Decade of Fire is a harrowing, heart-wrenching documentary, but before narrowing its focus to the devastation that plagued New York’s South Bronx neighborhoods in the 1970s, it evokes something that, in contrast, is devastatingly beautiful.
In the film’s opening passages, residents who lived in the South Bronx during the 1950s and 60s reminisce about the vibrant and supportive community where they grew up, worked, and raised their families. As they tell it, those city blocks and the mostly prewar buildings that stood on them were places where diverse cultures and people of widely varying ethnicities could not just harmoniously coexist but flourish, side-by-side — a unique, distinctly urban variation on what was once thought of as the American Dream. Warmed by nostalgia as those folks’ recollections no doubt are, the South Bronx still seems like an incredible place to have been at that time.
“…the rash of fires that destroyed a staggering number of homes and businesses throughout the South Bronx…”
To bring that idyllic cityscape to life for viewers, only to then methodically chronicle how it came to burn and crumble in the years that followed, is a rhetorical strategy that pays off powerfully for Decade of Fire co-directors Vivian Vazquez and Gretchen Hildebran. As the film’s title implies, their central concern is the rash of fires that destroyed a staggering number of homes and businesses throughout the South Bronx starting in 1972. The root causes and aftermath of these neighborhoods’ destruction are woven into a rankling portrayal of greed, neglect, and corruption, as well as a heartfelt tribute to the righteous indignation and fighting spirit of those who survived.
Vazquez lived through it all, witnessing firsthand the relentless spread of fires – officially blamed, at least at first, on things like faulty old wiring and criminal mischief – from the window of her family’s apartment on Leggett Avenue. She’s the film’s central figure, and her passion for the subject is palpable throughout; her search for answers and closure to the traumatic events that marked her younger years propels the documentary’s present-day sequences. She speaks with not only survivors of the South Bronx blazes but also, in a few revealing moments, with some of the fire-department personnel who responded to them (as well as her own adult son, to whom she attempts to explain the magnitude of what was lost) Interviews are juxtaposed with vintage news clips that feel almost apocalyptic in their street-level imagery of fleeing residents and buildings engulfed in flames.
“…closing segments championing resident-led rebuilding efforts that are still ongoing…”
Decade of Fire is, in a sense, a true-crime documentary, challenging the official stories that claimed the South Bronx fires to be the work of lawless, disenfranchised poor people with nothing to lose. Even much of the news reporting from the time – some of it shockingly condescending in its language – supports this explanation. However, Vazquez makes a convincing case that forces well outside of her neighborhood deserve the lion’s share of the blame. The film clearly outlines a confluence of situations that, quite literally, fueled the fires, leading in many instances to property owners paying local residents to burn down their own neighborhoods. These factors include “redlining” policies that denied insurance to residents of low-income districts, callous and misguided “urban renewal” efforts from city government and drastic cost-saving cuts to vital public services. The latter of these factors also ensured that, once the fires were set, responses would be limited and investigations scarce. A sweeping, budget-minded restructuring of New York City’s Fire Department closed down fire stations in many Bronx communities, leaving residents either to rely on overtaxed engine companies from as far away as Staten Island or simply fend for themselves as their buildings burned.
The overall picture that Decade of Fire presents is a damning one, and although the film spends its closing segments championing resident-led rebuilding efforts that are still ongoing, it’s hard not to walk away feeling outraged over a great injustice that’s gone largely, horribly unpunished. The well-paced, tightly constructed, often crushingly emotional documentary is stirring and compelling throughout, illuminating both a dark chapter of New York City history and an all-too-common example of the extent to which inner-city people can be unjustly victimized by those in power,. Even (and, maybe, especially) for viewers whose only impressions of the South Bronx have been formed by the kinds of sensationalist media portrayals that are indirectly criticized here, its story of a decent – and, in many ways, remarkable – place to live, irrevocably altered by injustice and indifference, should serve as a cautionary lesson not easily cast aside.
Decade of Fire (2018) Written and directed by Vivian Vazquez and Gretchen Hildebran. Starring Vivian Vazquez, Ricardo Antonio Irizarry, Carmen Rosado, Miguel A. Amodeo, Hetty Fox, Robert Foster, John Finucane, Joe Flood, Evelyn Gonzalez
9 out of 10