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Harlem Residents Face 3-Month Gas Drought, New York’s Crumbling Gas Lines

The deadly gas explosion in East Harlem three years ago represented a worst case scenario. Con Edison’s settlement of more than $150 million with New York signals an increased city-wide focus on gas leaks. One residential building in West Harlem has been without gas since November, after one call led to extreme precaution. Hannah Long-Higgins has the story.


BARKSDALE: It was a leak in E tower. Last year there was a leak in C tower. Each tower, even though it’s one big building, each tower has their main gas line.

LONG-HIGGINS: On a Wednesday afternoon, Alicia Barksdale is walking me through the basement of the building, where chunks of missing ceiling expose large pipes. Plumbers walk in and out of a dimly lit room.

BARKSDALE: It looked like a war zone at one point.

LONG-HIGGINS: Barksdale is the president of the Tenant Association – and she’s lived here a long time, too. In November, after a resident smelled gas and called 9-1-1, all gas lines were shut down. And getting the gas turned back on it – it’s been a long and complicated process.

LONG-HIGGINS: We get on the elevator to head upstairs. There are signs in the elevator with info about a planned visit from a building inspector tomorrow.

BARKSDALE: As you see they can’t say they never got notice, plus it’s put under everybody’s door (fades down)

LONG-HIGGINS: Because there’s no gas, people can’t run their stoves or their dryers. Terrance Cotano’s lived in the building for 25 years and he’s never experienced this primitive version of his own home.

COTANO: We can’t even, you know, dry our clothes when we go wash, because you need the gas for the heat.

LONG-HIGGINS: And more than that, as a father of young kids, he says he’s spent $1500 more this month on food and laundry.

COTANO: It’s a headache, because we can’t cook a decent meal because the hot pots that they give us, and it’s not fair.

LONG-HIGGINS: Fairness is on Alexander Liebermann’s mind too. He shares a $3,000 three-bedroom apartment with two roommates and tells me the hot pots aren’t enough.

LIEBERMANN: To boil water it takes ages, so what I do is like, I use the kettle, and then I put the hot water in the pot, and then I cook pasta. It works well, but to be honest, electricity charges are much higher now.

LONG-HIGGINS: The building’s management has cut the rents to cover some of the costs. But Liebermann says the difference doesn’t cover the added cost of inconvenience. And before the gas can come back on, the building’s pipes have to pass multiple inspections by several different agencies, and it’s a process that can feel like it’s going around and around in circles. Meanwhile, residents like Barksdale have to wait it out.

BARKSDALE: It’s costly, you know, I have my mom who comes a couple of days a week that I have to feed for her doctor’s appointment.

LONG-HIGGINS: But Barksdale is a glass-half-full kind of person.

BARKSDALE: Me? I’m fine. I was like eating cereal like okay, I can get rid of some of the—lose weight, you know, people look at it as different things.

LONG-HIGGINS: Before the gas can come back on at 3333, the Department of Buildings has to check the risers in each and every apartment. Just one uncooperative tenant can halt the process for everyone else. Barksdale likes to keep it in perspective.

BARKSDALE: This is a gas leak, and this is, you know, 5,000 lives in jeopardy. Some tenants don’t like it, but you know, we’re alive.

LONG-HIGGINS: Alive and safe, but at an extra cost.

Hannah Long-Higgins, Columbia Radio News.


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