The fire that consumed a file storage warehouse on the Williamsburg waterfront a week and a half ago has left artists in the building next door reeling. Several studios at 1 North 12th Street had their windows shattered by blasts of water from New York Fire Department hoses, destroying the artwork and equipment inside. Smoke from the fire filled the building, and all the tenants were left without heat and electricity for days.
“It was difficult to gain access at first — everything was blocked off for several days while the fire was being put out,” said Audra Wolowiec, an artist who’s had a studio in the building for five years. “Several studios were damaged from the water hose on the river; windows were broken. I’ve been able to get back in, power and heat have been restored, but many people are without phone and internet. The whole area is a mess, and the street is under surveillance. It’s very apocalyptic feeling over there; the level of destruction is quite intense. I’m very glad no one was hurt.”
It seems a matter of shear luck that nobody in the building was hurt. The street artist Cern, who has a studio on the second floor facing the warehouse, woke up on January 31 after a late night of painting to find his view engulfed in flames and smoke. Unsure of what to do, he took hundreds of photos and documented the ensuing drama on Instagram. Later that day he had people over for a studio visit.
“At about 7pm, just as we were leaving, they shut the power off,” Cern said. “Sunday [February 1] I come back, and by the time I get up the stairs my head hurts. The river boats are blasting the window, water’s coming through the seams. It seemed like one shift in pressure and my windows would shatter.”
Working in the dark and with a gas mask on, Cern moved as much of his art and equipment as possible into rooms not facing the burning warehouse. He left paranoid that his efforts would be for naught — that the windows of his studio or the one above would shatter, and water would pour into the studio. Returning to the dark, cold, and smoky building on February 3, he decided to evacuate as much of his work as possible.
“I asked one of the fire chiefs, and he said, ‘If I was you, I would get anything of value out of there,’ so I did,” Cern explained. Three days later, after heat and power were restored to the building and the situation began to normalize, he moved back into his studio. “It was an exhausting week.”
The building and entire surrounding block of North 12th Street remain off limits to the general public, while demolition work continues on the charred warehouse and its smoldering sections are still being doused by the FDNY. The damage to the studios might have been even worse if the building had been fully occupied; however, all remaining tenants of 1 North 12th Street are being forced to move out between now and April 30, and many have already left. The building is slated for demolition to make way for the long-delayed Bushwick Inlet Park and Greenpoint Monitor Museum.
At a town hall meeting on February 9, community members raised concerns about the fumes from the fire and circulated a petition calling on the city’s Departments of Environmental Protection and Health to be more responsive in issuing public health advisories when there are large fires.