BRONX “DECADE OF FIRE”

Encore: January 28, 2021

As part of our Chasing the Dream initiative on poverty, justice, and economic opportunity in America, we take you back to the 1970’S when 80% of the Bronx burned to the ground. Independent lens’ Decade Of Fire combines never-before-seen archival and home movies and testimonials, to reveal the reasons for the devastation, showing what can happen when a community chooses to fight back and reclaim their neighborhood.

For more information on “Decade of Fire,” click here. 

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Chasing the Dream: Poverty and Opportunity in America is a multi-platform public media initiative that provides a deeper understanding of the impact of poverty on American society. Major funding for this initiative is provided by The JPB Foundation. Additional funding is provided by Ford Foundation.

Aired on February 7, 2020. 

TRANSCRIPT

> IN THE 1970s, THE SOUTH BRONX WAS LITERALLY ON FIRE.

THE SCALE OF THE DEVASTATION DURING THAT DECADE IS HARD TO FATHOM.

40 FIRES A DAY ACCORDING TO ONE ESTIMATE.

A CONTINUOUS BLAZE THAT WOULD END UP DESTROYING 80% OF THE HOUSING STOCK IN THE AREA, REDUCING ENTIRE NEIGHBORHOODS TO RUBBLE.

BUT JUST WHY AND HOW WAS THE SOUTH BRONX ALLOWED TO BURN TO THE GROUND?

IT IS A QUESTION THAT STILL TROUBLES LONG TIME RESIDENTS AND THE SUBJECT OF A DOCUMENTARY ON INDEPENDENT LENS.

DECADE OF FIRE FOLLOWS A BRONX FOREIGN ACTIVIST AS SHE UNCOVERS THE UNTOLD STORY BEHIND THE FIRES, REVEALING SHOCKING NEGLECT AT EVERY LEVEL OF GOVERNMENT.

HERE'S A PREVIEW.

I GREW UP IN THE 1970s.

LANDLORDS WERE BURNING OUR BUILDINGS FOR PROFIT AND THEY DIDN'T HAVE TO REBILLION-DOLLAR OUR HOLES OF A, OUR HOPES.

ER THESE WERE OUR HOMES.

THIS WAS OUR NEIGHBORHOOD.

SNS AS PART OF OUR CHASING THE DREAM INITIATIVE, CO-PRODUCERS OF DECADE OF FIRE, VIVIAN VAZQUEZ AND GRETCHEN JOIN US NOW.

WELCOME TO THE PROGRAM.

THANK YOU.

THIS WAS SUCH A POWERFUL DOCUMENTARY.

VIVIAN, I WANT TO START WITH YOU.

TELL ME HOW DID THIS FILM COME INTO EXISTENCE?

WE, JEWEL I CAN'T ALLEN AND I WHO IS OUR CO-PRODUCER WORKED TOGETHER IN THE BRONX DURING THE EARLY PART OF 2000s.

WE WERE PART OF 21st CENTURY SMALL SCHOOLS MOVEMENT.

WE WERE WORKING THE CBO, IN A CBO, I'M SORRY, TO START A SMALL SCHOOL.

WE WANTED TO WRITE A CRITICAL LITTLE FOR BRONX HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS SO THEY CAN LEARN ABOUT THEIR HISTORY IN THE BRONX.

BUT WE KEPT TALKING ABOUT WHAT HAPPENED IN THE SOUTH BRONX DURING THE 1970s.

I KEPT TALKING ABOUT MY EXPERIENCES, HOW I GREW UP, AND JULIA ENCOURAGED ME TO WRITE ABOUT IT AND THEN EVENTUALLY SHE ENCOURAGED ME TO WORK ON FILM.

SHE INTRODUCED ME TO GRETCHEN AND THEN WE BEGAN FILMING FRIENDS AND TELLING OUR STORY ABOUT HOW WE GREW UP IN THE SOUTH BRONX.

WHAT THE CONTEXT WAS OF THE DAY.

FOR MANY OF US, WE HAD A GREAT TIME LIKE ALL KIDS HAVE A GREAT TIME BUT THERE WAS THIS BACK DROP OF DEVASTATION AND NEGLECT THAT WAS EVER SO PRESENT IN OUR MEMORIES.

I WANT TO SAY, I FOUND IT SO ENGROSSING ABOUT THE FILM.

