The Bronx is Burning

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Columbia Libraries Podcasts
The Bronx is Burning
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By Anna Mutoh and Liann Herder

During the 1970s – for the whole decade – the Bronx suffered an epidemic of fires and abandonment. This destroyed over 80 percent of the South Bronx housing stock making it look like a bombed out city during World War II. What exactly caused this? Some blamed its residents, others blamed the landlords. In 1975, Gelvin Stevenson, a Bronx economist and journalist tried to sound the alarm by telling the story of one building on one boulevard that once promised the American Dream — but then succumbed to abandonment; Roosevelt Gardens on the Grand Concourse.

In this episode, we investigate the toxic mix of invisible factors that turned the Bronx into a tinderbox. 

 

Photo of burned buildin frame and abandoned car
(Photo credit: FDNY Photo Unit) Buildings in the Bronx were burned and abandoned in the 1970s

 

Theodore Roosevelt Gardens 1922
(Photo credit: Bronx County Historical Society) Theodore Roosevelt Gardens opened in 1922. It was a grand palace of a place on the Grand Concourse, which was called the Champs-Élysées of New York City

 

Roosevelt Gardens courtyard 1978
(Photo credit: Gelvin Stevenson) Roosevelt Gardens’ Courtyard in 1978 after complete abandonment 

 

Gelvin Stevenson, economist and journalist in front of Roosevelt Gardens in 2021
(Photo credit: Anna Mutoh) Gelvin Stevenson standing in front of Roosevelt Gardens in 2021

 

East Harlem basketball game in front of burning building 1975
(Photo credit: Paul Hosefros) The game goes on in East Harlem 1975 – people like Joe Zabala escaped to the Bronx after his home burned in Harlem

 

TRANSCRIPT

[Baseball cheering at the 1977 World Series at Yankee Stadium]

KEITH JACKSON: That is a live picture, obviously a major fire in a large building in the South Bronx – region of New York City. That’s a live picture, and obviously the fire department in the Bronx have their problem. My goodness that’s a huge blaze! 

HOWARD COSELL: That’s an abandoned apartment building.

[Baseball sound continues in background]

ANNA MUTOH: That’s Howard Cosell during the 1977 World Series at the Yankee Stadium in New York City. The Yankees were playing the Dodgers. And they were already down 2 nothing. That’s when ABC’s aerial camera panned out over the stadium in the heart of the Bronx to show 60 million viewers another spectacle…

A real Bronx fire. 

COSELL: That’s a live shot again of that fire in the South Bronx that Keith called your attention just a few moments ago.

ANNA: This is the moment that Cosell allegedly coined the phrase, “The Bronx is Burning!” 

He never really said that – but the Bronx was burning… 

[Sounds of sirens]

ARCHIVAL NEWSREEL 1977: …We have a fire on the 5th floor in apartment 5-A… Occupants are being removed where necessary.. (siren sound)… Get the kid, get the kid!

LIANN HERDER: By the mid 70’s – there were 40 fires a day – almost two fires per hour. 

By the end of the decade, nearly 80 percent of the housing stock in the South Bronx was destroyed. Some areas lost as much as 97 percent of their buildings. Because of fire, and because they were abandoned.

The South Bronx was often compared to bombed-out cities of Germany during World War II. And in 1979, the New York Times described it as “a terrain that has come to personify neglect and hopelessness.” 

[Shoe Leather Squeegees music cue in]

JOE ZABALA: If you ride the Two or Five train, back in the 70s, all you seein’ was burnt buildings. The frame would be there. But you can see that, that, that, it was torched.

STEVE FUENTES: Yeah, in those days, it was bad. I mean, there was all, apartment buildings were being vandalized, burned, broke down. You know. This, this, like a ghost town –  pretty much.

ANNA: The Bronx had become the arson capital of the world.  

ARCHIVAL NEWSREEL 1977: This is the Bronx in New York. One and a half million people live in this borough… It’s the home of the New York Yankees, the Bronx Zoo and the Grand Concourse… Once that smoke on the horizon signified industry, progress, jobs…

Now, it means someone is burning down a building. 

[Shoe Leather Squeegees music cue in]

ANNA: I’m Anna Mutoh.

LIANN: And I’m Liann Herder.

LIANN: This is Shoe Leather. An investigative podcast that digs up stories from New York City’s past to find out how yesterday’s news affects us today.

ANNA: This season, we’re focusing on the 1970s. We’ll look beyond the bell bottoms and disco to explore what made this decade notorious in New York’s history. A decade in which the Big Apple went by a far more sinister nickname — 

ARCHIVAL NEWSREEL 1975: Unionized employees of New York City who face dismissal have put out a booklet describing “Fun City” as “Fear City”…

[Shoe Leather Squeegees music cue out]

LIANN: Crime was rising  – by the mid 70’s, on average, there were four murders a day in New York  – today it’s closer to one…

ANNA: People were fleeing  – nearly one million people left the city by the end of the decade.

LIANN: They took their money with them.

ANNA: New York wasn’t just broken – it was BROKE.

LIANN: And in the Bronx, if people could leave – they did.  

ANNA: The ones who couldn’t were often stuck living in apartment buildings that were neglected by landlords. They lived without heat, with broken windows, and out-of-service elevators.

LIANN: Repairmen refused to go into flooded basements, because they were infested with rats and water bugs. 

ANNA: They lived without running water. 

