DECADE OF FIRE – How the South Bronx Was Burned

Tiny - Posted on 06 July 2011

 (Editor's note:  Gretchen Hildebran is a filmmaker and alumni of POOR Magazine's Race, Poverty and Media Justice Institute.  Her documentaries include the internationally screened CARVE (2003), WORTH SAVING (2004), which was presented in HBO’s Frame by Frame documentary showcase and received Best of the Fest at the 2006 International Conference for Reducing Harm. OUT IN THE HEARTLAND (2005) tells the stories of gay parents in Kentucky facing a constitutional amendment banning marriage)


I am not from the Bronx or even from New York, but these places have loomed large in my imagination since I was 10 years old.  Traveling alone for the first time in my life, I stayed with my aunt in her tiny East Village apartment and every New York experience I had – riding the subway, a visit to Bloomingdale’s, held a deep magic for me.  This was back in the early 80s, when New York was still reeling from a financial crisis and a plague of fires and abandonment that had consumed huge parts of the city over the course of over a decade.


The most visible damage happened in the South Bronx, where we did not visit.  This I remember seeing on TV, probably from President Carter’s much-photographed visit to a desolated Charlotte Street in 1977.  The images I saw on the news became icons of urban failure, and came to define the South Bronx in the public imagination - block after block of blackened buildings emptied of their windows, enormous piles of rubble, abandoned cars, and hardly any people.


Despite the imprint of these images, I didn’t find out until I moved to Brooklyn 25 years later that yes, the South Bronx had burned down in the 1970s.  Some neighborhoods lost over 80% of their housing and population.  The waves of abandonment and fires spread swept north, eventually consuming over 20 square miles of once thriving communities in the heart of New York City.


The documentary film Decade of Fire began to take shape for me several years ago, when a friend, Julia Allen, mentioned this history to me.  I was stunned by the figures, but only began to comprehend their meaning after I began to meet people who had lived through this disaster.


One of these people, Vivian Vazquez, grew up in the South Bronx during the ‘70s.  She shared stories with me about the vibrant Puerto Rican and African American, not to mention Irish and Jewish communities that existed there before the fires.  But by the time she was 18, her neighborhood was nearly destroyed. To her, the legacy of the fires was not just buildings lost and neighbors disappearing, but more a residual feeling of abandonment, a sense that the city purposefully turned its back as the community was destroyed. 


Over the next several years the three of us became co-producers.  We read up, and talked to current and former residents, defining the outlines of a story about the South Bronx that had yet to be told.  Vivian returned to her neighborhood looking for answers: Why were there so many fires, for so long?  And why was so little done stop them? And what happened to the people who were left behind?


Our research turned up a history of migration, de-industrialization, and racially biased development policies that had shaped U.S. cities throughout the 20th century. The common practice of grading neighborhoods based on racial composition was first institutionalized in 1937, in urban maps produced by the Home Owner’s Loan Corporation for FDR’s New Deal.  These maps were funded by the Federal Housing Act of 1934, which explicitly stated that “inharmonious racial and nationality groups” would disqualify entire blocks and neighborhoods from investment.



The worst grades on the maps were reserved for any area populated by African-Americans or other people of color. These grades were widely used by real estate agents, banks and federal agencies to exclude certain people and neighborhoods from being considered for home and renovation loans – also known as redlining.  In decades to come, redlining worked hand in hand with Urban Renewal and suburbanization to separate people by race and class.  While masses of middle class people followed incentives to Long Island and New Jersey, at least a hundred thousand low-income people of color were relocated from targeted areas in Manhattan into the South Bronx.  The modern ghetto was born, and the fires came soon after.


Although they arrived only after decades of segregation, redlining and Urban Renewal, the fires were immediately blamed on the pathologies of ghetto residents. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then Nixon’s advisor on urban affairs, popularized this claim and suggested that government adopt an attitude “benign neglect” towards unruly communities of color.  Over the next decade, as the fires raged on, New York cut fire service in the Bronx down to the bone.


By 1977 much of the South Bronx had burned away, and city leaders like Housing Commissioner Roger Starr were proposing that the city perform “triage” and level what was left, including dislocating the 100,000 survivors who had remained behind.  Starr called this “planned shrinkage,” a term that is today being touted as the solution to urban malaise in places like Detroit.  The term sounds controlled, technical, but masks the brutal history that has set up only certain neighborhoods and residents – the poor and people of color – as extraneous and expendable. 


I’ve heard that New York has a fiscal crisis every 30 years, and if so we are right on schedule.  While the Bronx has been spared the worst of Bloomberg’s proposed 2011 cuts to fire service, some of the poorest parts of Brooklyn will see their fire protection on the chopping block in the next year.


Today the South Bronx has come back, rebuilt on sweat equity, and the love and desperation of residents who fought to keep it alive. Alongside the history of the fires, there are stories of the places and cultures that sustained the lives and even flourished (hip hop, for one).  But it is still once of the poorest areas of the country. Many people have said they feel its harder to survive in the Bronx today than in the 1970s, because the community isn’t there to help sustain those in need.  As Vivian says in the film, “The people who survive these policies of neglect, we survive.  People survive, people cope.  But at the same time, it came a huge cost.”


Through this film, we aim to bring national and international attention to the forgotten histories of the South Bronx, and to spark local dialogues about the market-driven urban policies that perpetuate cycles of destruction and displacement.  This film seeks to document the human cost of these policies, and to celebrate the people who survived and transformed the ruins of the Bronx



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