burning questions

Film Probes Causes, Legacy of South Bronx Fires

A woman walks along East 164th Street near Yankee Stadium in 1980.
A woman walks along East 164th Street near Yankee Stadium in 1980. Photo: Joe Conzo, Jr. Archive/Cornell University Library Digital Collections

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For Bronx residents old enough to remember when parts of the borough burned in the 1970s, the images are seared into memory.

Fresh ribbons of smoke streaming upward from buildings wrapped tightly in flames. Scorched lots, vacant save for mounds of rock and rubble.

Harry DeRienzo, president emeritus of the Banana Kelly, speaks about the documentary "Decade of Fire."
Harry DeRienzo, president emeritus of the Banana Kelly, speaks about the documentary “Decade of Fire.” Photo: Screenshot from talk on Decade of Fire/Facebook

“I moved into Fox Street in 1976, and no exaggeration, every night there were three or four or five fires,” said Harry DeRienzo, president emeritus of the Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association. “You’d wake up in the morning and another building was burned out.”

On Oct. 12, 1977, ABC sportscaster Howard Cosell famously referred to a fire in the South Bronx as a helicopter shot showed a massive blaze outside of Yankee Stadium while the team played the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 2 of the World Series.

He never did say the phrase that has been attributed to him: “Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx is burning.” But the image stuck.

While the borough is no longer ablaze, the documentary “Decade of Fire” makes the case that the political activity simmering today is part of the infernos’ legacy.

Kindling of Activism

Produced by a team that includes Bronx educator and organizer Vivian Vázquez Irizarry, who lived through the fraught period, the film focuses on the spirit of activism the arson fires sparked — laying foundations for redevelopment groups like Banana Kelly and the Mid Bronx Desperados.

The documentary, which airs on PBS Independent Lens on Nov. 4 following a run of public screenings, arrives at a critical moment in the story of the South Bronx: Rep. José Serrano, a Democrat who has represented the district since 1990, is preparing to retire.

His March announcement prompted a rush of contenders to express interest representing the district — the most left-leaning in the country.

And while Serrano is credited for a number of advancements in the 15th Congressional District, including supporting major environmental projects, some experts and residents say major problems persist.

“The South Bronx still has the highest rates of all the worst things,” said Julia Steele Allen, “Decade of Fire” producer and community organizer, referring to indicators, such as AIDS diagnoses and widespread health challenges.

And, she noted, the area has the “lowest rates of all the good things,” like high school graduation and employment.

“Why? How has it gone on like that?” Allen asked.

The district is still the poorest in the country, according to an analysis of Census data from the Food Research and Action Center. Across South Bronx community districts, more than half of residents pay more than 30% of their monthly income in rent, according to an analysis by the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development.

Concentrated poverty plus rising rents have led to displacement and homelessness.

‘It Was So Fast’

During the decade of fire, nearly 80% of the housing stock in the South Bronx disappeared, and 250,000 people lost their homes, according to the documentary.

Yet it’s difficult to get an accurate count of the fires, the filmmakers learned.

“It was so fast, and it was so overwhelming, we think they didn’t record half the fires,” Frederick Melahn, a volunteer at the FDNY’s library, said in an interview with Irizarry.

“Decade of Fire,” which Irizarry and Allen worked on for a decade, will run on PBS almost a full year before the South Bronx picks a new member of Congress in November 2020.

Rep. José Serrano at a 2017 news conference calling for aid after Hurricane Maria.
Rep. José Serrano at a 2017 news conference calling for aid after Hurricane Maria. Photo: Office of Governor Andrew Cuomo/Flickr

Serrano was elected more than 10 years after the last embers of the decade of fire cooled. Despite the dogged efforts of community members to rehabilitate and maintain their buildings, much of the housing stock in the district remained distressed.

Serrano arrived during a “little lull,” said Paul Lipson, his former chief of staff.

“It was a time between the fires and the real ferocity of the crack epidemic,” he added.

“The struggle then was to secure resources from government,” said Lipson, “to get the fair share that many people in the South Bronx felt had been denied that community by city government, by state government, by federal government.”

The factors that fueled the fires in the South Bronx arose far before the first blaze, the film details. Irizarry, who grew up on Leggett Avenue near Southern Boulevard, blames racist city and federal attitudes, white flight and redlining.

When black and Puerto Rican families, like hers, began moving to the South Bronx in the 1940s and 1950s, white families left for the suburbs — fleeing what some described as a “infiltration,” she highlights in the film.

A study by Bronx Historical Society found that by the 1980 Census, the white population in the borough had fallen almost 50% from a decade earlier.

The Scars of Arson

Many of the abandoned, deteriorated buildings left behind were later burned by arsonists, some of them hired by landlords hoping to collect insurance money on the properties.

Newspapers from the period regularly chronicled the early blazes: Three days into February 1968, the New York Times reported that 31 residents were saved from a fire in a Bronx building.

Some leapt from windows to safety, the report said. One woman, who jumped with her daughter, fractured her skull, an arm and a leg.

The severe economic downturn in the 1970s, when the city teetered on the edge of bankruptcy, spurred job and service cuts. Some firehouses closed, even in high-arson areas like the South Bronx.

“It wasn’t any one thing,” Irizarry says at one point in the film. “It was all these things that eventually led to the fires.”

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