October 21, 2019  (Web Review)

Decade of Fire

(2018) 75 min. DVD: $129: public libraries; $349: colleges & universities. DRA. Good Docs (www.gooddocs.net). PPR.

Reviewer rating: 3.0/4

Anyone who remembers the frequency of arson fires in New York City’s Bronx borough during the 1970s may also recall the national media spin concerning the common perception at the time that the people living there were destroying their own neighborhoods because they didn’t care. Filmmaker Vivian Vázquez Irizarry (working with co-director Gretchen Hildebran) grew up in the Bronx and knows both the legacy of the fires and the misguided criticism of their origins. Her documentary sets out to correct the record, arguing that it was the residents of the Bronx—where so many structures were shockingly reduced to rubble—who saved it. Examining many factors that led to the long season of conflagration, Decade of Fire describes patterns of racism, greed, benign neglect, redlining, and multiple government decisions that led to decline. When construction of the Cross Bronx Expressway essentially partitioned the borough, one half of the neighborhood was all but forgotten by the city, and real estate investment became impossible, with loans automatically denied. (Irizarry’s parents, who wanted to move the family out of the Bronx, were redlined and denied a bank loan, despite her father’s steady job.) Slumlords paid kids a few bucks to burn down fire traps so that owners could collect insurance. And fire stations, incredibly, were closed everywhere near the Bronx during the height of rampant arsons. An esteemed future U.S. senator from New York State, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, told President Richard Nixon that the fires were evidence of a community pathology, adopting the much-criticized approach of “benign neglect.” Interviews and archival footage show how grassroots efforts rallied the community to begin rebuilding itself, and the film concludes with Irizarry’s strong feelings about current efforts to help the Bronx further evolve and prosper. Exploring a dark chapter in NYC history from both a historical and personal perspective, this is recommended. Aud: C, P. (T. Keogh)