YOU WERE ABLE TO GET SO MUCH FOOTAGE THAT MADE YOU FEEL LIKE YOU WERE THERE.

HOW WERE YOU ABLE TO PUT TOGETHER ALL OF THESE PIECES THAT REALLY BROUGHT THE AUDIENCE INTO THE SPACE THAT I THINK FOR MYSELF, I DIDN'T GROW UP IN THE CITY.

I WASN'T THERE.

YOU FEEL LIKE IT THOUGH WHEN YOU WATCH IT.

WE FIRST STARTED WORKING ON IT IN 2008.

IT WAS A TEN-YEAR PROCESS.

WHAT YOU'RE TALKING ABOUT, THAT WAS OUR END GOAL.

BUT IT DEFINITELY WAS A HUGE AMOUNT OF WORK AND WE WORKED TOGETHER COLLABORATIVELY.

WHILE I WOULD BE DOING THE FILMING OR THE ED ITTING, WE ALSO TALKED EVERY WEEK ABOUT THE STORY.

THERE'S A HUGE AMOUNT OF AMAZING FOOTAGE AND I CAN TELL YOU MORE ABOUT WHERE WE FOUND THAT.

I THINK WHAT DRAWS YOU IN, WE SPENT SO MUCH TIME TALKING ABOUT HOW TO LET THE VIEWER EXPERIENCE THIS STORY THROUGH VIVIAN'S EYES.

SO OFTEN THE BRONX IS PORTRAYED BY OUTSIDERS AS THIS OTHER PLACE.

YOU WOULDN'T BELIEVE WHAT'S HAPPENING THERE AND WE WANTED TO BRING PEOPLE INTO THAT EXPERIENCE.

THE ACTUAL LOVE THAT PEOPLE HAD FOR THE BRONX AND FOR THEIR NEIGHBORHOODS THERE.

IT IS WHAT ENTICED THEM TO STAY AND FIGHT FOR IT.

SO IN ADDITION TO THE HEART AND SOUL OF YOUR STORY SPECIFICALLY, THIS IS VERY MUCH A HISTORY LESSON.

AND YOU LEARN A LOT ABOUT, AS I'M SAYING IN THE INTRO, THE FAILURES OF GOVERNMENT AT EVERY SINGLE LEVEL.

LET'S GO BACK TO ONE OF THE BIG ISSUES.

THAT WAS THE RED LINING.

THE CREATION OF THE SOUTH BRONX, IF YOU WILL.

WHY WAS IT SO IMPORTANT TO MAKE PEOPLE UNDERSTAND, FIRST OF ALL, WHY THIS NEIGHBORHOOD WAS INTENTIONALLY CREATED THE WAY IT WAS?

SO RED LINING BEGAN IN BROOKLYN IN THE 19, THE BEGINNING OF THE 1900s.

AND IT STARTED OFF IN NEIGHBORHOODS THAT BANKS OR POLICY MAKERS JUST WANTED TO KIND OF GET RID OF.

SO WHEN IT CAME TO THE BRONX, IT BASICALLY CAME, THE WAY THAT I INTERPRETED IT WAS, THIS NEIGHBORHOOD IS A BAD BET BECAUSE WE NOW HAVE A GROWING NUMBER OF AFRICAN-AMERICAN AND PUERTO RICAN PEOPLE LIVING IN AND IT THERE IS NO USE IN SUPPORTING THIS NEIGHBORHOOD.

THESE FOLKS DON'T KNOW HOW TO TAKE CARE OF THEMSELVES SO WE MIGHT AS WELL LEAVE THEM THERE.

SO WHAT THAT MEANT IN PRACTICAL TERMS BALTIMORE FOLKS WERE NOT PROVIDED WITH ANY LOANS.

THERE WERE NO RESOURCES TO HELP BUILD OR RESTORE OR MAINTAIN THE BUILDINGS.

WHICH WAS REALLY IMPORTANT.

THESE WERE PRE-WAR BELIEVES.

A LOT OF THE ELECTRICAL WIRING WAS OLD.

THEY COULDN'T SUPPORT THE NEW ITEMS COMING INTO PLAY, HAIR DRYERS AND HEATERS AND THINGS LIKE THAT.

ON THERE WAS NO WAY TO GET NEW SERVICES.

