As 2 Famed Businesses Reopen, Tenants Above Them Remain Without Gas


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Elsie and Pasquale Forino at their apartment, above Carnegie Deli on Seventh Avenue.

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Nicole Craine for The New York Times

Last week, while Mayor Bill de Blasio was downstairs tucking into a pastrami sandwich at the newly reopened Carnegie Deli, Elsie and Pasquale Forino sat in their sky-blue kitchen one floor above having their own breakfast of toast and fruit. When Mr. Forino pressed down the lever on the toaster, the lights dimmed.

“We used to make vegetarian sausage, sometimes,” Ms. Forino mentioned later that day over tea, as the lights dimmed again when the electric kettle was switched on. “It doesn’t turn out as good with the hot plate.”

For 57 years, the Forinos have called this five-room apartment at the back of 854 Seventh Avenue home. Though they have only ever been to the deli once, they say they have enjoyed fairly good relations with its numerous owners over the years, a civility they have tried to maintain even after spending nearly nine months without heat or hot water. The gas in the building was shut off by Consolidated Edison in April because the deli had been illegally siphoning fuel.

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Carnegie Deli reopened last week after being shut down by Consolidated Edison in April.

Credit
Nicole Craine for The New York Times

The boiler came back on in January, after a court order, restoring hot water and heat, but not the Forinos’ cooking line. The deli, meanwhile, is once again turning out Woody Allen sandwiches and knishes as big as bricks.

“At least we’re not paying rent right now, though our rent is negligible, so maybe we shouldn’t complain,” Mr. Forino said. Tenants in rent-controlled apartments have the right to withhold rent if they are not receiving heat or hot water.

Forty blocks south, the situation is far less cordial above Barneys, which reopened in its original location in Chelsea last week. After inspectors for Con Edison discovered an improperly installed connection valve in May, 148 apartments lost the use of their stoves, and, as of Sunday, about a third of those were still without gas.

“Barneys sent us all popcorn before they started working,” Lily Aloma, a 40-year resident of 161 West 16th Street, said outside her building last week. “That should have been a sign of the absurdities that laid ahead.”

Natural gas, electricity, steam, water and oil course beneath the streets of New York City, often through century-old conduits. When something goes wrong, people can die.

This month, the owners of an East Village building that exploded in March, killing two people, were charged with manslaughter; in 2014, a gas explosion in East Harlem destroyed two buildings and killed eight people. The city and Con Edison have increased inspections fivefold over the past year, leading to 343 buildings going without cooking and heating gas. While they do not quarrel with the need for caution, some residents are exasperated with the halting work of getting back to normal.

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The entrance to Barneys New York on Seventh Avenue. Several of its building’s tenants have no gas for their stoves.

Credit
Nicole Craine for The New York Times

Inside the Barneys building — an orange brick prewar pile of mostly studio apartments — residents said United Management, the co-op’s sponsor and manager, placed the blame with Con Edison, while the utility claimed the building still has work to do.

“The total duration of a shut-off due to issues with customer equipment is nearly entirely a function of how quickly building management is able to make repairs, get certification, etc.,” Allan Drury, a Con Edison spokesman, said in an email. Representatives for United Management and the co-op’s board did not respond to requests for comment.

For its part, Barneys believes it has done everything it can to make the best of a bad situation, even providing electric cooktops for residents. “Barneys New York sincerely appreciates the patience demonstrated by all of the tenants of 161 West 16th Street during the build-out of our new downtown store,” the company said in a statement.

Inside the apartments that rise over Barneys, problems have cascaded. Of the building’s eight main gas lines, or risers, a number of them had leaks. Some residents with apartments attached to the undamaged risers got their gas back quickly. Others had to go without for far longer, as the risers were repaired and the lines in every apartment were inspected for leaks. Cabinets were disassembled, walls were demolished, dinner parties were deferred.

“It ruined a lot of Thanksgivings and Christmases,” said Peter Logan, an 18-year resident who was out walking his three dogs last week. He mostly dines out, and was not as affected, though until he got his gas back after five months, he used an electric kettle to make tea. “I even offered my neighbor my oven for Thanksgiving,” he said. “She still can’t cook.”

Some residents have put the hot plates Barneys provided to the test. “I made a nice skillet chicken the other day, with shallots and bacon,” one resident, Kathryn Kallet, said.

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Russell Bonifay at his apartment above Barneys. He has been using an electric burner to cook with since Con Edison shut the gas off to make repairs.

Credit
Nicole Craine for The New York Times

Many agreed that safety was paramount, but some were losing their patience, like Russell Bonifay. “The super told me Con Ed is sending out someone on Wednesday to turn on the gas, then he says the guy is just there to inspect, and another guy has to turn on the gas,” he said. “Can’t they get their act together?”

A number of renters, who did not want to give their names for fear of jeopardizing their leases, said they felt they were being left for last when it came to the work.

Yet a good many residents felt the inconveniences were just a fact of life in the city — ones that are good for property values, no less.

“Loehmann’s had $50 shoppers, so they needed a thousand,” Matthew Robinson, a 30-year co-op owner, said, recalling the bargain-basement shop that replaced the original Barneys, and is now being replaced by it. “Barneys has 50 shoppers who will spend $1,000. It will be great for the neighborhood.”

Uptown, the Forinos were preparing for another court hearing this week. Now that they had heat and hot water, the deli’s owners were seeking rent again. Memories of baths using heated kettles or cold water, and juggling three space heaters so as not to trip the circuit breaker, were still fresh. And finding documents was challenging after an insect invasion two months ago left most of the apartment’s contents wrapped in plastic.

In a statement, Marian Harper, an owner of the deli, said, “Due to the age and condition of the building, we have been faced with some challenges, which we are currently working with our construction team to overcome and to determine what is the best and quickest solution to resolve these problems.”

One neighbor had moved out amid all the trouble, leaving three others and the Forinos in the 10-unit walk-up. (A number of apartments have been turned into storage for the deli.) The couple, now in their 80s, raised three children there; they grew up smelling like pickles, Ms. Forino joked. Their art, from workshops at the Museum of Modern Art, still hangs on the walls. They miss having their grandchildren over for dinner.

“At this age, we’re getting closer and closer to the other side, and it’s sad to lose a whole year of your life,” Ms. Forino said. “The remaining days should be the best you’ve had.”

Mr. Forino tried to remind her they still could be. “People are going through worse, and we’ve still got each other,” he said.



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