LIANN: Eventually, conditions got so bad, and rents so high – that those tenants tried to leave too. That’s when the buildings were set on fire.

GELVIN STEVENSON: As it emptied out, you know, the landlord started setting fires.

ANNA: In some cases, it was the landlords – or the people they hired – who set them on fire.

LIANN: And sometimes it was the residents themselves.

ANNA: So, how did this happen? How did a neighborhood that once promised the American Dream… disintegrate into flames?

[Music Bluedot cue in]

ANNA: A lot of factors and theories, but turns out – the SYSTEM was a strong force.

Financial incentives and government policies – some going as far back as the 1930’s…

LIANN: Policies that for the most part, targeted people of color and immigrants. 

ANNA: And nowhere else symbolized the rise and fall of the Bronx more than ONE building, on ONE boulevard, where many once DREAMED to live ….

Roosevelt Gardens on the Grand Concourse. 

[Music Bluedot cue out]

ANNA: This is Season Two – New York Drop Dead – and you’re listening to The Bronx is Burning.

SCENE 1:  ROOSEVELT GARDENS MEANT SOMETHING

[Music Bluedot cue in]

ANNA: The Theodore Roosevelt Apartments opened in 1922. 

It was a grand building on the Grand Concourse.

GELVIN: The Concourse at that time didn’t have these commercial establishments on the ground floor. It was, that was, too pure for that.  It was, it was the GRAND CONCOURSE! This was the Champs-Élysées de Bronx, of New York!

ANNA: That’s Gelvin Stevenson. He’s 77 years-old. He moved to the Bronx in the early 1970s when he married his wife Clara.

GELVIN: My wife is Puerto Rican. Yes. And very proud of it, right. (laughing)

ANNA: Clara told him, “marry me – marry the Bronx” – or so the family history is told. 

And so Gelvin and Clara spent the next 40 years in the Bronx – a few blocks away from the Grand Concourse.

GELVIN: This was right out of Paris, you know? You don’t have bodegas, and, and delis and, and things on the, on the streets like that. 

ANNA: Gelvin is giving us a tour of the Grand Concourse and Roosevelt Gardens –  a building he once wrote about back in the 70s. He’s an economist, and back then, he was also a journalist.

GELVIN: That was not, not this image and not the way the politicians saw it, or allowed it to become for a while.

LIANN:  When the building first opened its doors to tenants, there were large gates that led into the courtyard… An elegant fountain stood right in the middle. 

[Music Bluedot cue out]

And when sunlight caught the water at just the right angle  – this place literally sparkled.

[Sounds of paper flipping at the Bronx Department of Buildings]

LIANN: Mmm, ye old coffee stain.

LIANN: We found the old blueprints for Roosevelt Gardens at the Bronx Department of Buildings Borough Office. Maybe it’s just me, but looking at blueprints is exciting. Blueprints are a promise – what a building can be.

LIANN: Are these even bigger blueprints? Oh my god. I’m gonna cry. It’s on canvas…

 

Blueprint of RG
(Photo credit: Anna Mutoh – Original archive document from The Bronx Department of Buildings)  blueprint of Roosevelt Gardens

 

1922 RG Contruction Application
(Photo credit: Anna Mutoh – Original archival document from Bronx Department of Buildings) – 1922 Construction Application of Theodore Roosevelt Gardens

 

LIANN: Eventually the apartment complex was expanded to 14 buildings – six stories high.

They were rechristened as “The Roosevelt Gardens.”

After World War II ended in 1945, the owner wanted to make the Gardens even more exclusive: We found a letter from his lawyer to the acting Bronx borough president. 

LIANN: “Dear Mr. Herman, you will recall that I spoke to you recently about these premises …” 

LIANN: So like they wanted to make it, they wanted to put a restaurant in for them, they wanted to make it…

ANNA: Luxurious.

LIANN: Luxurious!

ANNA: Is that in the 40s?

LIANN: That’s ‘46, February…February 21st and 13th, 1946.

 

Letter requesting to open barber in RG 1946
(Photo Credit: Liann Herder – Original archive document from The Bronx Department of Buildings) A letter requesting upgrades to Roosevelt Gardens in 1946

 

ANNA: Roosevelt Gardens was this grand palace of a place. It was home to the city’s judges, top lawyers, and doctors, people who were rising to the upper middle class and beyond.

But here’s the thing – 

The Bronx WASN’T the richest borough in New York. 

SCENE 2: THE BIG MIGRATION

[Music Bluedot cue in]

LIANN: In the 1950s, the Bronx was made up of immigrants who came to the area for a fresh start. Mainly from Europe.  

JOHN FINUCANE: I liked it down there. 

LIANN: John Finucane is 80-years old. 

JOHN: There was no money down there. It was just hard working people. A lot of immigrant people. 

LIANN: He grew up on 158th and Cauldwell Avenue in the South Bronx in the 1940s and 50s. His parents immigrated from Ireland in the late 1920s. 

JOHN: They were parents that is – and was the bottom of the – what would you call it – the working.. class, or something like that? 

LIANN: working class, uh huh 

JOHN: They were good people. Hard times. But, of course, it wasn’t a hard time for me. I was only a youngster. My parents had the burden, not me. 

ANNA: But in the 1950s, the population began to change. Migrants coming in were more often from Puerto Rico — or they were African Americans escaping the Jim Crow South. 

People like Joe’s Zabala’s mother. She grew up in Georgia.

