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Op-ed: Re-emerging from the Ruin of Fire Island

Op-ed: Re-emerging from the Ruin of Fire Island

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Updated at 3:45 p.m. PT

Fire Island famously serves as the summer pied-a-terre of New York City's gay nightlife, with the towns of Cherry Grove and the Pines quadrupling their populations every season. But in what is a bitter fulfillment of the isle's moniker, an axis around which much of the fun orbited burned to the ground on November 14. The iconic Pavilion and Sip N' Twirl nightclub were completely destroyed.

According to fire commissioner Joe Geiman, the blaze began externally at the LaFountaine Building and then leapt to the adjacent Pavilion, located in the Pines section of the island. Although both buildings met fire codes, because the fire began outside, the inside fire suppression systems of both properties were ineffective. Once the fire reached the propane-based heating systems, says Geiman, "it overwhelmed the resources we had there in a short period of time. Initially, there were only five fire firefighters fighting a huge blaze, and it was a windy night." It would take 400 to bring the conflagration under control.

While unavailable for further comment, Andrew Kirtzman, an author and former newsman who with business partners Seth Weissman and Matt Blesso bought the property for $17 million in 2010, released a statement on Facebook after the fire.

"This is obviously a very difficult night for all of us," Kirtzman wrote, describing the scene from outside the Pavilion building, "surrounded by over 100 firefighters" as flames were still smoldering, buildings still standing but "completely gutted by fire and water," and the air in the harbor still thick with smoke.

"Sip n' Twirl, the Bistro and the stores below them are in ruin," he outlined the damage before him. "The roof over the Pavilion is gone, and the high tea deck has been destroyed. Small fires are still burning inside the Pavilion - the dance floor - and it's too dangerous for firefighters to enter inside. The department has called for bulldozers to be brought here from across the bay, as it may be safer to destroy the Pavilion altogether rather than fight the remaining blazes. It is an unfathomable moment."

Fire island is no more than a half-mile wide; space is maximized to the point that structures, predominantly made or shingled with wood, abut one another (the Pavilion and LaFountaine were six feet apart). No cars are allowed. Fire departments are small. The labyrinthine causeways linking the properties are narrow, making transport of heavy equipment cumbersome. Put it all together and voila -- however a fire starts, it can very rapidly spread.

There were no reported injuries, and the Sip N' Twirl was closed for winter, but for the Pines community, it is a particularly acute blow: the fire obliterated the business district of the town.

"Everyone has a stake in these properties, and the love and passion we all feel for them are ringing loud and clearly this painful evening," wrote Kirtzman. "Tomorrow morning, Seth, Matt, and I will begin the process of renewing this beautiful property and making it even more spectacular than it was before..."

Fire Island is particularly vulnerable to fire, knows it, and takes precautions. Indeed, the Sip N' Twirl regularly weathered fire hazards with nary a spark: frequent entertainer and drag phenom Pepper Mint observed several patrons leaving lit cigarettes on the property's treated deck, "and it never caught fire."

"I really hope we can create a new culture there so people can gather and make it a town center again," says Guy Smith, the lighting designer for The Pavilion. Its loss brings to light how important a club, a neutral-ground nexus, is to any gay community. Eager to be a part of the Pavilion 2.0, Smith states, simply, "Fire Island needs a dance floor."

The loss also brings to light long-standing rifts between New York and Fire Island. In the preparation of this article (and several requests for anonymity later) what was first construed for reticence among sources was revealed to be a nearly-unanimous case of schadenfreude, with a splash of accusation for color -- over the fire, where it ignited, what ignited it, and the swift bulldozing of the remains. For the record, only the LaFountaine was bulldozed because of its imminent collapse; sections of the Pavilion still stand. Geiman concedes that the cause of the fire is, as of this writing, undetermined, but adamantly confirms Kirtzman's statement that the fire is not suspicious.

Smith, who had dinner with the Pavilion owners just two nights before the fire, goes further. "There is always suspicion when a club burns down," he scoffs, adding, "I've worked very close with Kirtzman and his partners; these are extremely honest people. They worked hard to get the Pavilion to the point where it was.. And there were so many plans for it. It had a lot of great aspects to it; what was there was pretty spectacular."

While no formal plans for rebuilding have yet been announced, there is little doubt something bigger and better will soon be hosting the famous high tea dances. Tradition demands it: The site has served as an open meeting place for gays since the days of the Sandpiper Restaurant in the 1950s and '60s, when even the New York scene required a large degree of discretion. And if the tale is to be believed, phoenixes rise from fires.

DAVID PERRY is a New York-based freelance writer.

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