Plague on our houses returns: Structural fires


(re: “Flames refuse to spare apartments, businesses,” Nov. 4)

“Fires have always been contagious, but before 1968, an ‘immunization program’ kept epidemics at bay,” I wrote in a 1998 book with my husband, Rodrick Wallace. It was called “A Plague on Your Houses: How New York City was Burned Down and National Public Health Crumbled.”

“Fires became virulently epidemic in 1968. Before then, a large fire ushered in a period of lower-than-average fire incidence in that area because fire prevention activities by municipal agencies focused there. Still, citywide, the number of structural fires grew consistently.

“After 1968, fire damage failed to trigger targeted agency action. The damage instead marked the area as neglected and negligible, and fire disease infected the area, eroding the housing stock.”

Thus began the 1970s fire epidemic in New York City, which occurred because fire protection was throttled — first by changes in response policy and fire prevention programs, and then by fire company closings in and permanent relocations from poor minority neighborhoods of old housing and prevalent extreme overcrowding.

After the epidemic, the Koch administration closed more companies in the South Bronx, Brooklyn’s Brownsville neighborhood, and other neighborhoods of color. The Bloomberg administration closed more companies, including one in Harlem which — like the South Bronx — lost companies in the 1970s.

Correspondence between Richard Nixon’s urban advisor Daniel Moynihan and staff members from the New York City/Rand Institute indicated the intention to target Black communities. NYC/Rand supplied fire data to Moynihan for his infamous “Benign Neglect” memo to Nixon, wherein Moynihan labeled all New York City fires as “arson.”

This lie stigmatized low-income neighborhoods of color, and provided the excuse for “planned shrinkage” to cut fire service to the poor. Rand’s computer models directed the targeting with a smokescreen of pseudoscience.

Fire clustering has arisen in the northwest Bronx. In January 2019, two large fires occurred in buildings at the intersection of Kappock Street and Netherland Avenue. More recently, two large fires occurred at the intersection of Bailey Avenue and West 238th Street.

These last two fires caused extensive damage.

A third large recent fire at 130 Van Cortlandt Ave. W. — near the Bailey-West 238th intersection — destroyed several apartments, and injured civilians and firefighters. Clustering indicates contagion and potential epidemic.

If we can’t upgrade Bronx fire service to adequate levels, we face another fire epidemic. The 1970s epidemic cost many areas between 50 and 80 percent of housing units and population. The entire borough suffered because the burned-out areas sending fire refugees — and the areas receiving fire refugees — destabilized socially, economically and politically.

This weakness disempowered the Bronx and left it crime-ridden, and with poor public health. As a U.S. Senator, Moynihan blamed the victims for these horrors, and spoke against the Carter administration for giving it any aid.

The 1970s disaster alerts us to likely consequences of fire epidemics. My husband and I have studied this disaster’s consequences since 1975. The Bronx was the national epicenter of the first wave of COVID-19, a development arising from the 1970s disaster and subsequent victimization of the borough.

The Bronx functions as a unit, and the myth that only low-income areas suffer generates dangerous policy. We all face degraded safety, neighborhood conditions, and public health together, although poor neighborhoods suffer most.

The Bronx lost nine regular fire companies between 1972 and the present — eight in the South and central Bronx, and one on City Island. The loss as a percent of the 1971 number of companies and as units lost per unit population exceeds the other boroughs. Furthermore, each remaining company lost one firefighter in staffing.

The cuts expand the response areas of the remaining companies — each must protect a wider area. The Bronx has grown in population recently. Thus, fewer companies staffed with fewer firefighters must respond to alarms from more people.

Seventeen of the 25 Bronx ZIP codes have more than 3 percent of housing units deemed extremely overcrowded. There are nine over 5 percent. More than a dozen ZIPs have poverty rates over 30 percent, according to the 2017 American Community Survey.

In the first epidemic, prevalence of area extreme housing overcrowding and poverty rates interacted to produce cumulative fire damage, indicated by annual hours of engine work time. Most of the Bronx is vulnerable to fire epidemic now.

The city administration blandly told us that despite the civil servants’ rebellion against COVID-19 vaccination, the systems are functioning “smoothly.” We know from our four pre-rebellion fires that the fire protection system was not “smooth” for us. The damage and injuries at the fifth fire at 130 Van Cortlandt demonstrates that the New York Fire Department sick-out and unpaid rebels’ leave significantly degraded fire protection in the northwest Bronx.

Large fires in areas such as Mott Haven show a Bronx-ubiquitous situation. The pandemic may also have a role in increasing fire incidence through less maintenance by landlords and more time at home by residents.

New York City lost some 300,000 housing units between 1970 and 1980, according to the 1984 New York City Housing Census. This loss mainly caused the housing famine that has only worsened from gentrification. Waves of homelessness — beginning around 1980 — reflect this famine.

Our legislators have the responsibility of heading off a new fire epidemic. Near the end of his last term, Councilman James Vacca held a hearing on artificial intelligence and algorithms — such as what the fire department uses for company closings — with biases that punish individuals and communities along ethnic and class lines. No other Bronx legislator has attended to this dangerous situation.

Because of the political weakness of the Bronx, our legislators must unite to demand adequate fire service. The proof is in the pudding: Clusters of large fires that wreak much damage and many injuries indicate incipient epidemic due to inadequate fire service.

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Deborah Wallace,