JOE: After she graduated, she came to, to New York City. She came to Manhattan. And a lot of people were migrating from the south ta, ta, ta big cities… Because you can work… it was different for, for for for for, Black folks. 

ANNA: Joe’s mom came to the Big Apple alone. To Harlem. Then to the Bronx. In search of a better life. 

LIANN: Robert Snyder is a New York City Historian and Professor of American Studies and Journalism at Rutgers University.

ROBERT SNYDER: You had a huge migration of African American and Latino peoples into New York City, right, looking for exactly the same kind of prosperity that immigrants from Europe had found a couple generations earlier.

LIAN: Meanwhile, the descendants of white European immigrants, people like John Finucane’s parents –  were leaving the city for the suburbs.

SNYDER: The pull factor of suburbia in the 1950s is much bigger than the push factor. The lure of the suburbs as they open up in Long Island and in North Jersey was profound for people.

LIANN: And by the 60s and 70’s the jobs were leaving the city too. Many of the jobs that had once existed in the docks and warehouses along the city’s edge in the Bronx had moved – to Newark, New Jersey. In the thirty year period between 1959 and 1989, over 600,000 manufacturing jobs in New York… vanished.

ROBERT MOSES: (Archival tape on Cross Bronx Expressway 1961 Bronx Board of Trade Award Ceremony):  The price of one mile of the Cross Bronx Expressway – half mile on each side of the Grand Boulevard and Concourse, including land, is $28 million dollars.

ANNA: That’s Robert Moses – the builder who was behind the Cross Bronx Expressway. 

That Expressway was the first highway in the U.S. that cut right through the heart of a crowded urban neighborhood.

And Robert Moses – well, he was one of the most polarizing figures in the history of urban development. 

Moses held 12 different titles in the New York area over 50 years, including New York City Planning Commissioner, and Secretary of State. 

MOSES: (Archival tape): The Bronx will not be rebuilt to house middle income cooperative tenants. The only hope of large-scale slum clearance and reconstruction, until a jack-all’s-critic-sensational-journalists, and fanatical uplifters are subdued, and there is sufficient support – official, press and public – to induce men of courage to undertake the task.

ANNA: That task was completed in 1972.

And the Cross Bronx Expressway split the Bronx, creating a wall between what eventually became North Bronx and South Bronx. 

SNYDER: There was a sense that the entire southern part of the Bronx was the “South Bronx” with a capital “S” and a capital “B.” Eventually, people began to talk of Fordham, Fordham Road, as the northernmost boundary of the South Bronx. 

GELVIN: He built the Cross Bronx which, just yeah, devastated, really wonderful, solid, you know, stable neighborhoods.

ANNA: That’s Gelvin Stevenson again.

In the north, upscale apartment buildings started to develop in places like Riverdale. With one mammoth complex in the northeast part of the Bronx. 

GELVIN: Co-op city opened up. So they just vacuumed people out of there. 

ANNA: Co-op City was a huge development. By the time it was completed in 1973, 60,000 people moved in. Many of them white, many of them Jewish – from parts of the South Bronx, and oftentimes from the Grand Concourse. 

LIANN: All these factors contributed to an out-flux of people who could afford to leave, and an influx of instability for those who were left. 

SNYDER: So you know, by the 70s, this has all reached really devastating proportions. And yet, what happens is, as, as conditions in New York City in the 70s slip, everybody slips, but poor people slip the most, right? And, and that creates real problems in, in the South Bronx, for the newest arrivals.

LIANN: Achieving the American dream was turning into an American nightmare — especially for people of color. 

Here’s Joe Zabala again. 

JOE: Believe it or not, we ah, survived a fire. Our building on 103rd and, and Third Avenue and, and, and East Harlem burnt down, and that’s how I ended up in the Bronx. That’s how we, we moved to the Bronx. So, the the, what was happening to them, happened to us prior. 

SCENE 3 – THE BRONX IS BURNING

[Music Bluedot cue in]

GELVINA STEVENSON: But I remember the building across the street from where we lived. There was a fire there one night…

ANNA: That’s Gelvin’s daughter – Gelvina Stevenson.

GELVINA: We all had to like, evacuate in the middle of the night. Because we were across the street. We could see the flames. 

GELVIN: Actually, I think we heard screams first. And then you could, you could actually see the fire on the, on the wall. 

ANNA: Gelvin and his daughter remember the night the apartment building across the street from them was on fire.

GELVIN: And it was just starting, you know, it wasn’t I mean, not not just starting, it had developed a bit. And then, but then the family… were out and my, my kids knew ‘em. Knew the kids, and they were out, just in tears. Just in tears ‘cuz everything was being destroyed. And if you think about it, um, all your possessions are just gone. You know, all the things you remember from you know what you had as a kid. That’s what’s tough… 

The fire kind of takes over, you know, it creates its own light. 

[Music Bluedot]

GELVINA: I remember…  

ANNA: Gelvina remembers being about six or seven and her dad driving her to school. He’d point out the burnt out buildings.

GELVINA: … and I remember we’d be driving down the block (Gelvin chuckling quietly in the background) and the building would be burned down and he was like, he was like, “oh, that’s arson.” And then another building, and he was like “yeah, that’s arson”. And I for YEARS (Gelvin chucking), like until I was a teenager. I thought arson was this guy! I thought it was a name! 

JOHN: Many times I remember pulling up to these burning buildings.

