East Village Fire: What It’s Like To Have Your Entire Home Burned Down

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“But what is a home?” Dr. Diane McLean shakily asks on the other line. “Home is where the heart is, where family is and friends are, and in that sense, we’re not homeless.”

It’s a humbling attitude for someone like Diane to have, and yet it makes her circumstances feel so much sadder.

Diane and her three children, Rose, 8, and 5-year-old twins James and Annabelle, recently lost their entire home in the East Village Seventh Street fire.

“It’s everything I had. It was my whole life,” she adds, despondently. “We walked out in the morning, and it was everything.”

Indeed, Diane has an incredible life’s story that is largely rooted in her East Village home. She inhabited her Second Avenue apartment in 1979 and lived there for 36 years ever since.

Through her later-in-life medical degree and each of her three children’s births, Diane stayed there and made a place for her and her family.

“It was my very first adult home after college,” Diane notes, on the brink of tears. “The only one.”

That was one of the major benefits of her living situation. Diane’s apartment was rent stabilized, which allowed her to go into public service.

The child psychiatrist currently works with under-served children in the South Bronx and worked previously at Columbia’s Harlem Hospital and Montefiore Community Pediatrics with kids in family shelter systems.

Her East Village apartment made working and being helpful to these communities possible.

For Diane, however, it wasn’t just a place that enabled her to live her life – it was a place where she created memories and fostered love for her family.

“I used every single inch of the apartment to make it a great space for my family,” she describes. In the kitchen, for example, Diane personally covered the floor with a play mat and the fridge with chalkboard paper so she and her kids could have an art room. “When [the kids] were little, they could stand and draw on the chalkboard paper and color,” Diane explains. “We could have a kitchen but also do art.”

She even put up a real swing – the kiddie bucket kind – so that on rainy days in NYC, her children would have a “playground” to enjoy.

It’s that kind of heartwarming history that Diane values, and it all took place in her home. “I wasn’t someone who focused on things anyway, but I kept the things that mattered to me,” she says. Her father’s guitar, for one – he helped to settle her family here. A painting by a friend of his. Her grandmother’s needlepoint dining room chairs. Her kids’ projects and books.

“Mementos and things I can’t get back,” Diane sadly recalls. “Our history was just suddenly wiped out.” This is why we feel it is so important to tell it today.

Diane’s home goes beyond those physical walls. Her history is also tied to the history of her neighborhood. After living in the East Village for over 30 years, the community – including her neighbors who have been there forever and went through Hurricane Sandy and Thanksgivings and children with her – has become a part of her home as well.

It’s this tight community of friends and teachers and neighbors who Dr. McLean feels extraordinarily grateful for and who have continued supporting her and her family even after they lost everything. It’s these friends and administrators who have “mobilized everything from clothes, to play dates, to strategizing for rebuilding furniture, looking out for housing, putting the kids in a holiday camp for spring break,” Diane shares. “We are literally walking around inside the care of our friends and family because we are wearing their clothing."

Her oldest, Rose, says, “I’m going to be in Tracey’s clothes, and James will put on Zachary’s pants.”

Her friends and community have given them a literal “security blanket,” as Diane phrases it.

“New Yorkers support each other. We rally. That’s been my experience all my life,” she adds, choking up. “I’m just so humbled and grateful that that’s happening for us.”

Diane is also extremely appreciative of the people all over the country and city who continue contributing through her GoFundMe site, which was started by her babysitter.

Always thinking of others, however, she is quick to tell me of her neighbor’s GoFundMe sites as well and even includes them on her own page.

Her children, too, have felt immense support from their school. The kindergarten teachers gathered both classes and had “A Celebration of Love” day for Diane’s three kids in which the students sang songs and created a laminated-and-bound book detailing what the McLeans could still do, even without their home.

This loving generosity is what Diane wants to impart to her children in the wake of the tragedy. “I told them that the fireman had worked incredibly hard. They got to every building and made sure everyone was okay. The FDNY is unbelievably impressive.”

Above all, Diane values and appreciates her children’s lives more than anything. “My children are the MOST important thing in the entire world, and we’re all OK.

“You can change your life, and you can rebuild it. You can create a wonderful new life that you didn’t have before. We’re rebuilding, and it’ll be something new – a new adventure.”

Diane’s strong spirit and inspiring attitude make me want to believe her. She, like the Cinderella Disney character that her friends took the family to see, has immense courage and kindness. And she is also remarkably able to maintain a positive outlook for her kids throughout her experience. “You can learn something new every day, even before breakfast,” she teaches me. “Except for me – not before coffee.”

The heartbreaking fire is another part of Diane’s rich history that she cherishes so much. And soon, hopefully, that is all it will be: history.

“I’ve asked my kids, What would be the most important thing if we can build a new home? What would we really need?’” Diane McLean begins. “They said beds, tables and then my daughter said, ‘You need a coffee maker.’”

To donate to Diane, Rose, Annabelle and James McLean, click here

For Diane's neighbor, Mildred Guy: http://www.gofundme.com/q8ee3a4

For Nora and Matt Brooks: http://www.gofundme.com/helpNoraBrooks

For Diane's neighbor Kim-Nora Moses: http://www.gofundme.com/KimMoses

For McKenzie: http://www.gofundme.com/q5cczcc

For Diane's neighbors, Norman, Chelsea & Micha: http://www.gofundme.com/q5vbbw4

For some students: http://www.gofundme.com/q5rebb4

For Elizabeth Dimond: http://www.gofundme.com/q59accgg

For Justin and Chris: http://www.gofundme.com/q5apbw