The Bronx Burned: Sara Patenaude on the documentary Decade of Fire

By Sara Patenaude

Decade of Fire. Directed by Vivian Vázquez Irizarry and Gretchen Hildebran. Red Nut Films, 2018.

Decade of Fire tells the story of the South Bronx in the 1970s, when 80% of the housing stock in the neighborhood was ravaged by fires and 250,000 residents lost their homes. Such wide-spread devastation could easily be so overwhelming that it becomes abstract. Decade of Fire deftly avoids this problem, emphasizing the personal history of Vivian Vázquez Irizarry, Director/Producer and narrator of the film.

Falsas Promesas Broken Promises, South Bronx, NY. John Fekner, 1980. Wikipedia Creative Commons.

Beyond the story of the South Bronx fires, Decade of Fire is the history of urban centers during the mid-century. While students of urban history learn that redlining led to urban decline and highways enabled white flight out of urban cores, this film shows what came after. Redlining meant that the aging housing stock in the South Bronx could not be mortgaged or properly insured, while the slum clearance funded by “urban renewal” efforts across the city displaced low-income New Yorkers into the decaying buildings of the South Bronx. Absentee landlords failed to fill boilers or replace the aging wiring as families turned to space heaters to get through the winter. Fires began. Rather than stepping up to address the fires, the Fire Department of New York Commissioners blamed residents for the fires and actually closed firehouses in the neighborhood.

Decade of Fire follows Vivian as she investigates the history of the fires. Through her research, Vivian discovers that New York City budget deficits and bailouts of the 1970s meant that fire protection services were reduced even further—primarily in the poorer neighborhoods with high incidences of fire. Neglect and abandonment further decimated the community. As the 1970s progressed, arson became more common, as landlords paid neighborhood children to burn the buildings in pursuit of insurance payouts. Vivian’s family and neighborhood struggle with the question voiced in the film: “If a neighborhood is deteriorating around you, are you going to stay?”

Jimmy Carter greets residents of South Bronx, New York, Carter White House Photographs Collection, Jimmy Carter Library (NLJC), 5 October 1977. NAID 176402

In the case of the South Bronx, the answer was yes. The film continues as the neighborhood is galvanized by an unlikely source—the backlash to the film Fort Apache, The Bronx. The creation of community development corporations transformed the neighborhood block by block, as community members physically rebuilt the neighborhood, learning construction skills and laying down sweat equity to build their own apartments. Other investment by community members opening businesses, improving parks, and creating tenant associations brought the neighborhood back from the brink of destruction.

Decade of Fire brings to life the history of the urban policy that impacted neighborhoods around the country. The film deftly weaves together troves of historic footage with modern-day interviews of those community members who stayed through the time of the fires and remade the neighborhood. Though shocking images of the rubble and devastation are shown, it is the emphasis on community and the reams of lifestyle footage of the neighborhood that shine.

A Sidewalk in the Bronx Becomes a Playground for These Youngsters, Dan McCoy, Still Picture Records Section, Special Media Archives Services Division, April 1973. NARA record 2389842. NAID 176392.

Decade of Fire ends with the present, where the development of high-end housing in the South Bronx is leading to fears of a new form of displacement. By bringing the past into the present, Decade of Fire serves as a clear reminder that then as now, low-income neighborhoods are the first to be impacted by government marches towards progress.

Reviewer’s Note: For this review, the filmmakers were gracious enough to provide the full 75-minute version of the film as they have used at festivals. There is also a 55-minute version available through PBS Independent Lens.

PatenaudeHeadshotSara Patenaude has a PhD in History from Georgia State University. Her scholarly work investigates the intersections of race, public policy, and city planning in the twentieth century United States. She currently works as an affordable housing research, advocate, and developer in Atlanta.


One thought on “The Bronx Burned: Sara Patenaude on the documentary Decade of Fire

  1. Honor and praise to the brave souls whose grass roots organizing, sweat equity and community development programs saved the South Bronx. Jill Jonnes’ South Bronx Rising: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of an American City (Fordham, 2002) documents their efforts in fine detail. But Jonnes is careful to point out what the documentary or at least the reviewer fails to mention: “…. That it would be impossible to overstate the importance of Mayor Koch’s bold and richly funded [rebuilding] plan.” Koch put more money into re-building poor neighborhoods than the next fifty biggest American cities combined. Score one for the neo-liberals.


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