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Fire in Downtown Berkeley Hurts Businesses and Residents

It’s late at night when Marsha Tolliver hears a knock on the door of her apartment. She opens it, revealing the police. Swiftly and calmly, they notify her that the building next door is on fire and for her safety, she must evacuate immediately. Tolliver looks around, frantically grabbing what she can, but fight or flight instincts take over and she runs outside, not even stopping to put on shoes. It is there, out on the street, that she will spend the night before receiving a voucher from the American Red Cross for the nearby Travelodge Hotel. 

Tolliver, who shared her experience with the Jacket in an interview, is one of many residents who underwent a frantic evacuation on November 21, when a fire broke out on 2067 University Ave. Just a few blocks from Berkeley High School (BHS), the fire continued to burn for several days and left heavy damage. The half-built apartment building that was the site of the electrical fire was reportedly deemed unsafe and is set to be demolished. The fully functioning apartment building next door was tagged yellow, meaning residents were allowed to return for belongings, but the building is still too unsafe to occupy again. 

However, the damage the fire caused went beyond the buildings. It also forever changed the lives of many individuals who were forced to find alternative housing. Twenty Berkeley residents were displaced by the fire, seven of whom needed help finding shelter. According to Sunny Lee, the Dean of Students at the University of California (UC), Berkeley, the university reached out to 27 college students living on that block in order to offer academic, emotional, and technological support. The school ended up helping six students. “[For] those who had to evacuate,” Lee said, “We helped them find alternative housing in a hotel … We also loaned laptops and provided hot spots for students who had to leave without packing their belongings.” Some students were already out of town at the time of the fire in anticipation of Thanksgiving. Others, Lee said, “have terminated their leases with their landlord and have found alternative housing, and some were able to return to their apartments.”

Other than the individuals affected by the fire, many small businesses were forced to shut down, and some still remain closed weeks later. Imm Thai Street Food and Asha Tea House — two businesses across the street from the fire — were shut down for a day, as both were completely closed off and inaccessible to both cars and people. Aya Amornpan, the owner of Imm Thai Street Food, said they lost a lot of business. Because the street was closed, “people had to walk around a half block to come to our business,” she said. According to Amornpan, “[At] around 5:30 [PM on November 21], we had the evacuation order.” The business was unable to reopen until the following Wednesday because the fire was still active. Looking to the future, Amornpan predicts that the next month will be hard for the business. “It’s the holiday season,” she said. “We make a lot of money during this time, but then they closed the street. So I have no hope for this month … There is nothing that we can do, and we just have to wait until they are finished.”

One side of the street was significantly more affected than the other. On the side of Asha Tea House and Imm Thai Street Food, the sidewalk remained bustling with customers. College students huddled in groups, and tables were propped up outside storefronts. But directly across the street, almost the entire block was barricaded, with local businesses like Tender Greens and Milkbomb completely boarded up. A sign on the door of Tender Greens read, “No structural damage, but there’s standing water on the floor … from fire suppression.” It also read, “No occupancy allowed until the collapse hazard of 2067 is assessed.” 

2067 University Ave., the site of the fire, has been assessed and deemed to not be at risk of immediate collapse, but it will likely be a while before businesses like Tender Greens can fully reopen. The building remained surrounded by peeling plastic and charred wood, giving off a smell of burning rubber. Amornpan said that another challenge her business faced when they first opened was the smoke. “When we opened on Wednesday … the fire was still active. We had smoke and dust come to our business.”

It is difficult to imagine what it was like for Tolliver, as a person who was living right in the thick of the incident just weeks earlier. Luckily, Tolliver told the Jacket that her experience with the fire went smoothly overall. She said of the Red Cross, “They worked fast. I have to give it to them.” The organization reportedly “called her around the clock.” 

Frances Dinkelspiel, a journalist for Berkeleyside, opened a GoFundMe for Tolliver. As of December 6, the GoFundMe raised eleven thousand dollars from over two hundred donations. One donor wrote in the comments section, “My dad passed this year. He would have helped. I donated in his memory.” Another simply left a short note on the webpage: “Please let us know how Marsha Tolliver is managing.” When asked about the GoFundMe, Tolliver said, “I didn’t know so many people cared about somebody else’s life or downfalls. It just surprised me that they gave like they did, and I appreciate it.”

Tolliver has big plans for the future. She intends to use the money to buy furniture for her new apartment from Macy’s. Then, once she is settled in, she said she wants to continue her education. “I have my bachelor’s degree, so I’m gonna go on with financial analysis to be a stockbroker … I have to do an online course and then try for the exam.” She enjoys reading, with past favorites including Becoming by Michelle Obama, and now wants to read The Promised Land by Barack Obama. For Tolliver, the fire was indeed a setback. However, like for all of us this year, her future is bright.

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