Looking Back On A 'Decade Of Fire'

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Hi I'm very how you doing. Yeah it's a bitter cold Sunday morning in the South Bronx and I'm meeting Vivian. Fuskus so we're at ninety six legged Avenue Avenue between Beckoned Fox we stop in front of a tall brick apartment building that has a very special meaning for her. This is the heart of the south. Bronx who are in the Longwood Longwood district of the South Bronx. He says where I grew up for eighteen years of my life leaving. Has These really strong memories of her South Bronx neighborhood in the nineteen seventies as a little girl living on this block with lots of people on the block and knowing all my neighbors you know there was Louis. There was an Aso. Chucho Ginette. We knew each other and then we were able both to me. I was chicken but my friends. And my brothers and sisters will go up on the fire escape from one floor to another. We used to put a blanket. Thank it on the fire escape and lay there all night. It was just awesome. We could see the stars you know. I I have memories of like you know. The Jackson five blasting while we're all on the fire escape singing the Jackson Five. Not all Vivians Indians memories are so idyllic. There was a day when I was about. I don't know I must have been about six years old seven years old. I witnessed my first fire. This whole all area was a block that contained or included businesses laundry man. A store grocery store a little jewelry shop and one day early in the morning we. I'm looking out the window with my family and this was all in flames and it burned for very a long time. I remember the heat the intense heat from my window and I remember people just being very frightened so the rubble the fires you know the destruction the deterioration all of that felt like it was a normal part of life for us. I say in the film We didn't matter guy have memories of some of my girlfriends Being raped. I have memories of my girlfriends getting killed though to friends of mine that got killed. There were murdered the way you're describing also feels like what's the message of of a community not having enough resources. Frankly being abandoned not only he by police but by all of the city institutions. What's the mets? Are you know I think that when we were growing up Especially since we have such a proliferation of gangs the the thought was oh. They are scared of us. They but they weren't really scared of us they just didn't care about us from NPR and food OOO media it's Latino USA. I'm Marina Hotel and today the South Bronx from the fires of the nineteen eighteen. Seventy two away a gentrification. Today I grew up in the South Bronx in the Nineteen Nineteen Seventy S. During the time of the fires. To me it was hung in the nineteen seventies the South Bronx became synonymous with urban decay. And these fires that Vivian remembers would help create a lasting negative image of the Bronx houses disappearing. And that's why Vivian decided to co-director documentary about her neighborhood of the South Bronx. It's called decade of fire fire. The film looks at how the city state and federal government essentially abandoned the Bronx the story. We were told the story the whole world was told it was that the fires were somehow of was in the air fire was everywhere. People angry nearly nearly a quarter million people mostly Puerto Rican and African American were displaced as apartment. Buildings and businesses were burned to the ground and we could see the neighborhood changing around us trashing the streets many of our landlords had sold their buildings things to speculators. They chopped up the apartment squeezing more people into smaller spaces. The film looks at how government policies encouraged a lack of investment in the South Bronx and how this resulted in a legacy of poverty. An abandonment of the neighborhood. Commissioner O'Hagan why the rise from sixty four on on. Why is the city burning? If you bring a poor family out of the The deep South With the promise of opportunity and put him in an open Senate for the first race. Time and crowd fifteen to twenty people in an apartment never lived in this type of an environment before crowded into You know living quarters. Is it then familiar with. It's not surprising that you have an increase in in you know. Fires the film reveals that while Black and Latino residents were the ones who suffered the most in the South Bronx they were also the ones being blamed for the catastrophe but the story behind these fires is a lot more complicated than that it starts in the nineteen thirties. When black and Puerto Rican neighborhoods were classified it? As declining by the government this practice known as redlining allowed banks and insurance companies to deny residence mortgages loans and insurance assurance in all of these neighborhoods the new landlords wouldn't fill the boiler in the winter even when it was freezing out people had to use their ovens and electric repeaters just to stay warm and the old wiring in our buildings couldn't handle the new appliances. It wasn't any one thing it was all all these things that eventually led to the fires. The housing was viable for the landlord as a place to make money. You take the rent and don't fix anything you don't pay the taxes. The last episode Burning Fire Gang to burn some landlords found it to be more more profitable