WHAT RED LINING MEANS, YOU DRAW A RED LINE AROUND A COMMUNITY AND THEN YOU DECIDE NOT TO PROVIDE, THE GOVERNMENT DECIDES ALONG WITH PRIVATE ENTITIES, DECIDE THAT THEY'RE NOT GOING TO PROVIDE ANY ECONOMIC SUPPORT TO THAT AREA.

AND THAT DEVASTATED THE COMMUNITY.

WE NEEDED ECONOMIC SUPPORT.

EVERY COMMUNITY NEEDS A LEVEL OF ECONOMIC, POLITICAL, SOCIAL SUPPORT.

WHAT THAT DID, WHEN SOMEONE BUYS A HOME NOWADAYS, YOU GET A HOME.

YOU WANT TO FIX IT.

YOU REFINANCE.

YOU DO SOMETHING.

THERE WAS NO ECONOMIC INCENTIVE TO SUPPORT THE SOUTH BRONX.

AND OF COURSE, THE FILM ALSO ADDRESSES THERE WAS NO ECONOMIC INCREMENTIVE ON THE PART OF THE LAND LORDS TO SUPPORT.

HAS THERE EVER BEEN PROVEN BEYOND A SHADOW OF A DOUBT THAT LANDLORDS WERE BURNING THESE BUILDINGS?

OR IS THAT SOMETHING THAT HAS BEEN COME TO BE UNDERSTOOD?

WHAT IS REALLY IMPORTANT TO KNOW DURING THIS PERIOD IS THAT THE CITY WAS CUTTING BACK FIRE SERVICES ACROSS THE CITY.

SO THE ABILITY OF THE FIRE DEPARTMENT TO RESPOND TO FIRES AND THEY CUT DRAMATICALLY THE NUMBER OF FIRE SHALS.

WE TALK ABOUT THIS IN THE FILM.

FIRE MARSHALS SHOW UP TO INVESTIGATE A SUSPICIOUS FIRE.

THE NUMBERS VARY OVER TIME BUT IT WAS WOEFULLY UNDERSTAFFED.

SO THE VAST MAJORITY, IF THEY WERE RECORDED AT ALL, MANY WERE NEVER REPORTED, THEY WERE NOT INVESTIGATED.

SO IT IS VERY DIFFICULT TO KNOW THE CAUSES OF MANY OF THESE FIRES BECAUSE THEY HAPPENED FOUR YEARS AGO AND NOBODY EVER TOOK DOWN RECORDS ABOUT WHAT HAPPENED.

BUT THERE WERE A HANDLE OF PROSECUTIONS AND THERE WAS A FEDERAL INVESTIGATION BY FEMA, ACTUALLY.

INTO THE PRACTICES OF LAND LORDS AND THE INSURANCE COMPANIES AS WELL.

WE FOUND THIS RESEARCH BY VIVIAN GOES TO DIFFERENT ARCHIVES AND DIGS IT UP.

IT IS NOT OUT THERE.

IT IS NOT IN THE PUBLIC MIND THAT THIS IS SOMETHING THAT WAS A PRETTY WIDESPREAD PRACTICE BY A CERTAIN TIME.

ANECDOTALLY, IT WAS WELL KNOWN.

SO MANY REASONS WHY THIS FILM IS SO IMPORTANT AND IT ADDRESSES THE ISSUE THAT A LOT OF PEOPLE IN THE NEIGHBORHOODS IN THE SOUTH BRONX INTERNALIZED AND BLAMED THEMSELVES FOR THE FIRES.

AND THERE IS ALSO ARCHIVAL FOOTAGE OF THE CITY OFFICIALS AT THE TIME.

SAYING IT WAS THE FAULT OF THE PEOPLE IN THE SOUTH BRONX.

THIS FILM LAYS OUT A CASE FOR WHY IT'S NOT.

WHY THE PEOPLE IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD SHOULDN'T BE BLAMING THEMSELVES.

WHY WAS THAT SO IMPORTANT?

BECAUSE IF YOU LOOK AT THE CURRENT DAY, YOU WALK AROUND.

I WORK IN YOUTH DEVELOPMENT WEST SEE YOUNG PEOPLE CARRY A LEGACY THAT DOESN'T BELONG TO THEM.

THEY COME FROM THE SOUTH BRONX.

