The True Story Behind ‘The Bronx is Burning’
It is Game Two of the 1977 World Series and the Yankees are down 2-0 in the bottom of the first inning. In between at bats ABC’s aerial helicopter camera panned to an old school building that was burning to the ground. As thirty-six million people watched in horror as the fire engulfed the building, the world was finally forced to pay attention to the thousands of fires that were plaguing the Bronx. In the following days newspapers across the country printed headlines saying “The Bronx is Burning” and a narrative developed that people of the Bronx were to blame for the fires spreading throughout the borough. Despite these notions that the people of the South Bronx were responsible for their decaying buildings and the abandonment of many residential buildings, upon closer investigation it was clear that greedy landlords, arson for profit, and a diminished fire department were responsible for the burning of the Bronx. From 1970 to 1980 seven census tracts in the Bronx lost more than ninety-seven% percent of their buildings to fire and abandonment, and forty four census tracts lost more than half. The Bronx was suffering at the hands of an arson epidemic, yet during this time many of the firehouses in the South Bronx closed. In the midst of a fiscal crisis, the City of New York looked to trim the budget and one area it looked to gut was the fire department. While arson for profit was certainly a leading cause in the burning of the Bronx, a history of slum clearance, overcrowded decaying buildings, and the slashing of many fire resources by the RAND Corporation destroyed the Bronx as well.
In post-World War II New York massive slum clearance projects displaced people all over the city, and many displaced Black and Puerto Rican people moved into overcrowded and deteriorating buildings in the South Bronx which led to an increase in fires. Due to years of redlining and limited investment in infrastructure, the South Bronx was filled with old pre-war apartment buildings that desperately needed repair. These buildings were made up of old wiring, broken heating and cooling systems, and decaying interior walls. During the 1960s these old apartment buildings already had many residents, but when many displaced Black and Puerto Rican people came to the South Bronx these buildings became overcrowded to the point where it posed a danger to the community. As Bronx Historian Evelyn Gonzalez described it simply, “People are displaced and they go on the subway lines to the Bronx.” Gonzalez described the destructive process of slum clearance in which neighborhoods became flooded with displaced people. It is estimated that up to 100,000 black peopleand Puerto Ricans came into the buildings in the South Bronx, and a neighborhood that was largely Irish and Italian fifteen years earlier became home to a growing population of black and Hispanic culture. While the demographics of the South Bronx changed during this time, the infrastructure in the South Bronx did not accommodate this change. Apartment buildings that needed repair stayed broken and 100,000 displaced people were forced to squeeze into already filled apartment buildings. Apartment buildings in the South Bronx became extremely overcrowded and the large numbers of people created fire hazards in the buildings. With people living on top of each other fires could spread more easily, and leaving buildings during fires became increasingly more difficult.
The overflowing amounts of people in the apartment buildings not only posed a fire hazard, but a conscious effort by greedy landlords to squeeze people into smaller spaces, and a conscious effort to stop taking care of buildings made the South Bronx many times more likely to burn. As landlords in the South Bronx struggled to make a profit off of their residents, many of them sold their buildings to speculators. These speculators faced the same difficulties in generating profit in the South Bronx and with an influx of displaced people into the community, speculators saw an opportunity. In her documentary Decade of Fire which told the story of the fires in the South Bronx, Vivian Vásquez Irizarry said, “They chopped up the apartments, squeezing more people into smaller spaces.” Vásquez Irizarry described the harmful actions taken by speculators in which they squeezed as many people as possible into the old buildings they had bought. The speculators cared little about the conditions their residents were living in and only cared about the profit they could generate. It did not matter if the people of the South Bronx had some of the smallest living spaces in the city, it only mattered that they now had more people to profit off of. Speculators also did not maintain basic services in order to cut expenses. As one South Bronx resident described it at the time, “We don’t have no heat in the building. We don’t have no water. We have to go outside to get the water because the landlord doesn’t want to do anything in the building. He just wants to get the money and go.” This Bronx resident perfectly described the inhumane conditions many people were living in. It was not only heat and water that were not maintained, it was also the interior walls of the buildings that needed to be renovated. Yet unsurprisingly these renovations never happened and in addition to being squeezed into small spaces, the residents were surrounded by decaying walls. As firefighter Thomas Winship explained in a recent interview, “These interior walls were more combustible.” While many buildings were not directly set ablaze by landlords and speculators, many of them provided the spark caused them.
