Just after midnight Wednesday morning, fire swept through a foster home for mental outpatients at 1715 Lamont Street, killing nine elderly women. The people who live on this renovation block, as proud of their diversity as of the Victorian steeples that grace the neighborhood skyline, find the fire has changed the way they look at each other, and at themselves.
LANDSCAPE: In all kinds of weather, the old people would stalk the streets or sit on theporch, smoking and rocking. To most of the us who live on Lamont Street, they were a part of the landscape. invisible in their predictability except as reminders that our civic duty was done by accomodating them within our racial, ethnic and economic mix. Sadly, we were smug.
But the charred ang gutted home, with its blood-splashed access walk, is a visible scar that won't let the poeple of Lamont Street hurry past.
On Wednesday the Mayor's black limousine swooped in, carrying the chief executive and other officials who crunched over the soot-thickened floors and past children's stuffed toys. Cars of the curious inched past. Cars of the bureaucrats parked. Knots of neighbors, angry with officialdom, dotted the sidewalks.
Thursday morning the patent lawyer on his motorcycle stopped, stared and waved to the policeman guarding the burned-out duplex. One of the main streets of this little neighborhood near the zoo looked as if lighting had hit it.
"The neighborhood is changing so rapidly," said architect Patricia Parker, who with her city planner husband, Samuel Parker Jr., runs a home center store nearby. The Parkers liked having the mental outpatients in the community. "Maybe these houses will no longer be operated as a home for these kinds of residents," she said.
REFLECTION: Some residents felt in disparate ways that somehow they should have been doing something for the outpatients, even as logic dictated there was little they could do.
Patricia Ahern had known the old woman who sat on the second floor roof, dodging flames, her mind befogged to the peril. She became one of the victims. So on Wednesday, Patricia Ahern did not go to her office; instead, she pondered the fragility of life, the eminence of mortality and her own debt.
"Some of us in some ways did know" about the building, she did. She perched on a car and fixed her eyes on the charred remains of 1715.
"We knew that it was overcrowded. It's a jolt to one's complacency and one's acceptance of it. How did we let ourselves buy that to a degree? Because you feel so helpless."
Susan Neibling stood beside her front garden with its violet, gold and raspberry colors. "My reaction is extreme anger. More people care about (the mental outpatients in an environment like this. What upsets me is that with all of these (regulations) there has to be a real tragedy before they'll be enforeced."
HUDDLING: Tragedy knits people together, even if only for a short while. Barriers were broken. Fat Man, the street dude, rearly is seen on Lamont Street. He reigns instead from the corner a block away. This day he joined one of the groups opposite the foster home in the quiet of a spring morning. His ring stood close to another circle that included Ronald Collins from the liquor store and Mary Gregory from the Raven Grill.
"I know my little old lady is gone," said Mary. "She'd come in and ask to use the bathroom or ask for a coke. I haven't seen her. She stopped by nearly every day." David Blackwell skipped work because "This thing messed with my mind so."
Further down, a knot of young mothers with children were remembering how one of the victims loved dogs and children. "I could see that speaking to my son was an important part of her day," said Niebling. She paused and adjusted the yellow baby carrier. "But I never knew her name was Nancy."
And a young black man, a school dropout of 19, stood apart from the somber groups. The woman, Nancy, had befriended him and listened to him. His voice broke. "It's not going to be right without Nancy."
Then a peculiar thing happened. This young man, who had felt shunned by the neighborhood, held up his chin and averted his eyes to veil the anger and bitterness. With a glance, he punctured our smugness about Mt. Pleasant being a roll call of all classes.
The professional blacks and whites, he seemed to say, wanted him as part of the landscape, not for himself. Having lost Nancy, would he gain another friend?
MEMORIES: "There was this old bald man who came and played with the children," recalled Karin Shiere, hands burrowed in the pockets of her cord jeans, the sun glinting off her mocha hair. "I wonder . . . but no, it was only the women who died . . . "
As she talks, her three sons dart like arrows around her legs, chasing an errant soccer ball.
"One of the ones who died was the woman who always picked up the paper. Everytime she saw the street littered, she came and picked up papers. It makes you realize that you never want to put your own patients in a place like that.
"There were nine people killed in that fire and you didn't hear any noise . . . it was so quiet."
Gail Whitley, who reuns a preschool called Children's Inn, forced a happy memory of the man who crossed the street to play the accordion for her children.
"He'd never charge us anything, but we'd give him a couple of dollars. But it worried me, seeing them out in all kinds of weather."
"People you know for the last four or five years, and all of a sudden they just don't come around anymore," said Don Ankeny who runs the corner shoe repair shop.
"They used to come in here. One little ole woman would check out the trash can, and I haven't seen her since Tuesday. I think there was an awful lot of carelessness and I feel damn bad."
For this inner-city area, were middle-class, mostly white professionals are moving in and renovating old houses, doubt and dynamism exist side by side. Groups often fail to recognize each other, and an underlying anger exists.
But the April tragedy crew the men, women and children together in a different kind of anger, against officials who, as one neighbor sputtered , "in effect murdered those perfectly pleasant people" by failing to protect them.
On Friday and Saturday, notes announcing a memorial service "for the victims of the Tuesday night fire" were calculated.The flyers read: "On Easter Sunday neighbors and friends of the victims will reflect upon this tragedy."
It is not surprising that they will stand and remember together in front of 1715. CAPTION: Pictures 1, 2, and 3, Clockwise from left: Susan Neibling, Sam and Patricia Paker, Karin Sheire with son Marcus, photos by Margaret Thomas; Picture 4, Gail Whitley, By Margaret Thomas