Decade of Fire Documentary: The Bronx 40 years after

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Sparked by the tragic Notre Dame fire on 15 April 2019, the Spring/Summer Design Dialogues series was loosely organized around the the theme of “Destruction and Reconstruction.” The conversation at the kick-off presentation was lively and wide-ranging, from the newly published Notre Dame proposals — to rebuild or not to rebuild? — to Davis Brody Bond’s work at Ground Zero, to the destruction of the original Penn Station, to recent projects (from architects like Carlo Scarpa, Souto de Moura, and Sverre Fehn) that dealt with the whole notion of destruction and rebuilding in innovative, unconventional, and poetic ways.

Following the initial presentation and discussion, a group of us trekked to the Metrograph on Ludlow Street in the Lower East Side to see a screening of the new documentary “Decade of Fire” about the spate of man-made fires that burnt huge swaths of the Bronx to the ground in the 1970s. The New York Times review of the film explains:

“Decade of Fire” positions itself as a corrective to the notion that Bronx residents were responsible for the wave of arson that laid siege to the borough in the 1970s. Vivian Vázquez Irizarry, who directed the documentary with Gretchen Hildebran and also narrates, begins with a rejoinder. “We did not burn the South Bronx,” she says. “In fact, we were the ones who saved it.” For the filmmaker, who grew up in the borough’s Longwood section, the history is personal. The idea that fires were, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote in a memorandum to President Nixon in 1970, a “leading indicator” of a neighborhood’s “social pathology” is portrayed as tantamount to victim blaming. Vázquez interweaves memories of her upbringing with a rundown of civic practices that, in combination, led to the Bronx’s decline. Some, like Robert Moses’s partitioning of the Bronx with the Cross Bronx Expressway or “redlining” — the systematic denial of investment to neighborhoods dominated by racial minorities — will be familiar to any student of urban planning or New York history.

The Design Dialogues team found the film quite eye-opening and disturbing, if more of a piece with our recent “Big Ideas Small Lots” housing competition than the theme of destruction and recreation explored in our Notre Dame ideas charrette. Many of the themes we addressed during the competition  — dignity, open space, light, affordability, etc. — were recounted in moving first-hand accounts in the film.

Given the timely nature of the topic (many things have changed for the better since the ‘70s, but housing remains as fraught an issue as ever) the film takes a justifiably strong and political stance on the topic. A few of us spoke to the director, Vivian Vázquez Irizarry, after the film and thanked her for her informative, provocative, and moving work. Many questions remained: does the relationship between communities and housing developers have to be adversarial? Is there such thing as a good developer? And what of architects — are we part of the problem or the solution? But these were tough questions for a two-minute theater lobby conversation, so we thanked Ms. Irizarry for her provocative work, and quietly pondered the questions on our own.

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