Although some buildings were not intentionally burned down by landlords and speculators, many buildings were as an arson epidemic plagued the Bronx in which buildings that could no longer generate profit were burned for their insurance value. After being unable to get fire insurance for years, a government run program in the 1960’s finally made fire insurance available in the South Bronx. As historian and reporter Joe Flood explained in his book, “The State sets up an insurance pool so they can dole out policies in places where it’s impossible to get a fire insurance policy. Landlords would kick back money to these insurance brokers who’d come in and you know look at a half burned out building and in some neighborhood in the Bronx and say ‘Oh, yeah, that’s worth $100,000 dollars easily.’” Insurance brokers that made money off of each policy they sold in the Bronx were then able to profit off of ‘kickbacks’ from landlords. With a government-run program that all insurance companies paid into, there was little risk for insurance companies to insure any building. Landlords were able to buy outrageously high policies and stood to profit off of their overvalued buildings. For example in 1974 alone the state insurance pool paid out ten million dollars which is equivalent to approximately fifty-two million today.
Landlords in the South Bronx that struggled to make a profit off of a low income revenue base saw arson as an extremely profitable opportunity. They could hire children in the neighborhood that were desperate for money to burn the buildings while they sat back and picked up millions of dollars in fire insurance. Arson was not only profitable for the insurance value, but landlords were not required to fix burned out buildings. Landlords in the South Bronx could simply take the money and never come back. The arson epidemic was a situation in which the landlord had everything to gain and where the residents of the Bronx had everything to lose. The arson epidemic repeated itself many times in the South Bronx between 1970 and 1980 and Bronx historian Evelyn Gonzalez discovered a pattern. She claimed, “The housing was no longer viable for the landlord as a place to make money. You take the rent and don’t fix anything, you don’t pay the taxes, and the last step is burning it. Hire a gang to burn it.” The pattern Gonzalez identified is one that Bronx residents came to know well. Residents lived in broken and decaying buildings, and after years of being squeezed into tight spaces, they were left to live on the street after having their buildings burned. Children and teenagers that were desperate to make money in order to buy food and basic supplies were offered small amounts of money to go burn buildings in their own communities. As horrific as that may seem, many of these children were left with no choice. If you have been hungry and on the street for days, the opportunity to earn $250 just to light a match seemed like an easy choice.
While fires decimated the South Bronx, the City of New York hired the RAND Corporation to create computer models that found ways to trim the budget and more specifically the fire department. At a time when fires were at an all time high, the City gutted much of the fire protection residents of the Bronx needed in order to help save the city from bankruptcy. The RAND Corporation created computer models that used response times as the most important variable in their equations, and the corporation suggested to the city that areas with already low response times could afford to have firehouses closed. Public health advocates Deborah and Rodrick Wallace rebuked this claim and wrote, “In essence, Rand reached this conclusion because units had been established, due to the high fire hazard, close together in such districts, which as a consequence, had low calculated “response times.” It was, of course, the unusual fire hazard in these areas that had caused so many companies to be established in them in the first place.” As the South Bronx was a high fire-incidence area during the 1960s, many firehouses already existed close together which made the neighborhoods have some of the lowest response times in the city. These low response times prompted the RAND Corporation to suggest to the city that many firehouses in the South Bronx could be closed in order to lower the budget. The RAND Corporation’s assessment seemed to make sense except for the fact that arson was on the rise in the South Bronx and that closing firehouses in high fire-incidence neighborhoods inherently increased response times and endangered residents. Using the RAND models, the City of New York closed 35 fire companies in high-fire incidence neighborhoods between 1972 and 1976, and during this time fire fatalities were at an all time high. Despite a record number of fatalities and a whopping 4,000 reported suspicious fires in one year alone in the Bronx, there were only sixt-one felony convictions for arson. Due to a significantly reduced fire department it was impossible for the FDNY to have enough fire marsha
lls to investigate all of the suspicious fire effectively. As Joe Flood wrote in his book The Fires, “Because of steep cuts in the number of fire marshals in the early 1970s, they were unable to investigate as many fires as in previous years.” During a time in which arson became increasingly prevalent the City of New York reduced the number of fire marshalls to a point where some suspicious fire could no longer be investigated. Rather than trying to hold those responsible for the destruction of the Bronx, limited resources forced many fire marshals to label fires “cause unknown.” While it would have been impossible to stop all the fires that destroyed the Bronx, an increased commitment from the City of New York to fire services in the area certainly would have made the fires less destructive. The City of New York did not intentionally want to burn the Bronx, but it certainly helped the fires expand due to the gutting of fire protection that residents desperately needed.
