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Whose Bronx?: Decade of Fire Looks Back at a Complicated History of Neighborhood Abandonment and the Rise of Community Control in the South Bronx

by Aly Hassell, on 2 July 2019
Tags: New York | Bronx
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Decade of Fire, a new documentary film by lifelong South Bronx resident and first-time filmmaker Vivian Vázquez Irizarry and co‑director Gretchen Hildebran, revisits the South Bronx of the 1970s, when a series of unchecked fires destroyed block after block of the neighborhood, displacing hundreds of thousands of residents.
Reviewed : Vivian Vázquez Irizarry and Gretchen Hildebran, Decade of Fire, Red Nut Films, 2019

Decade of Fire investigates the root causes of the fires and attempts to set the record straight about the complex confluence of events that let such flagrant neglect persist for so long. It contextualizes a painful history for a new generation of Bronx residents. And it shines a light on the history of community control that helped to rebuild the neighborhood when no one else would. Today, South Bronx residents are again at risk of displacement, this time as a result of state-sponsored revitalization efforts, speculative development, and gentrification. By revisiting the radical history of community-based revitalization efforts in the South Bronx, Decade of Fire offers valuable lessons for organizers working to reject the neoliberal logic that threatens their communities today.

The film is built around the reflections of Vázquez Irizarry and other South Bronx residents who lived in the neighborhood before, during, and after the fires that tore through so much of the Bronx in the 1970s. It opens with Vázquez describing her childhood growing up on Leggett Street, in a thriving working-class community. She describes the kind of eyes-on-the-street neighborhood patchwork Jane Jacobs would praise: a bustling enclave of neighbors of different backgrounds living, working, and playing together even against the tumultuous racialized backdrop of the 1950s and ’60s. It was this kind of neighborhood-level cooperation that made the neighborhood stable and desirable for many of New York’s working-class residents looking to upgrade from Manhattan’s working-class neighborhoods. This, as the filmmakers point out, is not the image that the South Bronx typically brings to mind. For the past four decades, the South Bronx has been held as an exemplar of urban decay in the national imaginary. In creating this film, Vázquez and Hildebran seek to challenge this conception. By weaving together archival footage, expert interviews, and first-person accounts, Decade of Fire offers an accessible history that contextualizes the South Bronx in ways beneficial for both those familiar with the neighborhood’s history and those who are encountering it for the first time.

The film continues with an overview of the factors that pushed the neighborhood into a tailspin. The usual suspects of neighborhood decline are all present: white flight, redlining, and urban-renewal schemes all converged to create deep segregation and extreme poverty, destabilizing the South Bronx. What was once a diverse, tenuously integrated, and thriving community was now overwhelmingly poor, black and latinx. The filmmakers emphasize the implications of these policy decisions, providing a crucial counterpoint to the dominant narrative that poor black and brown folks create poor conditions for themselves as a result of deep-seated social pathology. We see that poor black and brown city residents have historically been forced to live in substandard conditions, either through direct displacement, lack of access to financial resources, segregationist policies, or some combination thereof.

A neighborhood abandoned

In the years following the destabilization of the neighborhood, the fires broke out. While the prevailing narrative surrounding the fires blames South Bronx residents, Vázquez unspools a more complex story. Arson played a role: in a particularly affecting moment in the film, Vázquez interviews a resident who expresses deep regret over accepting money from landlords to torch properties, yet many of the fires broke out as a result of longstanding landlord neglect. No longer viewing the South Bronx as a worthwhile investment, landlords failed to do general upkeep on their properties. Faulty wiring went unrepaired and lack of reliable heat forced residents to rely on unsafe electric heaters. These defects, combined with overcrowded conditions in many apartments, turned the neighborhood into a fire trap. But the problem was not only the frequency of the fires; when a fire broke out, no fire trucks showed up to battle the flames. As a result, properties didn’t just burn, they burned to the ground. Here, we see Vázquez hunt for answers, interviewing residents and firefighters who lived through the fires, reviewing FDNY archives, and examining old news reports from the time. Ultimately, Vázquez discovers the city’s “planned shrinkage” program (a version of Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s racist “benign neglect” policy). In the 1970s, New York City was in the midst of a fiscal crises; these were the “Ford to City: Drop Dead” years during which the entire city was on the brink of collapse. Planned shrinkage cut municipal services to the bone in neighborhoods, in the ultimate hope that residents would move away and the city would no longer have to support the neighborhood; a perverse form of urban amputation. The system used computer modeling done by the RAND corporation to map out neighborhoods in which services would be cut. Based on bad data, the model determined the bulk of firehouse and emergency services closures should occur in the South Bronx. This, alongside a total political unwillingness to close fire or police stations in white, more affluent neighborhoods, ensured poor communities of color would bear the brunt of the impacts.

