A paper burns

Fire at the Gay Community News
By DAVE O'BRIEN  |  July 12, 2007

This article originally appeared in the July 13, 1982 issue of the Boston Phoenix.

It is possible, of course, that the fire was purely accidental. But all the signs, as well as the obvious suspicions, point toward arson. If so, whoever set the fire that gutted the downtown offices of Gay Community News early last Wednesday morning destroyed a whole lot more than the equipment and files of a struggling but unique little newspaper serving a very special audience.

All the physical evidence, as well as the analysis of a noted arson expert, point to this scenario. Someone sneaked down an alley off Broomfield Street, climbed up the fire  escape at the rear of the century-and-a-half-old granite structure, kicked in a steel window grating on the second floor, and torched the place. The result was the gutting of a couple of historic institutions (the newspaper and the building itself) and the destruction of the creations of several artists whose studios were on the building’s third and fourth floors. The fire very nearly claimed those artists’ lives.

The fire department was notified at 5:24 a.m. by artist Donald Shambroom, who says he was working in his third-floor loft on a series of elaborate fantasy murals when he was alerted by the piercing whine of the smoke detector in the corridor. He looked out the window and saw flames blazing away in the second-story office of Fag Rag, a paper published intermittently by a gay-community collective. “It was going pretty good,” he said. “I immediately ran up and down the stairs and knocked on all the doors.” Seven alarms were sounded, Shambroom and two other artists escaped the building by means of a fire ladder, and four or five others fled the building via the same fire escape that the arsonist would have used. Their work, however, was destroyed. “Virtually everything I own was in there,” Shambroom said.

The fire was extinguished an hour and a half later, but by the time most of what had been the office of the Gay Community News (GCN) for the past eight years was also destroyed, as was Glad Day bookstore and its stock of gay literature. “All our financial records were in the office and are wrecked,” said Amy Hoffman, who had just stepped down after three years as GCN’s managing editor, and who was the first staff member to arrive at the scene, at 6 a.m., while the four-and-a-half story building at 20-24 Broomfield Street was still ablaze. “We also lost all our copies of back issues. We still have them on microfilm, except for the first year, but we won’t be able to send out any more back issues to readers.” The paper was insured, “but most of the stuff here, other than two IBM Selectrics, is not valuable in a monetary sense,” Hoffman said.

“The worst thing is just to lose the space,” she said, still on the scene five hours later as other staff members were doing their best to retrieve files, books, and half-melted Rolodexes from the charred and blackened remains of their office. “It’s horrible. I think I’m in a state of shock right now. Part of it is just my emotional attachment to this space. For the past three years, most of my waking hours have been spent here.” She paused. “So much history has gone through this space.” Indeed, the Gay Community News got its start precisely 10 years ago at the Charles Street Meeting House, and its downtown office was destroyed the very week that its anniversary issue was going to press. “Happy birthday,” Hoffman remarked.

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