Friday, June 7, 2013

Frager's Hardware: 1920-???

In the capstone research practicum for my master's program, we talked a lot about institution building- the creation of processes, political spaces, and common understandings that facilitate democracy- establishing "rules of the game" and giving people a conduit through which to communicate their needs and interests without violence. Societies in transition, we argued, could not thrive without institutions.

Well, the other night, I watched a DC institution burn to the ground.

My roommate and I were having a beer on the back patio when the sirens started. Neither of us thought much of it, but as they blared on longer and longer and seemed to stay unusually close by, we began to get curious. Moments later, roomie handed me his phone, and exclaimed "Frager's is on fire!"

Indeed, the tweeted picture on the screen showed Frager's hardware store with smoke pouring from its rooftop. The sheer number of sirens in the area made it clear that this wasn't some burnt bagel or a spark in a trash can. Frager's was burning down.

As a reasonably intelligent human being, my first instinct was obviously to try and get as close to the blaze as possible. Whatever, I needed to get to the grocery store anyway and at roughly four blocks from my apartment, the disaster zone was basically on my way.

Even though I was already close by, being on the bike made getting there easier than it probably should have been. The police sentries outside the Capitol seem to be the only law enforcement officers in DC who have figured out how to keep cyclists out of places they don't want them. Everyone else either doesn't notice us, can't effectively block us off, or doesn't consider us a threat, any of which I'm fine with. I swung wide around a halfhearted emergency cordon, zipped down an alleyway, dodged a couple of fire trucks, and joined a crowd of my Hill neighbors outside a CVS. I had wondered if the worst would be over by the time I got there, since I always manage to be a latecomer to this kind of thing. I was almost hoping it would be over, and that everything would fine.

Can't see the building? Yeah, neither could we. 
To give you an idea of the enormity of the situation, I should explain. Frager's, a three-building operation with  distinct hardware, paint, and equipment rental stores, has been a piece of living Capitol Hill history, serving the community for the better part of a century. During that time, they've stayed family-owned and operated, with as friendly and knowledgeable a staff as you're likely to find anywhere. In an era when most retail employees aren't paid enough to care about customers' needs or their store's image, Frager's hired local summer help, remembered the names of their visitors (and their visitors' dogs,) and could help you navigate a truly dizzying array of products to find exactly what you needed. When I wanted to reinforce a door frame in my first apartment in a misguided attempt to install a pull-up bar, Frager's cut down a 2x4 and helped me select mounting screws. When countless rides up and down Massachusetts Avenue inevitably shook loose some nut, bolt, or washer from my bike, a Frager's employee would disappear into a room full of tiny plastic boxes, and come back with exactly the piece(s) I needed. As one guy I don't know on Twitter put it, "Everyone on Capitol Hill has something in their home from Frager's." It's nothing short of an icon, a symbol of shared identity. So I can say with certainty that all of us in the crowd were hoping for the place to be saved.

As the moments wore on, though, it only seemed to get worse. At one point, flames started jumping up from the roof:

When the wind would shift, you could catch a glimpse of one of the ladder crews through the smoke:
I have no idea how I made this into a .gif.
At one point, I spied Ward 6 council member (Capitol Hill's representative on the DC legislature) Tommy Wells as he walked behind a fire truck near the building with a gas mask in hand:
I'm no photographer, but it IS him.

And proceeded calmly up the sidewalk to confer with other leaders and news media probably only 50 feet from the fire.
Middle ground, white shirt. 
Soon enough, it became clear that the fire department, despite their valiant efforts, were fighting a losing battle, and that all they could really do was try to keep the damage from spreading to the rest of the block. By that time, I had been standing with my fellow gawkers for close to an hour, in awe at the loss of everyone's favorite hardware, lumber, paint, lighting, kitchen, automotive, and cotton candy maker rental shop. It felt odd to stand in a crowd of people, watching each other as we watched it all go down. As we watched something we had all come to know and love die a fiery death. I saw no tears, crocodile or otherwise. Children played and people casually joked about unrelated things. Still, the sense of  sadness lingering over the assembled mass seemed to press down harder and harder the closer the sun sank toward the horizon.

Having absorbed enough collective shock and anguish for one evening, I resolved to take the metaphorical lemons and make some literal lemonade.

After hopping back onto Winona the Kona and going to Harris Teeter for a citrus juicer that I really would rather have bought at Frager's (sigh,) I met a Long Time Resident who said he had been inside when the fire broke out. All the staff and customers got out safely, he said, but it took "a real long time" for the firefighters to get on the scene. Had I bought any salt on my errand, I would  have taken his words with some of it (BAM!) because time tends to stretch and bend in a situation like that, so it's tough to tell how long the fire trucks actually took to show up. I'm sure it seemed like an eternity, though.

Reportedly, it was about 10:00 PM before the last ember died, some three to four hours after the the fire began. CM Wells called the event "devastating," and cast the store as a "family member" that the entire community would stand behind and support. Institutions, after all, are about people and ideas, not buildings or physical spaces. And in one of the frequent displays of just why Capitol Hill is such an amazing place to live, two charities that have very effectively focused community support during past tragedies past have come together to take donations and plan fundraisers, calling themselves "Friends of Frager's."

I think we're all going to be amazed by the efforts mounted to save this institution in the coming weeks. Frager's is gone, but not what it represents. So farewell for now, Frager's, we'll be seeing you again soon.

I guess I'd better go hit that donation link.


I don't know where you're going, but do you got room for one more troubled soul?