By Jackie Sandquist
I froze as I looked at the building ablaze across the street. The crackling noise woke us up and the strange orange glow coming from the front of the house got us out of bed. Questions blazed through my head: Is that building really on fire? How can this be? What do we do? I felt its raging heat from a half block away as I frantically shut the windows that faced the five-story wall of flames. Right out there on NE Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, one of the biggest of the four new apartment complexes was burning to the ground at four fifteen on a Thursday morning.
The commanding steel girders were my first clue to the enormity of the new Monroe Street Apartments under construction. Watching the muscular frame reach higher and higher reminded me of how our neighborhood was changing. The EkoHaus Apartments were the first of the new buildings on our stretch of MLK between Morris and Fremont Streets. License plates from Maine, Florida and Utah appeared on our street. Predictably, the cars from these new style eco-apartments crowded the once open streets. The days of easy parking were over. And as much as I didn’t want to like these people taking all the street parking in our cozy community, I eventually came to enjoy getting to know the newcomers. I shared the story of how Bill Wainwright, the land owner of the empty lot on Morris Street, let us put in a community garden in exchange for maintaining the property. I listened to their stories of what drew them to our city. The newcomers and I talked about our tree lined streets, eco-roofs, and solar panels in this rainy and quirky city.
The Monroe Apartments blocked my view of the very features that drew people to our city. I loved to watch the eco-roof of the Friends of Tree’s office change over the seasons. I noticed it along the treeline when I first moved into the neighborhood eight years ago. Eco-roofs were still novel then and I loved watching sparrows and finches pick at the bugs on the grassy roof. The Friends of Trees motto is Growing Healthy Communities. Their roof felt so natural, so right, such a part of a healthy and growing community. This new apartment complex blocked my view of the eco-roof, my symbol of rightness in this neighborhood.
Ambivalent as I was about the five story, not-enough-parking-places-for-the-number-of-units- Monroe Apartment complex, waking up and seeing it engulfed in orange, angry flames stunned me. Fire, the universal symbol of destruction, anger and passion, threw me into action. By 4:20 a.m. a wall of fire had consumed the east section of the building and flames burst out of every window toward the roof. The building was burning to death. We sprung into crisis mode. We called 911, heard a policeman yell “Prepare to evacuate!”, and wrestled our two terrified cats into carrier cases. Were we ready? I grabbed the garden hose and spent the next two hours frantically spraying down the stairs, porch, deck, trees, roof, and gutters as the burning embers from the imploded building rained down on us, leaving scorched indentations on the wood. It smelled of firecrackers and wet earth. Within a few hours over the twisted, blackened rubble, I could once again see the Friends of Trees eco-roof.
The morning of August 8 was horrifying, but tragedy frequently unites us. Even though I didn’t love the building, I was sickened by its demise and the destruction of the two houses beside it. I have mixed emotions about the temporary loss of the Monroe Apartments. Our neighborhood is changing. Houses will be repaired and most likely the Monroe Apartments will be rebuilt with the same plan. This fire forces us to come to terms with change, as old views are blocked and then reopened in a brutal and unexpected way. It forces us to look at where we put our energy when we don’t like something. And maybe this fire is also asking us what we can do to Grow A Healthy Community.