The Latest Fire

One more weekend, one more fire. Today I made it over to the garage that burned Saturday night. The garage was behind an empty house, and it caught the neighboring house where someone was sleeping on fire. The woman got out unharmed, but the house needs repairs. Firefighters were able to save it, and Karen Bradley, the owner, was amazed at how effectively they fought the fire. The garage, however, didn’t fair so well, and several cars were also badly damaged or destroyed.

Now the big question: how does it all get fixed? Mrs. Bradley has insurance, but the remains of the garage are leaning on her house, and she doesn’t know who owns it. She is a lifelong Berlin resident, and this city isn’t big enough for anonymity. The owner most likely lives out of state or out of the area, which is the central challenge for Berlin. As I wrote in my last post, it is often worth it for landowners to walk away from burned out properties instead of fix them up. But where does this leave the landowners who want to rebuild? Usually it doesn’t matter, because if a house burns down it only affects itself, or even if it catches other houses on fire it doesn’t stick around for the cleanup. But Mrs. Bradley needs the garage moved before she can go to work. If this property owner is like many in the area, this may prove a challenge.

Berlin has a host of challenges, between fires, absentee landlords and property owners, job losses and a declining population. My job, as I see it, is to sort them all out for the citizens of Berlin. It is amazing to watch this large group of people, all with the same general goal but with a million competing specific self-interests, wrestle to work together.
The fire department can’t tear down houses because they’re private property. The property owner can’t rebuild because she needs the abutting owner to raze his property. The landowner might not want to put money into a property essentially devoid of value, and for the city to tear it down it’s a year long process and takes $25,000 to complete.

Last week, at the meeting about the fires that almost no one showed up to, people were complaining about a property on Gilbert Street. I stopped there today as part of a story I’m working on. At first I couldn’t tell which property they were talking about — there were too many abandoned properties on Gilbert Street. But then I looked around, and the one they were upset about became obvious. But what is the city to do? It is private property, and they can’t just tear it down. And what is a landowner to do? In this incendiary environment every vacant house looks like a target. No one wants to be the next Mrs. Bradley.

How do you sort out competing interests all headed in the same direction? How can the city preserve the rights of out of state landowners and the safety of residents? They have to stay within the law, they can’t just bulldoze all the empty properties in the city, of which there are more than 100. The city and its residents are caught in a battle fighting themselves for the same goal.

I’m working on a piece about this for next week’s paper, but it is hard to put all these issues into one story. The fires, the long distance landlords, the city’s efforts and the residents’ fears all coalesce into something too big for a thousand words. But it’s hard to imagine who will tell it in cities and towns across America if print journalism fails.
Pick up the Berlin Reporter and there is a week’s worth of conversations and interviews, events and insights from the residents of Berlin and Gorham. I find it hard to understand how this city, or any city for that matter, can function without a paper. Too much goes on every hour, every day and every week in any town or city for people to just pick it up. People can filter the world through the Internet, or television, or radio news, but that doesn’t filter the local. And the local doesn’t matter, perhaps, until you wake up at 2 a.m. to your dog barking and your house burning. Then, all the sudden, what the reporters in your town are doing matters.

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