Searching for answers in the rubble of the disaster at Windermere Court.
It’s a recent Tuesday afternoon and I’m hanging with former residents outside of Windermere Court, the 90-unit apartment complex at 48th and Walnut streets that mysteriously burst into flames on Jan. 10.
Residents have spent five weeks fighting for their rights to get back into their apartments to salvage some of their belongings: documents, blankets knit by deceased grandmas, baby clothes gifted to a pregnant woman expecting her first child in July.
Since the fire, ex-residents—many still homeless and crashing with friends in the city or New Jersey—have been forbidden from stepping foot on the property. That much is clear. The confusion part is: Who made the call? Building owners Sam and David Ginsberg or the city?
As residents futilely waited for help from either, thieves clipped a hole in the fence and looted the joint. Among items reported missing are legally owned firearms.
Also missing in the fire: pet cats.
Today’s salvage opportunity only happened because of a 48-hour injunction to halt demolition of the building. It’s unclear who brokered the deal, though the owners, the Mayor’s Office, the Department of Licenses & Inspections, and Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell all take some credit. (And then Blackwell announced her re-election bid a few days later.)
Residents heard about the delay from each other—they established a listserv group—and from the news. They showed up today expecting to finally be able to go into the building and get their stuff.
Instead, they were told by Keystone Management employee John Vail, saddled with the too-little-too-late task as owners looked on from across the street, that they had to make a list of small items and members of the demo crew would go in and try to find the items.
“I think it’s bullshit,” says former resident Evan Hoffman, his breath visible in the cold. “Where’s Mayor Nutter? We’re just asking for justice here … It’s been chaos.”
“Nutter came here the night of the fire,” chimes in another man. “He asked me about my future. I said, ‘My future is up there!’ He points toward his old home.
“Look, no damage!” shouts Lois, pointing to an air conditioner still lodged in the window of apartment 204. People who have been in the building report with the flames concentrated on the top floor of the four-story building, some sections of the building just had minor smoke and water damage.
Lois’ eyes fill with tears that she can’t get closure, get her stuff. “No! Send somebody with us and let we the owners get our things for ourselves,” she says.
With no help or communication from the city or owners about retrieving their belongings, Hoffman and other residents, desperate, resorted to breaking the law to get at their things before looters could.
“I was able to go in, get some bags, go into my third-floor apartment, come back and make another trip,” says Hoffman. “People were watching the corners for me.”
On Valentine’s Day, the day demolition was scheduled to begin, dozens of ex-residents lined up and protested. Today, protest signs litter the sidewalk. One reads, “I’ve been robbed.” Another sign has a picture of a ginger tabby cat named Duece and reads, “Windermere owners say I’m not a “salvageable possession.”
Near the signs are a couple of lawn chairs for residents who have been camping out, awaiting word, any word, on their things. Next to the chairs is a pile of cat traps that Louisa Alexandra of nonprofit City Kitties was hoping set inside the building in an effort to rescue pet cats missing since the fire. Cats are known to survive for weeks and months inside buildings like Windermere Court.
But Windermere’s owners, brothers Sam and David Ginsberg, tell Alexandra that she can not go into the building, citing L&I. (The cats previously trapped by City Kitties were caught “independently,” without cooperation from the Ginsbergs.)
About an hour earlier, one of the Ginsberg brothers also refused entry to George Bengal, the director of law enforcement for the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, citing the same reason. Bengal managed to get into the building for the first time a few days earlier by securing a legal warrant after seeing a cat in the window.