Out of the Ashes
As a city built on the ruins of the 1906 earthquake and fire, we are aware that it can all go to shit anytime. Disaster is in our past, and it’s there, waiting for us in our future.
And whenever a fire occurs in San Francisco, it feels like it hits home. Maybe it’s because we live so close together in this seven-by-seven mile city. Maybe it’s because we know someone who has been affected. Or maybe it’s because we know that we’re also vulnerable to these unfortunate disasters.
These thoughts cross my mind whenever I pass by the apartment complex on the corner of Haight and Fillmore. After being wrapped in a white plastic cocoon for several months, the top of the structure is now exposed, baring the bones of the 24-unit building that experienced a four-alarm fire on September 27, 2011.
Looking at the building makes me wonder about the people who used to live there. What are they doing now? How have they carried on?
Curious to see how they have rebuilt their lives, I reached out to a few people displaced by the recent fires.
One second Tiffany was in her apartment, working on her laptop. The next minute her house was on fire, and she was on the street – minus her shoes and bra.
I read about that unfortunate day on her blog Tiffyism, where she documented her very personal account of the inferno that took out her one-bedroom apartment, along with neighboring businesses Fecal Face Dot Gallery and Three Twins Ice Cream.
At 3 p.m. on September 27, 2011 she was one of the few people in the building when a fire broke out in the apartment across her hall.
Pierre Pegero, co-owner of Lo-Cost Meat Market, saw smoke from across the street and ran into the building, banging on doors to alert the residents, including Tiffany. Initially shocked, she shut the door in his face.
However, reality quickly set in and she grabbed her laptop and camera and left the building in her pajamas.
As each minute went by, she thought about the irreplaceable possessions that were being consumed by the flames – her photographs, her mother's poetry book, and the rosary that belonged to her best friend's grandmother.
After the fire, she sat inside Nickies and sent out Tweets about her situation. Moments later, neighbors came in with donations, including a pair of shoes and a bra.
Nowadays she's in a new apartment in the Lower Haight, a few blocks away from her old place.
"There are so many supportive people in the neighborhood,” she said. “When I started looking for a new apartment, I knew I couldn't leave the Lower Haight."
John and Jessica Trippe of Fecal Face Dot Gallery were at their store on Fillmore Street when the apartment building next door caught on fire. John had come back from a meeting when a woman banged on the door yelling, “Fire!” Looking up, he saw six-foot-high flames firing out next door.
"It's such a unique feeling, being in your space and not knowing if you should grab as much stuff as possible," he said.
Eventually, John decided it was better to be safe than sorry and started shuffling the art from his gallery to a friend's house across the street. The folks from Upper Playground also helped out, creating a human chain to move the art to their nearby shop.
The gravity of the situation hit once John and Jessica stood in a foot of water with a bloated ceiling over their heads. "I kept thinking we'll be back at work tomorrow. It didn’t register for a bit," explained Jessica. After seeing all the water damage, they knew they wouldn't be back for a long time.
A few weeks later, their friend's landlord called and offered his 3,000-square-foot storefront on Clement Street as an interim art gallery.
"The rent we had to pay was next to nothing," John said. "It was just out of the kindness of his heart."
Luck struck again a few months later when the Trippes found a permanent gallery space in the Mission. Their misfortunate on Fillmore was a blessing in disguise.
"I'm lucky that no one got hurt, that we had insurance, that we found a temp space, and this space,” he said, as we chatted in his new space at 2277 Mission St. “I feel lucky for everything."
This winter, Facebook broke the news about my friend Ivan Cash’s fire. He posted a video on his profile portraying the aftermath of a two-alarm blaze that burned his apartment on December 1, 2011.
Ivan had just returned from a trip at 2 a.m. and gone to bed, only to wake up two hours later to his housemate Jon yelling for everyone to get out of the house. A fire that started next door had spread to his house.
He grabbed his computer and keys and sat outside in disbelief. He watched as some of his neighbors were being pulled out on stretchers due to inhalation and burns.
Suddenly, the people who lived in the two buildings, who had only casually known each other, were part of the same life-changing event. After that night, the tenants became “a community of information and support” by sharing supplies and resources to help each other get their lives back on track.
After the dust settled, Ivan organized a get-together at Zeitgeist. Over half of the tenants attended. Part solemn, part refreshing, the gathering allowed them to learn how everyone was getting by.
“It was cool to get to know my neighbors and cut through the bullshit. No one was talking about sports at that table,” Ivan said.
One of the tenants was a fellow graphic designer who offered to let him work out of her studio for the next month, since he usually worked from home.
“I ended up working in that studio for 20 days that month,” he said. “As a graphic designer, I can work from bed, but it was cool to have the connection with someone who had the same experience.”
Those connections forged in a time of disaster seemed to carry on. Last time we talked, Ivan was getting together with the group to bake cookies for the firefighters who put out the fire in December. Says Ivan: “We’ve got to give appreciation where it’s due.”
Disasters come with moments of intensity and levity. It can be devastating for the people involved. But there's also compassion, hope, and healing.
A few weeks after I finished my interviews, I met Ivan at Dear Mom, where we ran into Tiffany Bukowski from the Haight and Fillmore fire. It seemed only proper to introduce them.
I also bumped into Lauryn McCarthy of Scoutmob, who was in the midst of organizing a fundraiser for the five-alarm Western Addition fire that occurred on December 22, 2011. "I needed to do something for my neighborhood," she said.
As Ivan and Tiffany were swapping stories, I thought about how at this very bar, there were three people whose lives had been affected by fires. It's a small town. And in times of disaster, it gets even smaller. Fortunately for us, San Francisco has no shortage of good neighbors.
One thing all of my sources wished they had or glad they did have: insurance. In the case of a fire or burglary (hopefully not – knock on wood), renters insurance will help cover the loss.
Insurance providers often offer a discount if people bundle renters insurance with existing life, health, or auto insurance plans. Check out AAA for a free quote.
California Health and Safety Code Section 13113.7 requires landlords to install smoke detectors in each residential unit and stairwells of multi-unit buildings and apartment complexes. However, landlords are not required to check on them.
Check smoke detector batteries once a month by pressing the test button. Be sure to replace the batteries twice a year. To make it easier to remember, just coordinate it with changing clocks during Daylight Savings Time.
Buy a grease and electrical fire extinguisher, just in case you fall asleep making pot stickers.
Can’t convince your landlord to install smoke detectors? Inherited a sketchy set up in your apartment? You can find out how to report potential fire and safety hazards here.