LIANN: That’s John Finucane again  – the kid who grew up in the Bronx in the 1950s.

John grew up to be a firefighter. He served in the South Bronx Engine 85, Ladder 59 – during the “War Years.” That’s what they call the 70s.

JOHN: …seeing all these poor people crammed on the fire escapes, trying to escape in pajamas, half dressed and so on, coming down barefooted, to get out of the buildings, the burning buildings, and heavy smoke blowing out the windows. 

[Music Bluedot cue out]

ANNA:  It’s hard to get numbers on exactly how many fires burned in the Bronx in the 1970s.

According to experts and journalists who spent years researching and reporting on the Bronx fires, the data is incomplete. And in some cases, even inaccurate.

Even firefighters say, not every fire was recorded.

But the numbers we were able to find through studies, books, and speaking to experts, are startling.

For example, according to the research team of Rodrick and Deborah Wallace, between 1970 and 1980… 

[Music Bluedot cue in]

DEBORAH WALLACE: The South and Central Bronx lost 50 to 80% of their housing units and of their population.

ANNA: In some areas, 97 percent of buildings were destroyed by fire, or were abandoned. 

That’s according to Joe Flood. Flood is a journalist and wrote a book about the Bronx Fires. He did an analysis of seven different census tracts in the Bronx.

FLOOD: I mean, New York City has, certainly hundreds, maybe you know, over thousands of census tracts, so any given place is going to be very different.

The number lost more than 80% of their buildings, I’d say, or population, … but yeah, yeah, a lot of tracks did.

ANNA: And a quarter of a million people lost their homes. 

By the late 1970’s, there were more than 40 fires a day. 

That’s according to the research team of the 2018 documentary film on the Bronx fires, Decade of Fire.

And according to Gelvin Stevenson – an economist and journalist, by the late 70s, there were 20 arson fires per day. He wrote about it for the New York Times back in 1977.

Between 1964 and 1974, fires that were considered “suspicious” more than doubled. This was faster than the increase of murder, rape, assualt and robbery. 

 

FDNY Summary of Operations 1974-1975
(Photo Credit: Decade of Fire Research Team) Summary of Operations FDNY Bronx  Annual Report 1974-1975

[Music Bluedot cue out]

LIANN: Just who was starting the fires – and why? This is where things get really complicated.

When we first started our reporting for this episode, we wanted to answer the question, why was the Bronx burning. It turns out, there isn’t one reason. There are many.

[Music Bluedot cue in]

ANNA: What we found was a complicated mix of policies – going back decades.  – that led to a toxic soup.

Policies like Redlining and Rent Control. Insurance schemes that raised rates so high for landlords – that in some neighborhoods, it was more lucrative to burn the buildings down than to pay the premium.

There were budget cuts too. 

And often race and class influenced these policies.

LIANN: Like REDLINING.  

It goes back to 1933 with Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. The federal Home Owner’s Loan Corporation created infamous maps in 1938 with different color based “zones” – Green, Blue, Yellow, and the dreaded – “Red.” 

Green was the best, blue meant “still desirable,” yellow – “definitely declining,” and red “hazardous”

[Music Bluedot cue out]

WALLACE: Oh, that was, that was sheer racism, absolute sheer racism.

LIANN: That’s Deborah Wallace again. She’s an expert in Urban Epidemiological Studies. She and her husband Rodrick were one of the first people to look behind the scenes to see what was leading to the burning in the Bronx. 

WALLACE: The, the definition of redlining is, if a neighborhood has a certain percent of black people in it, ah, it gets redlined. And the people there can’t get mortgages. They can’t get insurance. That, it’s, it’s –  the whole definition is based on the percent of the population that’s Black.

LIANN: A quarter of the Bronx was redlined in 1938.

 

Redlining Map of NYC
(Redlining map of the New York metropolitan area at the Undesigning the Redline exhibition in the Bronx) – A quarter of the Bronx was redlined in 1938 as part of The New Deal

 

CLICK HERE FOR AN INTERACTIVE REDPINING MAP

(Map by University of Richmond et al.)

 

ANNA: From Redlining came INSURANCE REDLINING. 

Essentially, insurance companies decided to pull out of the so-called “hazardous” zones which were redlined. 

This got particularly bad after 1968. 

ARCHIVAL NEWSREEL: (Bobby Kennedy announcing MLK Jr’s death): “Martin Luther King was shot and killed tonight in Memphis Tennessee. (crowd screams

ARCHIVAL NEWSREEL: Some of the worst trouble of the day occurred in Washington D.C. – the very heart of the nation. 

ARCHIVAL NEWSREEL: In some negro ghettos there was looting, arson and bloodshed during the night. 

ANNA: After Martin Luthur King Jr.’s assassination, riots broke out across American cities, which led private insurance companies to further pull out of the “risky” zones, and the government allowed it. 

But that left landlords in the “risky” zones with no insurance to protect their property. 

And so … the “FAIR Plan” was the government’s answer to that. 

GELVIN: The FAIR Plan —  F-A-I-R — and that’s Fair Access to Insurance Requirements.

ANNA: Gelvin published two articles in The New York Times about insurance redlining and the FAIR Plan in 1977.

GELVIN: So, I found out about the FAIR plan and why the rates were going up so fast, because it was a self-contained pool. 

ANNA: The same year the FAIR Plan was put together in 1968, states were mandated to take control of the plan and set insurance premiums based on each state’s “self-rating system.” 

