Places that Matter

Happy Land Social Club

The site of a fatal fire in 1990
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Place Matters Profile

In the late 1980s and early 1990s there were a number of illegal clubs in New York City. Often less expensive than those in Manhattan, these underground clubs in the Bronx catered to recent immigrants from Latin American countries. The Happy Land Social Club had been ordered to close three times between 1988 and 1990 for fire code violations including sprinklers, exit signs and missing fire escapes and emergency lighting. It continued to reopen illegally, and on March 25, 1990, recent Cuban immigrant Julio Gonzales entered the club and quarreled with Lydia Feliciano, his girlfriend. Gonzales left the club, doused the only exit to the building with gasoline and set it on fire. Trapped inside the burning building, 87 people, including the club owner, died within minutes from smoke inhalation. Most of the deceased were young immigrants from Honduras, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic. Feliciano, who worked at the club, and four (or five depending on the source) other people survived the blaze.

Julio Gonzales was convicted of the crime in September 1991 and sentenced to 25 years to life in jail. In addition to cracking down on illegal clubs, both the owner of the building, Alexander DiLorenzo III and the lease holder, Jay Weiss were fined for fire code violations. Five years after the fire, a settlement was reached and the survivors were awarded $163,000 per deceased or injured person.