THEY COME FROM A POOR NEIGHBORHOOD.

THE NARRATIVE THAT IS CONVENTIONAL WISDOM IS THAT POOR PEOPLE ARE POOR AND THEIR NEIGHBORHOODS ARE RUN DOWN BECAUSE THEY DON'T KNOW HOW TO TAKE CARE OF THEIR NEIGHBORHOODS.

THAT'S WHAT WE OFTEN HEAR.

THAT'S WHAT WE OFTEN HEARD.

WE WERE TOLD, THE PEOPLE THERE THE SOUTH BRONX.

IT WAS ARSON.

AND THE PEOPLE IN THE SOUTH BRONX BURNED THEIR BUILDINGS.

THAT'S WHAT WE OFTEN HEARD.

THAT IS A VERY NEGATIVE AND INTERNAL EMOTION.

THAT IS A MESSAGE THAT MANIFESTS ITSELF IN ANGER OR FEAR.

OR SELF-BLAME OR EVEN LIKE SELF-ESTEEM.

PLENTY OF US, WE KNEW LANDLORDS WERE BURNING THEIR BUILDINGS BUT WE WERE BLAMED.

I TALK ABOUT THIS WITH FREEDOM THE SOUTH BRONX OR MY FRIENDS.

ANYWHERE I GO, IF I SAY FRYMAN THE SOUTH BRONX, PEOPLE SAY OH, DO YOU CARRY A KNIFE?

IS IT SAFE?

THERE IS ALWAYS THAT STIGMA.

WE HAVE INTERNALIZED THAT.

THAT'S THE MESSAGE WE'VE RECEIVED FROM THE OUTSIDE WORLD AND EVEN WITHIN OURSELVES.

WE WERE LIKE, OH, YEAH.

WE WERE THE ONES WHO BURNED IT BUT THAT'S NOT THE CASE.

FOR ME, IT WAS SO REVEALING TO REVEAL THE FACT PORES RED LINING DID.

WE DIDN'T HAVE A CHANCE.

URBAN RENEWAL.

WHITE FLIGHT.

THE IDEA THAT FIRE HOUSES WERE CUT AT A TIME WHEN WE WERE BURNING?

AND THEN WE GOT BLAMED FOR THAT.

BUT WE THE PROTECTION WE NEEDED.

BUT WE GOT BLAMED FOR BURNING OUR NEIGHBORHOODS?

THAT'S VERY IMPACTFUL.

I THINK PEOPLE WALK AROUND THINKING, I DON'T LIVE IN A SAFE NEIGHBORHOOD.

I'M FROM THIS PLACE CALLED THE SOUTH BRONX.

PEOPLE DON'T WANT TO HAVE ANYTHING TO DO WITH ME OR THEY SEE ME IN A CERTAIN WAY.

WE NEEDED TO FLIP THE SCRIPT.

DEFINITELY THE FILM DOES THAT.

NOT ONLY DO YOU LAY OUT THE REASONS REQUEST THERE SHOULDN'T BE SELF-BLAME BUT THE RESILIENCY OF THE NEIGHBORHOOD AFTER THE FIRES.

HOW PEOPLE CAME TOGETHER AND SAID, IF WE'RE NOT GOING TO GET HELP, WE'LL REBUILD OUR NEIGHBORHOODS.

RIGHT.

WE WEREN'T RESPONSIBLE FOR IT.

WE ACTUALLY SAVED THE SOUTH BRONX.

ALL RIGHT.

LADIES, I WANT TO THANK YOU FOR THIS FILM.

IT IS SUCH A CRUCIAL RETELLING.

IT HASN'T BEEN GIVEN THE ATTENTION THAT IT SHOULD SO THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR THIS FLIP.

FOR MORE INFORMATION ON DECADE OF FIRE, VISIT US AT METROFOCUS.ORG.

Funders

MetroFocus is made possible by Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III, the Sylvia A. and Simon B. Poyta Programming Endowment to Fight Anti-Semitism, The Peter G. Peterson and Joan Ganz Cooney Fund, Bernard and Denise Schwartz, Barbara Hope Zuckerberg, The Ambrose Monell Foundation, Janet Prindle Seidler, Jody and John Arnhold, the Cheryl and Philip Milstein Family, Judy and Josh Weston and the Dr. Robert C. and Tina Sohn Foundation.

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