New York’s “self-rating system” was drastically different from other states – in that, the “risky” areas were lumped together into one pool in order to assess the insurance premium. 

And they were high – 

[Music Bluedot cue in]

ANNA: By the late 70’s, FAIR Plan premiums in New York were two to four times higher, and in some cases, ten times higher than regular insurance rates.

That was painful for landlords. It pushed them to either raise rent, when they could –  or abandon their buildings and tenants.

[Music Bluedot]

ANNA: Or sometimes, set their building on fire – then, they could walk away with a chunk of cash. 

[Music Bluedot cue out]

LIANN: While insurance money was one incentive for landlords to abandon their buildings, RENT CONTROL was another. 

JOHN: During the time, I was down there, there was one, there was a fire… 

LIANN: John Finucane remembers an especially horrifying case of arson in 1969 on Kelly Street – a 10 minute drive from Roosevelt Gardens. The landlord had hired a former tenant to set an apartment building on fire. 

JOHN: … and ah, he got three kids to go into the apartment with a can of gasoline. Soak it, and light it up. And he shut the door on them. And one, one or two of them died. And one got out through a hole in the wall…

LIANN: The one who got out, the third teenage boy, later died in the hospital. 

The New York Times wrote about it. The landlord’s name was Albert Epstein. 

JOHN: But the landlord in that case, got sentenced to prison. That was one of the only convictions we ever heard of.  Throughout all those thousands and thousands of arson jobs. 

LIANN: He was sentenced to up to 10 years in prison. 

 

NYTAlbertEpsteinHeadline1970
The New York Times reported on one of the only landlords convicted of arson – 1969 arson by Albert Epstein

ANNA: According to the New York Times, Epstein paid a former tenant as much as $3500 to set the building on fire. He wanted to drive out tenants who lived there. 

Robert Snyder, the New York City historian says it was a common scheme at the time. 

SNYDER: Because if you got them out of the building, you could bring the rental up, price up to a market rate, right? 

ANNA: At the time, many rental buildings in New York were regulated by rent control, making it hard for landlords to raise rates regardless of maintenance cost. 

Landlords did not like that. 

LEHRER: (PBS NewsHour Archival Tape) Do you agree that, ah, with Mr. Rudin that rent control is basically a cancer?

ANNA: Jim Lehrer from PBS NewsHour is interviewing a former real estate developer and Undersecretary of Housing and Urban Development, Jay Janis in 1978. 

JANIS: (PBS NewsHour Archival Tape) Rent control, in my judgment, has not, not served the consumer, the consuming public in America – well. It’s, uh, stopped housing production or slowed it down; it has discouraged, ah, multi-family apartment builders from building; ah, it has not been a successful experience in our country.

[Music Bluedot]

ANNA: Modern rent-control was first implemented after World War II when inflation was soaring and housing stock tight. 

Gradually, decontrol happened for luxury buildings, but then inflation and lack of housing kicked in again after the Vietnam War in the late 1960’s. 

That’s when the 1969 Rent Stabilization Act kicked in, which was more flexible than Rent Control. 

Landlords didn’t like that either.

LIANN: But in 1971 all that changed.

[Music Bluedot cue out]

SNYDER: A state level law instituted what was called Vacancy Decontrol. That meant, when you moved out of your rent stabilized apartment, right, or your rent controlled apartment, those controls whether rent control, or rent stabilization, was lifted. So landlords had a big incentive to turn over tenants. 

And unscrupulous landlords would do everything they could to get somebody out of the building, they would be really nasty, you know, it could get very, very ugly.

LIANN: Remember we told you Gelvin Stevenson wrote about Roosevelt Gardens back in the 70s? 

That’s because he was passing by the apartment complex one day on his way to work.

GELVIN: But, I noticed that it was ah, there were people sitting in front of it, ah, getting water, in a bucket, from a fire hydrant.

LIANN: The people who lived in the Roosevelt Garden apartment complex were literally getting their water from the fire hydrant. 

GELVIN: I said, What on earth is going on? It’s just shocking!

LIANN: The water had been shut off. What was happening in the South Bronx was now happening on the Grand Concourse – at the Roosevelt Gardens. 

South Bronx resident getting water from a firehydrant in 1973
(Photo Credit: The New York Times) A South Bronx resident getting water from a firehydrant in 1973

[Music Bluedot cue in]

STEVE FUENTES: We used to jump from roof to roof. My, my wife did.

ANNA : Steve and Margarita Fuentes were teenagers in the 1970’s in the heart of the Bronx. They joke about jumping from rooftop to rooftop back then.

 ANNA: So I guess as kids, it didn’t really bother you too much. It wasn’t like you guys were scared?

STEVE: No, it was a part of life – back then, you know. You know, go to the park. Play bomb-ass Latin music. Dance. 

[Music Bluedot cue out]

STEVE: It was an escape from what was going on… And a lot went on.

ANNA: Steve grew up on Eagle Avenue in the South Bronx – often visiting his grandmother who lived there. 

STEVE: My grandmother just finished paying her house…. And that’s when we had all the burning, the fires and everything –  in the Bronx. Right after she made her payment, yeah. 

ANNA: Oh my goodness. 

STEVE: The house got burned.

And they had a lot of people on drugs, given money to burn the houses down.

In those days, it was bad. I mean, there was all the apartment buildings were being vandalized, burned, broke down. You know, this. This, like a ghost town –  Pretty much.

