'Decade of Fire': Film Review

Courtesy of Perla de Leon
A home-grown look beneath stereotypes of inner-city despair.

Longtime Bronx resident Vivian Vazquez Irizarry explores the nature and aftermath of the arson that plagued her neighborhood for years.

What did it do to a generation of New Yorkers to see their borough transformed, in a matter of years, from a vibrant place where immigrant groups mixed into the nation's go-to example of all that is wrong about cities? Teaming with filmmaker Gretchen Hildebran, first-timer Vivian Vazquez Irizarry examines the plague of arson that turned her home into the textbook example of a "ghetto." Though many popular explanations for the Bronx's 1970s suffering were long ago understood to be racist nonsense, the heartfelt film represents a self-portrait of those lies' impact. As it chronicles an inspiring wave of rebuilding and community organizing, the film also warns of new threats in need of opposition.

In the 10 years during which fires raged in the Bronx, the film reminds us, nearly a quarter-million people lost their homes. Footage from the era looks like post-World War II Dresden, with children playing on heaps of brick, block after block leveled where apartment buildings recently stood. As Irizarry (in voiceover) and Hildebran summarize the damage and how it was seen from outside for younger viewers — cue a white firefighter who claims that locals just "don't care" about the buildings they live in — they conclude: "We did not burn the South Bronx. In fact, we were the ones who saved it."

Sometimes playing like the technically polished result of a college research project, the film then makes the case for what Irizarry knows to be true. Following a quick, still-too-relevant history of racism-poisoned policymaking (redlining, urban renewal) and white flight, she shows how institutions left people of color stuck in older neighborhoods where housing stocks badly needed repair. Irizarry's own father wanted to move the family to the suburbs, but, despite having had steady employment for years, couldn't get a loan. She recalls wondering why, but her parents accepted the situation and made do. Then, in 1968, as riots or rebellions (you choose) hit cities across the country, "it went crazy."

And right around the time fires began consuming the South Bronx, the city started closing fire departments in the South Bronx. The film may leave viewers wanting to understand more about the combination of fiscal woes, outside consultants and "benign neglect" that steered money away from the areas most in need of it. But the result is plain. Vast swaths of people's homes burned.

Likewise, viewers far removed from the era might like more concrete examples of how these fires were started — often by local youths, yes, but not for fun: Kids in dire poverty were hired by property owners who had milked tenants for all they could before they'd have to make repairs. Rather than make buildings habitable, they burned them and collected insurance payouts. News reports at the time played up the "they burn their own homes!" angle, often ignoring landlords to focus on teens they depicted as crazed. (A decade or so later, these reporters would fan fears of "wilding" teens and random assault.)

The filmmakers note some low points in the government's response to this crisis, and link public perception to the difficulties Irizarry had when she went away to college. Then, as the doc tells it, around the time she found solidarity with new friends on campus, the Bronx started standing up for itself. The film's most animated chapter observes how very small groups of residents sprouted all over the borough, finding ways to rehabilitate buildings. Tenant-run co-ops were created; volunteers learned construction trades while building their own homes; cultural programming made neighborhoods worth living in again.

Fresh devastations awaited — crack in the '80s, mass incarceration in the '90s — each exacerbated by misguided government policies and unchecked capitalism. But Irizarry sees locals who survived these challenges acquiring new layers of toughness and pride, increasingly ready to fight for their communities. Today, the enemies are developers who want to demolish their apartments and market "luxury" dwellings to those fleeing Manhattan property values. Gentrification is harder to quash than flame, but Decade sees a generation of Bronxites ready to try.

Production company: Red Nut Films
Directors-screenwriters: Vivian Vazquez Irizarry, Gretchen Hildebran
Producers: Vivian Vazquez Irizarry, Gretchen Hildebran, Julia Steele Allen, Neyda Martinez
Executive producers: Sally Jo fifer, Leslie Fields-Cruz, Sandie Viquez Pedlow
Director of photography: Edwin Martinez
Editors: Gretchen Hildebran, Sonia Gonzalez-Martinez, Penelope Falk
Composer: Arturo Ortiz

75 minutes