to collect the insurance after a fire then to maintain the buildings in the community we knew that landlords were burning their buildings. We we just didn't know how much money they made. or how they got away with. It is a live picture. Obviously a major fire in a large building on October Twelfth Nineteen seventy seven when the New York Yankees played against the Los Angeles. Julie Starters in the World Series at the famed Yankee Stadium in the Bronx live television cameras captured a massive fire in the distance during the game. I mean that's a live shot again that fire in the South Bronx here attention just a few moments ago my generation new leftie behind so we would have to recreate the world ourselves. That spirit became contagious. They fight and bill with decade of fire director. Vivian Vasquez IDI is trying to change that public image of the South Bronx and showed that it was its residents who actually saved the neighborhood and rebuilt it. I thought I don't think I want my block disappear. I think I had a good time growing up on that block. I sat down with Vivian to talk about growing up in the South Bronx during those years. We also talked about the perceptions options. People had of her neighborhood back then and the new challenges the South Bronx faces today. Did you have a sense of how people were looking from the outside at you and creating narrative live about your community. Did you have a sense of that was happening when you were a little girl. I remember when I was in high school I went to Murray Bertram High School in Manhattan Because I didn't want to go to the any of the zone schools in the Bronx and During my time at Bertram there was an opportunity to be a part of a mock doc congress where we all would come together in Staten Island. It was a special event was a weekend. My Bill to be brought up to this mock Congress floor. Was this guy to rebuild the south. Bronx never forget it and my teacher worked with me on it and we talked about like housing improving education improving parks and things like that and when I brought it up actually. I didn't introduce the bill. The bill was introduced by someone else on on this floor and it was located in school in Staten Island and there are lots of students from all over the city. And when he read the title of the bill to rebuild the South Bronx he looked at it and he said all this nonsense and he threw the papers up in the air and kept walking and that was the end of my bill. It just got killed in this Mark Congress and I thought to myself. Why would he do that? And no one thought about it. So that's an indication to me that there was a perception of the South Bronx that act alone. You know thinking back on it. I just remember feeling really humiliated and embarrassed but that act alone I think signifies that there was some kind of disregard for a place place you know. It was an indication that there is a perception out there that it wasn't worth saving that there was something wrong with it and that you know didn't have any value and a a lot of times people look at neighborhoods and they're like. Oh that's a bad neighborhood and I've always said no actually. That's an abandoned neighborhood. Is that what it felt like. Sure for the hospital that we went to was in was considered condemned hospital. It was officially condemned hospital. How could Children receive health care in that situation. We had terrible parks. We had some teachers who cared about brought us but beyond that we really lacked access to you know sort of like a possibility of the future because we didn't have much. We had a couple of organizations here. And there you know. We were part of United Bronx parents and we knew that carseat that Maria existed in the neighborhood the hood but we didn't have a infrastructure a social infrastructure that would allow us the the the kids to be part of a softball league to be part of Baseball League or to be part of a basketball league. You know we were sort of left to our own devices prices after school So we played a lot in the rubble on the streets. It feels like what you're describing might be labeled structural racism and when you connect this notion of structural racism you institutions. That just are absolutely lutely turning away from this community. How do you think about that? And the fires. It was an epidemic and it was just incredible when you talk to people who grew up during that time they say. Vivian I remember the smell. Do you remember the Smell Mel. Oh yeah I remember the smell you know. Based on our research forty fires a day and night I remember them during the day. My sister remembers them at night. Or whatever I mean and people remember specific events people remember. Yeah my parents would make us keep our shoes in front of the door so they that in case we had to run out or you know or forty fifty years later the memory is so visceral the feeling the the smells. It's so close to us and it was because it was very very deep and I felt like that in many ways we were oppressed because we were actually pushed down if I live in a building. I'M NOT GONNA burn the building because I got the little hustle to be in there. I don't WANNA burn. My mother and father lives here when I was a kid. And now you're gonNa tell me. Go move someplace else. What fuck I live here? We weren't elevated. We were pushed down as a community. And when you do that