[SOUND of Liann riding the train to the Bronx]

JOE: If you ride the 2 or 5 train back in the 70s. All you seeing was burnt buildings, you can see the frame will be there. But you can see that, that, it was torched.

ANNA: That’s Joe Zabala again- the kid who moved with his mom to the Bronx in the 1970s.

JOE: When you walk through it, you just smell fire. You smelled fire. It wasn’t even burned no more – but you could just smell it.

 

Man walking in burnt out Bronx
(Photo Credit: Arty Pomerantz/New York Post Archives/NYP Holdings, Inc./Getty Images) A man wanders the burnt-down section of Crimmins Avenue in the Bronx in 1977.

 

ANNA: Buildings were abandoned. 

Then torched. 

Conditions got so bad, that even when they weren’t burned out – people eventually left their apartments. 

In effect, by letting their buildings go – Landlords could raise the rent.

Once the building was destroyed by fire, the people in surrounding buildings who could leave, did. And the process would start all over again. 

Like a game of dominos. Fire, Abandoned building, Fire, Abandoned building….

JOHN: The South Bronx was completely buried and burned out. And when it was burned out, it worked as the people moved over to the West Bronx. And then the West Bronx started going also, up in flame. And that’s how it worked. So the Concourse was ah, the people in the Concourse as I said, before, they moved out to one of the Co-op city, and the people in the South Bronx, moved into their residences, and so on, their buildings. 

And that was all it was – was a spreading of the fire.

ANNA: It wasn’t just rent control and insurance incentives leading to fires – there were other factors too. 

[Music Bluedot cue in]

ANNA: Ones that would set the Bronx up to fail.

[Music Bluedot cue out]

SCENE 4 – SETTING UP THE TINDERBOX

JOHN LINDSAY: (Archival Tape): I’m very pleased to announce that the Rand Corporation and New York City are engaged in a series of discussions which will lead to major involvement by the Rand Corp in urban problems here in New York City….

LIANN: That’s New York Mayor John Lindsay at a press conference in 1967.

The Rand Corporation started out as a kind of advisory group to the military. By the 70s it had grown into a think tank offering its services to local governments, like the city of New York. 

The city hired Rand back then to see if their computer models could bring some useful advice for city management.

So in 1971, when the mayor asked the fire chief to cut a few million dollars from the firefighting budget – he turned to the Rand Institute for advice. They analyzed fire company efficacy by assessing response time versus fire damage.

WALLACE: Well these, ah, computer models are gonna help make fire service better…  

LIANN: That’s Deborah Wallace again. 

WALLACE: They closed Fire Companies in areas where Fire Companies had relatively high densities. Now, the reason the companies had high densities in those areas is because those were the areas of very high population density, housing overcrowding, old housing, ah, multiple dwellings… ah, so those were the areas of high fire incidence. So, they said, “oh you know, there’s a lot of fire companies in that area, we can just take one out.”

LIANN: But “just taking one out” meant that high density and overcrowded areas — like the South Bronx — were suddenly facing the same amount of fire, with fewer firefighters and fewer stations to serve them.

 JOE FLOOD: You know, it really was a story of mistakes. 

LIANN: That’s Joe Flood. In 2010, Flood wrote a book about the closing of fire houses in the South Bronx. His audio quality here isn’t the best — and we’re sorry about that.

FLOOD: The problem is when the data becomes an excuse to not think hard about complicated situations. And that’s exactly what happens, um, with the Rand studies. I mean, I think just sort of on their face, um, closing literally the busiest fire companies. 

LIANN: Rand’s calculations provided a sort of logic that could explain counterintuitive behavior. The stations closed were some of the busiest in the world. 

And after they shut down, fire numbers went through the roof. 

FLOOD: So, it was a complicated mix. And I think that that’s the environment in which these kinds of often confusing and unaccountable policy decision making tools, you know, like these algorithms, um, where they really thrive.

LIANN: We reached out to RAND for comment. They told us that Wallace and Flood have, quote “mischaracterized the work that [they] did.”

They told us: “Some fire houses were closed and units disbanded in response to the city’s historic fiscal crisis, not because some computer ordered it to happen. The models were created after RAND researchers analyzed decades of fire calls and spent hundreds of hours observing dispatch centers, talking to firefighters and riding along on fire calls.”

The RAND model — and other independent data from outside sources — continues to advise the New York Fire Department today.

[Music Bluedot cue out]

ANNA: In 1975, the number of FIREFIGHTERS on the team were also cut. Now, each fire company had to fight a rising number of fires – with 20 percent fewer men. 

And FIRE HYDRANTS became a problem too. Maintenance was cut. So, sometimes, when you needed water the most, the hydrants didn’t work. 

Here’s John Finucane again.

JOHN: We used to have frozen hydrants and so on too. But we always managed, we always managed to get that water on fire … maybe the fire extended — don’t get me wrong, because we didn’t have water — but we got it. 

FLOOD: I mean, you hear these stories about, you know, companies from Queens responding to fires in the Bronx, because, you know, nearly the entire borough is busy.

ANNA: Within five years after these cuts to the busiest fire zones, non-Bronx firefighters ended up spending TRIPLE the amount of time in the Bronx. To help them out!  

They were exhausted. 

And overburdened.

