Friday, May 14, 2010

Why The South Bronx Burned

We had to destroy the village in order to save it.
Those of us of a certain age well remember the fires that ravaged the South Bronx in the mid-1970s, displacing hundreds of thousands of poor residents and turning swaths of city blocks into ghost towns. These fires have been routinely blamed on arsonists and greedy landlords, but Joe Flood tells a very different story in the provocative new The Fires: How a Computer Formula, Big Ideas, and the Best of Intentions Burned Down New York City and Determined the Future of Cities.

Flood writes that the borough -- a metaphor for all that was wrong with inner city America at the time -- burned because firefighters were pulled out of the area by planners who were in thrall to a RAND Corporation computer-modeling study that found the beleaguered department could operate more efficiently and the city would be better off by allowing whole neighborhoods to burn.

Over the course of a decade that New York City firefighters would refer to as "The War Years" more than two thousand people were killed in addition to the people displaced by fires in the South Bronx, Lower East Side, Harlem and Brooklyn. It was, in a sense, a slow-motion 9/11.

Flood writes that RAND was to sell its computer models to cities across the country, prompting a new wave of technocratic decision-making that he says persists to this day.

The Fires will be released on May 27 and I already have a copy on order at While you're there, take a gander at this book, as well.

Hat tip to bldblog
Photograph by Neal Boenzi/The New York Times

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