to people you know people are angry coming up on Latino USA we continue the conversation with baskets insanity. She's the CO director of the documentary. Decade fire stay with us not the right yes with this message comes from. NPR sponsor. Better help the online counselling service dedicated to connecting you with a licensed counselor to help you overcome whatever stands in the way of your happiness. Fill out a questionnaire and get mashed with a professional tailored to your needs. And if you aren't satisfied with your counselor you can request a new one at any time free of charge visit better. Help dot com mm slash Latino to get ten percent off your first month. Get the help. You deserve with better help. Are you sometimes confused by the economy befuddled by the financial system troubled by the trade war. We are here to help with the daily ten minute briefing on economic news of the day. NPR's indicator from planet money now Aw Hey we're back and we've been speaking with Vivian Vasquez Idi Saudi. She's director of the documentary decade of fire. And we'RE GONNA pick up our conversation now. This notion. That New Yorkers not living living in the Bronx would hear stories the Puerto Ricans of the south. Bronx are responsible for setting all these fires because they don't really know what they're doing in their apartments apartments in fact. That was absolutely not what was happening. This was targeted arson. It was strategic. It was planned. Yeah Yeah I've heard that before. In fact we went to a college to present an excerpt of the film and a professor from. I'm not GonNa mention the College College from a prestigious college told me do you know why the South Bronx Burn. And he told me it was. Because all those Puerto Ricans were cooking pork on a spit in their apartments here. We were in sort of what I thought. Was this really elegant college setting and someone someone who is a professor. There tells me that even if like we didn't set the building on fire purposely that we were still stupid enough not try to cook pork on a spit. You know I it is. It's really it's bad and not to say that young people did not torch but if they were offered like person in the film Laureen says if she's offered two hundred and fifty dollars to torture building. That's a lot of money in today's dollars. It's like two thousand dollars to be offered to torch and a lot of young people took that opportunity to make that money but like I said people warned the community members I there were people who came in from the outside to torch our buildings and the idea that my grandparents and my parents. We'll come from Puerto Rico to destroy their home. You know it's like it doesn't make any sense. Why would we come from wherever we came from to improve our lives so that we could burn our buildings but interestingly enough that was a narrative that that was accepted you would think because this was not one hundred years ago this was the nineteen seventies? You would have thought that you know Mayor Lindsay at the time would have said well we've got A. We've got help here we're going to send more fire trucks more fire engine companies up there. We're going to open up more fire houses and in fact in the decade okay to fire they started closing down firehouses. How do you explain that level of of logic? I think it's because at that time. The new sort of business approach to management was coming on the scene and so he brought on the Rand Corporation. Who came up with these computer models that that would show how city government could be more efficient systems with run more smoothly you can save money and sort of take the personal Out of making decisions on behalf of Services Ran Corporation was assigned to the fire to Bob to try to reduce the cost of fire protection in the city using ran computer models to predict future trends. John O'Hagan head of the fired above above started eliminating fire companies. They're closing fire companies mostly in poor neighborhoods very high fire numbers while neighborhoods that have lower fire. Higher numbers are untouched. In many cases are gaining companies. I think that was a mistake. You know it's sort of like you know that saying the map is not the territory he he was looking at some kind of blueprint that would show efficiency but he never really spent time name thinking about those people in the community who would be impacted by that efficiency those strategies when I was a college student student here at Barnard up at Columbia University during this time right after the decade of fire a movie was being made in the South Bronx called Fort Apache and and I remember hearing about the protests that were happening in fact pots and pans. Bean struck tintor up the shooting of the film around this. It's time for the Patchy showed up a Hollywood movie. That started filming here. Patrick the Bronx fuse has been lit sick of senior community being used as a backdrop of hearing that we set the fires of seeing these racist ACIS. Stereotypes used as entertainment. We had enough so was the making of that movie Fort Apache. The Bronx was that something of a moment in the community where it was like us dot keenum us. I think that there were several moments in the community. I think that when the young Lords took over Lincoln can hospital it was a show of strength and a forest. Like you guys need to build a new hospital for us. This