The Bronx Fires as Metaphor for Community Erasure

Reflections on a documentary about the structural racism that erased a community -- and the people who rebuilt it.

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Part of the three-block stretch of Charlotte Street in the South Bronx, circa 1970s.

The documentary Decade of Fire was introduced to me by my friend Neyda Martinez, one of its producers — and also a seasoned Afro-Latina arts leader and associate professor at The New School. Decade of Fire documented the story of the South Bronx fires of the 1970s from the personal perspective of filmmaker Vivian Vázquez Irizarry, who lived in the midst of it all. “The Bronx is a case study in how institutional racism created ghettos out of communities of color, and then abandoned them to fires and neglect in the 1970s,” Neyda commented to me, convincing me to spread the word.

Decade of Fire chronicled aspects of the Puerto Rican experience in America, which started with Irizarry’s grandfather, who migrated from Puerto Rico to NYC in the 1940s after Operation Bootstrap left workers without job opportunities as the island was being pushed toward industrialization. The film traced the arrival of an entire generation of Puerto Rican Americans to the South Bronx, which is described as a beautiful melting pot of races and cultures. In the years following the arrival of this generation, and the building of these multiracial communities, came experiences of neglect, blame and shame endured by people both Black and Brown as the South Bronx was redlined by insurance companies, resulting in the abandonment of landlords — and of the city itself.

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According to Joe Flood, who wrote the 2011 book The Fires and is also featured in the film, redlining dates back to the 1930s; it occurred when any neighborhood that contained more than five to ten percent Black and Puerto Rican population was deemed to be “declining.” Federal housing agencies, insurance companies and banks drew lines on actual maps to ensure that these neighborhoods would not receive the same resources as others that were considered to be a “better bet.” The South Bronx, along with a number of cities across the US, suffered due to the effects of redlining.

Also detailed in the film, when white flight marked a mass exodus from the Bronx, decay and neglect came next. And then came the fires: the product of neglected buildings whose structures easily succumbed to unsafe conditions, from faulty wiring to accommodate new appliances to landlords refusing to provide heat, to arson.

One point made by the film was especially important. While many people understood that the landlords wanted their own buildings to burn in order to cash in their insurance dollars, the arson was sometimes the handiwork of poor Black and Brown youth who were paid either by the landlords or their representatives to light the match. The media then used the stories of youths found guilty of setting the fires to depict them as savages, while at the same time making no real connections to the building owners who paid them to do their dirty work. These images then fed the racist iconography of films like Fort Apache, The Bronx, which created a nationwide view of the South Bronx as devoid of good and decent people.

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But Decade of Fire makes an even stronger point: NYC itself was a participant in the political games that contributed to the neglect. At the recommendation of consultants, Bronx firehouses were shut down in order to save the city money. Inspectors stopped recording the fires, and the film reveals that the NYC Fire Department didn’t record at least half of the fires that occurred during that time. Meanwhile, landlords claimed insurance payment after insurance payment, sums which, in current dollars, totaled millions.

The Bronx fires can be seen as an example of the oppressive practices that have taken place throughout NYC history, resulting in devastation for Black and brown peoples. They can be seen as a metaphor for the all-encompassing wave of institutional erasure that wipes away communities through policies, corporate investments and socially constructed images that negatively impact public views of people of color. Think about the predominantly wealthy African Americans (and a smaller percentage of Irish immigrants) in Seneca Village being forced off their land in the 1850s to make way for the construction of Central Park — a project backed by Manhattan’s elite and enabled by New York’s laws of eminent domain. Think about the 1960s Urban Renewal movement that destroyed tenements and displaced more than 100,000 people of color from Manhattan to the South Bronx — backed by the City of New York’s determination to create wonders like Lincoln Center. The “Fires” also exist in 2019 as real estate developers force poor, working class, and immigrant peoples out of the Bronx and elsewhere right now.

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The inspirational power of Decade of Fire is demonstrated by the imagery of how the residents of the South Bronx rebuilt their neighborhood. In the 1980s, activists like Ramon Rueda, of the People’s Development Corporation, along with the residents of Kelly Street and the cofounders of the Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association, rebuilt their blocks with their own hands. They then inspired hundreds of other local groups, in the South Bronx and Mid-Bronx, to do the same. The Bronx exists and thrives today thanks to the pioneering work of the very people blamed for its earlier demise.

Neyda affirmed that the heroes of the film “demonstrate the lengths everyday people will take to save their community — in this case, rebuilding their neighborhoods from the ground up with their bare hands, against what were irrefutably insurmountable odds.” In the face of gentrification and the erasure of communities, one call to action that resounds from Decade of Fire is for all New Yorkers to consider how to support those of us willing to stay in this city, fight the “Fires,” and build a sense of home and community where we have stood — and have lived and loved — for generations.