APS intervention. The landlord is anxious and determined to resolve these cases legally, so that when the building is repaired our residents can return to a safe, nuisance-free environment.”
Residents say that action was long overdue. “What is it gonna take? How many lives are going to be ruined, or even lost?” said one. Another commented on the block association meeting: “I’m listening to this, and I’m wondering — if you took that chop shop known to everybody, with all the dangers it presents, and you put it on 81st Street between Lex and Park or anywhere on the Upper East Side, would we even be having this discussion? I know the answer.” They added. “I think it’s a ‘follow the money’ issue. I think it’s political clout. I think Hell’s Kitchen is an orphaned neighborhood, ignored by the city. This is a discussion, but it’s not going to go anywhere. It hasn’t gone anywhere for years. The prime example is that building — which was a fire hazard, a safety hazard, a drug haven — and everything else that’s wrong with how the city operates, and whom the city considers important.”