Places that Matter

Engine Company 212

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Building front view with a flag, Jennifer Scott
Building front view with a flag, Jennifer Scott
Two firemen with Engine 212, Jennifer Scott
Firehouse saved through community efforts
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By Jennifer Scott

In October 2006, the city announced it would sell five firehouses that were closed in 2003. That announcement set off a wave of protests, but at one of those places, Engine 212 in Brooklyn (est. 1869), neighbors had been struggling for years to keep the firehouse open.

In November 1975, the city announced it would close Engine Company 212 in the Northside neighborhood of Williamsburg. Local residents and business could have received the news as just one more painful blow in a season of losses brought on by the fiscal crisis. Instead, Northside residents got together and occupied the firehouse. Led by Adam Veneski, a neighborhood grocer, hundreds of local people took over Engine 212 and refused to leave or let the fire truck or water pumper be taken away. For close to a year and a half, supporters lived in the firehouse, staged countless protests, and monitored damage and deaths in the area from fire. In 1977, a compromise was reached to reopen Engine 212 as a utility unit (“Utility Unit #1”), not as a full-fledged fire service company. A five-member fire rescue company from Queens was transferred to Engine 212. The activists continued to organize, moving themselves across the street to 125 Wythe, a small storefront and former bar, to monitor what they believed was the engine company’s (lack of) activity. Deciding that the firemen were going out on too few calls, they continued their protests to try to bring about a more effective firehouse. They joked that the utility unit was “O’Hagan’s vacation camp,” named after the then fire commissioner opposing them.

Finally, on June 17, 1978, Mayor Koch announced the return of Engine 212 to the firehouse, including many members from the original company. The People’s Firehouse activists received funds under the Comprehensive Employment Training Act (CETA) to begin a pilot fire prevention program. Since then, the People’s Firehouse (PFI), at 113 Berry Street, nearby to Engine 212, has established itself as a place to organize against threats to local safety, health, and living conditions. Besides continuing their mission of insuring fire service to the surrounding communities and engaging in fire prevention activities, they have expanded their services to incorporate a variety of social, health, educational, vocational, and housing concerns.

In October 2002, Naomi Schegloff and I spoke to some members of the People's Firehouse. We talked about the day of the takeover and about why the firehouse matters to them.

Kurt Hill

"The fiscal crisis came down quite hard, like a ton of bricks on the people of New York under Mayor Abe Beame. The federal government refused to help the city. Remember that famous Daily News headline, 'Ford to City: Drop Dead.' That basically was the attitude of the federal government in terms of helping out the largest city in the country during that period. Many services in Brooklyn were eliminated. All kinds of services -- police precincts, clinics, extra-curricular programs in schools. And, of course, firehouses, and Engine company 212 -- two twelve -- was one that was scheduled to be eliminated. Now, in North Brooklyn, we have a lot of wood frame buildings. And when they go up, they go up like tinder boxes. And response time is very, very important. The fire apparatus needs to get there to put the fire out, otherwise lives can be lost. And that’s what was happening. The city basically closed down fire service.