JOHN: They’d cut it down to two and one, two engines and one truck. And next thing, they were sending one and one. Tell me, when you pull up even a major fire going, whoo, what the hell do you do? What do you do? You know, so you gotta call for more help, but it takes time to get that help there. 

SCENE 5 – ROOSEVELT GARDENS

[Music Bluedot cue in]

GELVIN: This was MY HOME, I was raising my family here, you know, I didn’t want to see it, like, this. And we who are living here, end up with a with, you know, kind of holes in the streets where the buildings used to be. 

ANNA: For Gelvin Stevenson, watching people get their water from a fire hydrant was the last straw. 

So he decided to write about the Roosevelt Gardens – specifically, how in the world, could a once grand building become completely abandoned. 

GELVIN: This was a perfectly good building. You know, you don’t destroy good, usable, you know, valuable properties. You know, it is really, you know, for this Presbyterian kid from the Midwest. That was areal… They were just shameful.

ANNA: Gelvin had been an editor and writer at Business Week.

He’s kept all of his notes from back then – 80 pages neatly organized in a packet. 

[Music Bluedot cue in]

He’s got copies of the building deeds dating back to 1922.

Rental data. 

Building violation reports. 

Letters from tenants. 

The story he told was about a building that once promised a dream of upward mobility.  But was then left to rot – by the landlords – by the financial incentives – and by the SYSTEM.

The New York Times rejected it, but The Bronx Museum eventually published it.

GELVIN: It’s just easier to blame the victim, and, and it’s visible… You can’t see real property transactions, you can’t see the insurance payments, you can’t see all of that, kind of, economic material. Ah, those dynamics that are going on, those are invisible! Who, who else would go to, you know, real property records, but, but a NERD! Hahaha I mean….. 

[Music Bluedot cue out]

SCENE 6: ROOSEVELT GARDENS SAVED

[Music Bluedot cue in]

LIANN: In 1975, the city bought Roosevelt Gardens –  some officials called it “the spine” of the Bronx –  that, it had to be saved.  They converted the complex into subsidized or Section 8 housing.

Soon after, the city sold it to Herman Kraus.

STEPHEN KRAUS: My father was a self-made man. 

LIANN: That’s Stephen Kraus, Herman’s son. He was about 10 years-old, when his father first started rehabilitating the building.

KRAUS: It was a disaster. I can’t say I specifically remember every part of it. But I do remember being scared by dogs. There were wild packs of dogs that, you know first you see a dog you think “oh, where’s the owner?” There was clearly no owner to these dogs. So they’re just roaming freely through the development – and the courtyard, which you could just see at one point, it, it must have been beautiful. Previous era, was just so dilapidated.

Bronx dogs roaming
(Photo Credit: The New York Times Jan. 15 1973 “South Bronx: A Jungle Stalked by Fear, Seized by Rage” photos show inside an abandoned Bronx home and dogs roaming the streets

 

LIANN: In 1980 Roosevelt Gardens reopened., Kraus received 10,000 applications for the 291 units

[Music Bluedot cue out]

ANNA: Remember the teenagers who jumped from rooftop to rooftop of abandoned buildings? Steve and Margarita Fuentes?

Margarita applied. She moved in, in the early 1980s. 

MARGARITA: I was happy to find and have the room that I had … Um, the place was so nice… you know, it was real pretty… The apartment place was nice. The people was nice.

ANNA: It’s where she met Steve. 

STEVE: So you know, when they say what do you say that? Um, destiny? Yeah, that’s, that’s how I would say it. Was meant to be I guess. 

[Music Bluedot cue out]

ANNA: Then, if we fast forward to, um, the Bronx fires ending, what ended it? 

SNYDER: Part of the explanation is some neighborhoods just bottomed out. 

ANNA: That’s Robert Snyder again. 

SNYDER: Mayor Ed Koch deserves a certain amount of credit for rebuilding the Bronx. After the southern part of the borough, in particular, was flattened and ruined. His Mayoralty was important in rebuilding the Bronx… 

LIANN: In 1978, Mayor Ed Koch formed an Arson Strike Force to try and stop the fires. It consisted of the Fire Department and other city agencies. 

ANNA: Also in 1978, an amendment was passed on the FAIR Plan that Gelvin had written about in the New York Times. This amendment was called The Holtzman Amendment, named after Congress-women Elizabeth Holtzman. She had read Gelvin’s article the year before, and invited him to testify in Congress. This amendment made FAIR Plan rates equal to the rates of private insurance companies. That helped remove one of the potential factors contributing to fires. 

GELVIN: I said, Wow, this is really groovy! This is how this stuff works. (chuckles)  

LIANN: In 1986, Mayor Koch also declared a 10-year plan to rebuild destroyed homes  – the city eventually put up $5 billion. 

But, what it came down to, was the array of approaches – for profit, non-profit, and the COMMUNITY that rebuilt the Bronx. 

SNYDER: A lot of small community organizations did heroic work. A lot of nonprofits did a lot of work. There was no single entity that did everything. But a lot of partners had to be brought together.

LIANN: By 1993, the Arson Task Force reported a 70% decrease in New York City fires. 

It took 15 years. 

[Music Bluedot cue out]

[Music cue in: Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five “The Message” ] 

ANNA: As Bronx residents and the city tried to end the fires … something else was born out of the ashes — HIP-HOP. 

Early DJs in the South Bronx – like DJ Kool Herc and his sister Cindy Campbell – quite literally held jams in burnt out neighborhoods  — sometimes to raise money for school.

