It was one of the most hard-fought grassroots fights to keep a fire company open in New York City history.
Twenty years after the struggle, residents, firefighters, and community leaders gathered on Saturday, July 10 to celebrate the three-year fight to keep open Squad 41 at 330 E. 150th Street, which ended in Mayor David Dinkins reopening the squad on July 1, 1990.
The Koch administration had closed the firehouse shortly after it was ranked the 23rd busiest in the city in 1988.
Despite a vigorous community campaign to save Engine 41, it closed on May 3, 1989.
After the closure, the group fought to reopen the firehouse by filing lawsuits against the city, holding weekly vigils, protests, and even handcuffing themselves to the firetruck.
On July 10, awards were given to firefighters, community leaders, clergy, elected officials, union leaders and others who fought to restore fire service.
“For three years the community was galvanized by constant vigils, rallies, and putting pressure on elected officials,” said Bob Nolan, who at the time represented Borough President Fernando Ferrer. “This was a community in a poor neighborhood that didn’t allow the central government to shut down their firehouse. By their fighting and winning a battle to get the fire company reopened, it was a victory for the entire borough.”
Nolan said that in his 30 years working in the borough president’s office, it was the greatest victory he has seen in a grassroots, community-organizingeffort.
Also remembered at the gathering were 14 people who perished in fires in Engine 41’s service area before it was reorganized as Squad 41.
For many of the firefighters in the shuttered house, the events leading up to the closure were a call to action when many realized that the rumors they began to hear in 1987 were more and more like realities.
“It created a dilemma for us because we are firefighters and have to follow administrative policy, yet many of us came from the community,” said Lieutenant Frank Vignali, who was then assigned to Engine 41.
“I myself was born and raised nearby. So we joined together with the community to fight the closures.”
The coalition got help from groups including South Bronx People for Change, Immaculate Conception Church at 389 E. 150th Street, The People’s Firehouse in Brooklyn, and the Guardian Angels. Retired firefighter Sam Marquez, who was assigned to Engine 41, said that he thinks the Koch administration believed they could get away with closing the company because the community might have been less politically active than others.
Nevertheless, they kept up a relentless barrage and proved they were quite active indeed, often drowning out Koch during his re-election campaign speeches in 1989.
“The community had burned down in the 1970s and we were not going to let that happen again,” Marquez said. “It was persistent demonstration and prayer for 14 months from when it closed until it reopened. We went to City Hall, Albany, and Washington. We fought Goliath and we won.”
Also receiving an award during the ceremony was Congressman Jose Serrano, who said that in 37 years of elected life in the borough he has never seen a better organized movement.
Some drew parallels to the city’s threats over the last two years to close ladder and engine companies around the city, including Ladder 53 on City Island, to that time. Ironically, when Engine 41 was reopened as Squad 41 in 1990, Ladder 53 was also saved from the axe.
Reach reporter Patrick Rocchio at (718) 742-3393 or firstname.lastname@example.org