By the film’s account, the South Bronx lost nearly 80% of its building stock to fire or abandonment by the end of the 1970s. The neighborhood was reduced to block after block of rubble. After years of false promises of federal funding from the Carter administration and public castigation of Bronxites from then presidential hopeful Ronald Reagan, it became clear to Bronx residents who stayed in the neighborhood that no one was coming to save them; they would have to save themselves.

Out of crisis, new relations emerge: community control vs. neoliberalism

In the wake of years of fire, abandonment, and government neglect much of the land in the Bronx was considered valueless (i.e. it could not produce a profit) in the eyes of both the government and the free market, which compounded the impact of the initial disinvestment as conventional outside capital would not go anywhere near the South Bronx. As a result, community groups formed to take on the work of revitalizing their own communities. Tom Angotti (2011) describes this phenomenon in New York For Sale: Community Planning Confronts Global Real Estate: “as the private real-estate market collapsed in many working-class neighborhoods, it created a vacuum that community organizers and activists filled with new alternatives. This laid the foundations for community control over land and greater community influence over official land-use controls” (p. 97). The final scenes of the film showcase the work of South Bronx community organizations in the 1980s, such as Banana Kelly, which worked to galvanize residents to rebuild abandoned apartment buildings to create decent, affordable housing for themselves. They did not seek permission but saw the value in what established institutions saw as valueless; they took ownership of what no one else wanted. The film shows the transformative impact of “sweat equity” as the neighborhood slowly comes back to life—not through private real estate investment or city intervention but through the collective labor of the residents who stayed through years of systemic neglect.

In more recent decades, two contradictory approaches to revitalization have been pitted against each other in the South Bronx. The first is the more radical, grassroots vision of community control as pioneered by groups like CASA, Banana Kelly, and Nos Quedamos. This vision is rooted in mistrust of for-profit landlords and seeks to de-commodify land, prioritizing use-value (i.e. the real-world value) over exchange-value (i.e. potential for profit generation) in order to create long-lasting stability for neighborhood residents. By decommodifying land, neighborhood residents are largely protected from the whims of the real estate market. This vision champions “alternative ownership structures and housing practices to give South Bronx residents, organizations, and communities some measure of autonomy from external forces causing poverty, exploitation and housing abandonment” (Guimond 2013, p. 1). This approach can be directly traced back to mistrust seeded in the chaos of the 1970s. The second is the market-based, neoliberal approach to revitalization that “advocates the repair of real estate markets with subsidies and appropriate regulation so that the power of the private sector can be harnessed to rebuild devastated neighborhoods... this largely state-sponsored form of revitalization has involved the creation of flows of capital through government subsidies, fostering the growth of a responsible for-profit landlord class, and facilitating complex public-private partnerships to produce affordable housing” (Guimond 2013, p. 1). This is the logic that drives state-sponsored revitalization in New York City, which relies heavily on public-private partnerships, tax subsidies, and incentives to coax the private sector into addressing social issues, like the production of affordable housing. We see this logic manifested today in contentious rezoning schemes that seek to promote real estate investment that promises community benefits, but by and large will enrich the propertied elite by inducing gentrification.

In the 1970s and ’80s, the collapsed real estate market created a unique opportunity for a community-centered vision for the future to emerge in the South Bronx. Community organizations worked to rebuild the neighborhood from the rubble and start on a path towards stabilization. Today, ironically, the threat facing the South Bronx is not chronic disinvestment. Rather, it is for-profit investment that seeks to both capitalize upon and erase the stabilizing work of the community organizations that came before. As the film ends, Vázquez charts a cogent through line connecting the struggles of working class Bronx residents in the 1970s and ’80s with the struggles of current residents. By revisiting an often-overlooked history, especially in the contexts of today’s uncertainty, Decade of Fire provides an essential reference for organizers to continue to fight for the future of the neighborhood.

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To cite this article:

Aly Hassell, “Whose Bronx?: Decade of Fire Looks Back at a Complicated History of Neighborhood Abandonment and the Rise of Community Control in the South Bronx”, Metropolitics, 2 July 2019. URL: https://www.metropolitiques.eu/Whose-Bronx-Decade-of-Fire-Looks-Back-at-a-Complicated-History-of-Neighborhood.html
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