This inspired other hip-hop artists, like Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five with their iconic song — “The Message.” 

Don’t push me
‘Cause I’m close to the edge
I’m trying not to lose my head
Ah-huh-huh-huh

[Music cue out]

ANNA: Hip-hop kicked off strong social messages and the sound of survival — from the Bronx. 

That nobody could burn down. 

SCENE 7: EPILOGUE

[Sound of birds chirping…and gate to Roosevelt Gardens opening]

ANNA: I think this place is really lovely. 

LIANN: When we visited the Gardens, we were struck by the peaceful courtyard. The very courtyard we saw on the blueprints at the Bronx Department of Buildings.  

There’s a plaque of President Theodore Roosevelt in the middle where the fountain used to be. 

Plaque of Theodore Roosevelt in RG Courtyard 2021
(Photo Credit: Anna Mutoh) Plaque of President Theodore Roosevelt in the courtyard of Roosevelt Gardens in 2021

[Sound kids in the background]

ANNA: We met a few kids while we were there –  remember Joe Zabala?

The man whose mom moved from Jim Crow South – Georgia? 

His 12-year-old grandson, Jacob Hernandez lives here. 

[Jacob talking in background]

ANNA: He has big plans. He wants to play football, go to college, and make it in the NFL.

JACOB: And I hope football as I go, could take me through to my college. Then, wanna get to like the NFL, the professional league.

LIANN: Roosevelt Gardens has remained affordable housing since the 1970’s. 

And it still has its issues – parts of the building are crumbling, and just last year, the gas pipes were not working for months during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

ANNA: Next year, Roosevelt Gardens turns 100 years old. 

According to Stephen Kraus, there are 1000 people on a waiting list to move in.

Roosevelt Gardens today
(Photo Credit: Anna Mutoh) Roosevelt Gardens in 2021 located on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx

 

[Shoe Leather music Squeegees cue in]

ANNA: Shoe Leather is a production of Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. This episode was reported, written and produced by me, Anna Mutoh

LIANN: and me, Liann Herder.

ANNA: Joanne Faryon is our executive producer and professor. Rachel Quester and Peter Leonard are our co-professors. Special thanks to Columbia Journalism Librarian Kristina Williams, Columbia Digital Librarian Michelle Wilson, Michael Barbaro from The Daily, civil rights attorney Ron Kuby, Madeleine Baran and Samara Freemark from In the Dark, Emily Martinez and David Blum from Audible, Susan White from Garage Media, Professor Dale Maharidge, Feven Merid, Elize Manoukian , Rachel Pilgrim, and Josh Lash. Additional sound mixing by Peter Leonard. 

LIANN: Shoe Leather’s theme music – ‘Squeegees’ – is by Ben Lewis, Doron Zounes and Camille Miller, remixed by Peter Leonard. Other Music by Blue dot sessions.

ANNA: A special thank you to film-director, Gretchen Hildebran and Vivian Vazquez Irrizary from Decade of Fire, and to Gelvin Stevenson who shared their original research with us. 

Also, a special thank you to my dear friend, Jose Stephenson, who put us in touch with his father, Gelvin.

To learn more about Shoe Leather and this episode go to our website shoeleather.org. To stay up to date on the latest Shoe Leather happenings, follow us on social media. We are on facebook at facebook.com/ShoeLeatherCast and on instagram and Twitter @ShoeLeatherCast. 

[Shoe Leather music Squeegees cue out]

Biography of Authors:

Anna Mutoh is a Toni Stabile Fellow of Investigative Journalism and a part-time student at Columbia University School of Journalism. Prior to returning to school for a Master’s of Science degree, Anna spent 20 years in the financial industry, including 15 years at Goldman Sachs on the Equity trading floor, both in Tokyo and in New York City. She holds a B.A. from Duke University in History and Political Science. You can find Anna’s work in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Columbia News Service, and Japan’s largest news platform for millennials, NewsPicks in print, video and live broadcast. Originally from Japan, Anna is a member of AAJA, and serves as President of Women In Media at Columbia University. Follow her on Twitter @anna_mutoh, and LinkedIn. Email her at anna.mutoh@columbia.edu 

Anna Mutoh bio photo

Liann Herder is a Columbia University School of Journalism Masters graduate c/o 2021. A native of Texas, spent seven years working in education as a teacher and an administrator. She serves as a staff writer at Diverse: Issues in Higher Education. While at Columbia, she published in the Brooklyn Eagle and received honors on her Master’s Thesis about the mental health of healthcare workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. She specializes in diversity in education and culture, and mental health. Liann served as Vice President and Academic Affairs Chair of Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) at Columbia University. Follow her on Twitter @herdinglions. Instagram @herdinglionns. Email her at lah2211@columbia.edu.

Liann Herder bio photo

 

© Anna Mutoh and Liann Herder 2021

 To contact the authors of this podcast, please reach out by email, 

Anna: anna.mutoh@columbia.edu   Liann: lah2211@columbia.edu 

 

 

4 thoughts on “The Bronx is Burning

  1. It’s a laborious work to do. A lot of research, data analysis, perspective view and patience.

  2. I lived right across the street from Roosevelt gardens in 1454 and i was also born in 1978 im just researching history and have alot of questions and answers too this racist country this is so devastating, just because myself and my family are black we were just blocked out of history and suffering as they allow others to live our credit..they have done this hate continuously here in America.

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