healthcare is not acceptable When when United Bronx parents began to organize parents to fight for more quality education bilingual education? I think that was another are kind of turning point for the community. I think that definitely Ford Apache and the fight to build hostels community. College was also turning point so there were all these actions that we're taking place on behalf of the Community Ford Apache brought I think a lot of young people and older older people together. There was this reaction. Like how dare you portray our community in such a way and so people really for but I think you're right right. I think patchy was a catalyst to help. Young people think about the importance of how narrative is told about place and who you are Right so where are we. What are you doing here because this is an example of the upcoming fear the the threat of displacement this is the symbol of what is to come in the South Bronx they? They are building luxury buildings. Right here in the heart of the south. Bronx if you look over there these Houses were built in response to the fires. Those are low and middle income housing units. These are going to be luxury. The housing units. How people going to be able to afford to live here in their neighborhood? Folks have been promised that this building among among other buildings will be affordable housing. This is not going to be affordable housing now for the people who live here and the South Bronx and the Bronx wrongs in general is experiencing a lot of gentrification. So when you travel through the South Bronx now what are you seeing. What are the stories stories of? What's happening in the South Bronx? Now that we might be hearing about fifty years from now there are people who share share the history of the fires in the South Bronx and those people you know will tell me here it is all over Oregon right. We're now being displaced all over again. It's happening people see the connections whether or not you're in the historical Stoorikhel camp. You remember or you don't remember what matters is that people are worried. And then I think that sort of at the core of this this for me is that you know we all want development. We all want our neighborhood to look nice. We all want quality services in our neighborhood. The the important thing is that people have a voice the now let's see if we can come up with sort of like a shared consensus or understanding of what we should do due together. Those models really don't exist as much and that's the fear that people have like. Oh yeah they're gonNA take over next thing you know. There's going to be a starbucks and we're not going to have. That's the one of the things that people worry we're not going to have our fabled Salo. I'm not going to be able to pay my dollar for my cafe because now all of a sudden I have to pay to fifty or now sandwiches going to cost ten dollars. An could no longer afford it sandwich for five. So people sort of Joel Khurana bought those things. But that's real because it's economic in the South Bronx where the median income is twenty five thousand dollars a year. Those economic comments come from a real worry in a real concern when you look at the South Bronx. Now there's a next generation of Latinos and Latinas it's Puerto Rican it's Mexican it's increasingly Central American. What do you see like what's the next decade of the South Bronx? I see that we need to create spaces for people to come together and have conversations about what matters to us and how we're going to work together to make those things those things that matter to us and our community happen for us as a community we also have these Arjun routes that we've us together. We all come to this country for a better life all of us. Not just you know within the Latino groups but everybody you know the folks who are coming in from west Africa and everybody we sort of need you to figure out what the common ground is so that we can move forward and we need to respect the struggle that people you have had to come to this country in the investing side. He is the director of the documentary decade of fire which premiered on PBS Independent Lens. Armpit this episode was produced by me. Al Edited by Soviet Buddy. Cicak with help up from Avia NETAPP. Yep Molecular C team includes Financier Camarena Antonio City Hito Janice Yamaoka Maggie free. Lean and Elisa's gutsy with help from Genie War Daban and joined the Luna our engineers. Are Stephanie Lebow and Julia. Caruso additional engineering this week by Leah Shop our production manager is not only a few that halts our digital editor is among the contra. Our intern is who is our theme. Music was composed by being Venus. Gives you like the music you heard on this episode. Stop stuff Latino USA DOT ORG and check out our weekly spotify playlist. I'm your host and executive producer mighty anal wholesale drains again on our next episode. And in the meantime look for us up all of your social media show. Latino USA is made possible in part by the New York Women's Foundation Foundation funding women leaders that build solutions in their communities and celebrating thirty years of radical generosity. The Ford Foundation working being with visionaries on the frontlines of social change worldwide and W K Kellogg Foundation a partner with communities where children children. 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