A multitude of factors contributed to the thousands of fire that burned the Bronx, but I think a few reasons stand out from the rest. I believe the destructive effects of slum clearance that overcrowded apartments, the unjust system that allowed for landlords to burn buildings for insurance value, and the unfair and disastrous effects of cutting off fire resources in the Bronx were the most important factors that contributed to the destruction of the Bronx. As a whole this project involved a lot of reading about disaster and the shortcomings of the City of New York, yet in the end I gained a greater appreciation for first responders. While the South Bronx lacked the fire resources to adequately contain the destruction of the arson epidemic, I think it is important to recognize the firefighters in the area that went above and beyond despite facing an unbeatable challenge. I was very fortunate to have had the opportunity to interview Tom McTigue who is a retired fireman that worked in Ladder 14 in Harlem and Rescue 3 in the Bronx during the 1970s. Over the course of our conversation I gained a great respect for the Fire Department, and I realized that we have to be careful not to blame the FDNYt for not being there for some Bronx residents. It was the City of New York that are at fault for gutting fire resources and it was the firefighters like Tom that put their lives on the line for the people of the Bronx. In the first five minutes of talking with Tom he showed me a picture of his friend Larry Fitzpatrick that died fighting a fire, and he explained his love for all the people that he served with. He said, “For me to become a fireman in New York City was one of the best things that ever happened to me and the men that I met in the fire department I truly loved.” Tom expressed his true love and friendship for his fellow firefighters and he showed me the incredible comradery of the people in the fire department. Tom talked about the many funerals of fellow firemen he attended, yet through it all his love for his job never wavered. Over the course of my life I have always heard from people that we need to thank the men and women that serve as first responders, but until my interview with Tom I never had a true first hand experience to understand what that meant. After speaking with Tom I have come to realize that being a first responder means putting your life, as well as the lives of the friends you work with, on the line for others. It means waking up everyday knowing that you might not come home but realizing that it is all worth it because you are helping someone else. The work firefighters and other first responders do like Tom is incredible yet according to him it is “just part of the job.”
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Jody Avirgan. “Why The Bronx Really Burned.” FiveThirtyEight. FiveThirtyEight, October 29, 2015. https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/why-the-bronx-really-burned/.
Decade of Fire. PBS, 2019. http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/videos/decade-of-fire/.
Thomas Winship, Interview by Harry Portnoy. January 9, 2020.
Flood, Joe. The Fires: How a Computer Formula, Big Ideas, and the Best of Intentions Burned Down New York City–and Determined the Future of Cities. New York: Riverhead Books, 2011.
Tom McTigue, Interview by Harry Portnoy. January 16, 2020.
Wallace, Rodrick. “Contagion and Incubation in New York City Structural Fires 1964-1976.” Human Ecology 6, no. 4 (1978): 423–33. Jstor.org.