In Decade of Fire, an Independent Lens release that premiered November 4 on PBS, we follow Bronx resident Vivian Vázquez Irizarry as she sets out in search of the truth about why her neighborhood burned, and burned, and burned.
The film opens with 1960s and 1970s footage of burning city buildings, people fleeing with belongings in hand, and people watching the buildings go up in flames. “There wasn’t no fire engines at all,” one man exclaims to a news reporter. “We was the fire engines.”
“In ten years,” Irizarry tells us, “we lost nearly 80 percent of our housing to fires. Nearly a quarter of a million people lost their homes. But we did not burn the South Bronx. In fact, we saved it.”
“They told us we were to blame,” she says in the film. “But I could never let that go.”
Irizarry, who wrote, directed, and co-produced Decade of Fire along with Gretchen Hildebran, takes us on a tour of her South Bronx neighborhood, and introduces us to some of the folks she grew up with, many of whom still live there. It’s the beginning of a hunt for answers as to why there were so many devastating fires in the Bronx during the late 1960s and 1970s, and to reverse the narrative that the communities themselves were responsible for the years of conflagrations and the urban decay that followed.
Contrasting with the images of burning buildings, hulking boarded-up ruins, and enormous, rubble-filled vacant lots, the filmmakers also share images of kids playing basketball and skipping rope in the streets, sidewalks full of people, brownstone steps holding dozens of neighbors socializing. Irizarry introduces us to a shop owner for whom, in the 1950s, the Bronx was a “way out” of Harlem, and a step up. It was a diverse community, a neighbor tells us, with Irish, Puerto Ricans, African Americans, and others.
In short, it was a wonderful place to grow up, she says, asking “so, what really happened to us here?”
It takes the rest of the movie to put the pieces together.
In a general sense, Decade of Fire tells an all-too-familiar story that unfolded in cities across the United States: Realtors redlined neighborhoods beginning as early as the 1930s, and people of color in certain areas were unable to get home improvement loans or home buyers loans. Extortionist landlords took over aging buildings and let them become increasingly decrepit. “Urban renewal” in other parts of cities meant clearing away affordable housing—pushing nonwhite residents into so-called “ghetto” neighborhoods. White people left for the ’burbs. In the 1960s, financially challenged cities “managed” their crises by severely reducing or completely cutting services—like fire marshals and fire stations—in neighborhoods of color.
In a remarkable clip, we see New York Fire Commissioner and Chief John T. O’Hagan tell a reporter who asks about the increase in fires from 1964 on, “If you bring a poor family out of the deep South with the promise of opportunity, and put him in an urban center for the first time, and crowd fifteen to twenty people . . . into living quarters they are not familiar with, it is not surprising you would have an increase in fires.”
Irizarry visits the FDNY Fire Academy library and asks to see historical records. “How would I find out how many fire companies and how many firemen worked over time, and the changes?” she asks. What she unearths, after poring over binder after binder of materials, makes her cry.
But this is not the end of the story. The film documents remarkable efforts among those who remained in the South Bronx to self-organize even as they were abandoned by city officials. Gangs were a double-edged presence: they helped protect people and provided social services as well as a strong cultural identity, but were also implicated in some of the fire setting.
We are introduced to people like Hetty Fox, who helped organize neighbors block by block (listening, she explains, for that “pitch of happiness” in children playing), and cooperatives like the People’s Development Corporation, which supported neighborhood residents by simply taking over abandoned buildings, and renovating them. We see how, building by building, residents pooled resources to manage their own properties and create permanent, and affordable housing. They refused to leave.
The South Bronx has literally been a dumping ground for the rest of the New York metropolitan region for decades, hosting waste transfer stations, municipal wastewater treatment plants, manufacturing facilities, and wholesale markets—all of which support the rest of the city. The borough has the lowest parks-to-people ratio and the highest rates of childhood asthma.
Also, for Irizarry and so many in the film, it’s home. As Decade of Fire, makes clear, the South Bronx is a vibrant, resilient community with a proud history of environmental and social justice activism. Life isn’t exactly easy here today, Irizarry observes, as people continue to struggle in the context of structural racism and are facing new challenges like gentrification. But the people have fought to remain before, and will again. As Irizarry concludes, “This is my place.”
The film will remain viewable on PBS.org until December 4, 2019.