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The People's Firehouse

When an air raid siren went off at Engine Company 212 on Thanksgiving Day 1975, alarmed residents poured into the streets of Williamsburg, Brooklyn to find out what was going on. Paul Veneski recalls how their confusion turned to anger after a firefighter showed up to explain. A group of city officials had just arrived at the local firehouse unannounced. They had come to shut down Engine Company 212.

Photo of people in front of truck
The People's Firehouse
Within hours three hundred angry residents had gathered in front of the Williamsburg Engine Company to block the city from removing the fire truck. That night a handful of protestors packed their bags and moved in to the two-story firehouse at 136 Wythe Avenue, refusing to leave until the city agreed to keep the Engine Company open. Many stayed for the next sixteen months, prompting a journalist to dub 212 "the People's Firehouse."

The city finally relented in 1977 and the firehouse survived. But today plans are being floated to close Engine Company 212 again, and a handful of veterans from the 1970s fight say they're ready to move back in.

Photo of Felix Rohatyn
Felix Rohatyn, Investment Banker: "Now, whether this firehouse or this other service is to be cut that's a decision really ultimately that the city management and the mayor have to make."
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There are similarities between the first time the city attempted to close the firehouse and the current threat to the Williamsburg Engine Company. With New York on the verge of bankruptcy, in November 1975 Mayor Abraham Beame was cobbling together a $200 million package of cuts to present to the Emergency Financial Control Board, which had taken control of the city's finances. The attempt to close Engine Company 212 was a desperate measure intended to keep New York fiscally afloat.

Today New York is facing another financial crisis, which in dollar terms looks worse than it did in 1975. Felix Rohatyn thinks the situation is so dire that it would be "unrealistic" not to expect drastic service cuts. The investment banker who earned the title "Felix the Fixer" for his role in helping guide the city through the last fiscal crisis thinks that firehouse closings might be necessary. Drastic cuts combined with tax increases will be the only way for the city to balance its budget next fiscal year. "So far" he points out, "the Mayor's plans have actually been heavier on tax increases."

Photo of Steve Malanga
Steve Malanga, The Manhattan Institute: "Every time the city gets -- has a budget problem, people talk about closing firehouses, it's actually a political move."
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Steve Malanga, a Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, thinks the Bloomberg administration is threatening to close firehouses to send a message to New Yorkers that if they don't accept more tax hikes, basic services will be cut. This false tradeoff only distracts New Yorkers from the need to cut an oversized city labor force and wasteful spending programs that drain resources from the private sector. "If this city can't provide basic fire and police protection with a $42 billion budget, then there's something wrong with its spending priorities."

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