Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 3, 2019

Decade of Fire

Filed under: housing,New York,Puerto Rico — louisproyect @ 4:35 pm

Opening today at the Metrograph theater in New York, the documentary “Decade of Fire” tells both the personal story of Vivian Vázquez Irizarry, who grew up in the South Bronx, and the South Bronx itself, which in the 1960s became a virtual synonym for urban decay. The fire in the title refers to the vast number that took place over a decade, reducing the housing stock of a once vibrant, working-class area. This is not just the story of the South Bronx. It is also about the malign neglect that befell many neighborhoods outside the privileged Manhattan island that was the site of Woody Allen movies, including a film of that title, which was so indifferent to the lives of others.

Irizarry produced, directed and served as narrator for “Decade of Fire”. Like many other people in the South Bronx, her grandparents came to the USA from Puerto Rico because of jobs disappearing as a result of Operation Bootstrap, a version of primitive accumulation that was intended to build up the island’s industrial base. As was the case of mechanizing the cotton fields in the South, farmers and those not lucky enough to find a job were forced to relocate.

When I worked for the Welfare Department in Harlem in 1967, I saw the same kind of destruction. When I visited families on the side streets between 8th Avenue (now called Frederick Douglass Boulevard) and Manhattan Avenue, it seemed like at least one out of four buildings were either totally or partially destroyed by fire. But it was the South Bronx that loomed the largest as a symbol of urban ruin, with both politicians and comedians using it as shorthand for “the ghetto”.

In one of the more eye-opening scenes in the film, we see the people of South Bronx literally trying to drive the film crew of “Fort Apache, the Bronx” from their neighborhood. Like “The Warriors”, another lurid and racist film set in the Bronx that is excerpted in the documentary, it dehumanized the largely Latino and Black residents as “thugs”. Not having seen “The Warriors”, I do wonder how much it distorted the Sol Yurick novel it was based on. Sol, a deeply anti-racist and Marxist author whose class on world literature as an expression of the ruling class I took at the Brecht Forum, wrote “The Warriors” as an adaptation of “Anabasis”, the history of the Greco-Persian wars written about Xenophon. Like everything else Hollywood touches, it turned Sol’s story into trash.

Although the housing stock in the South Bronx was deteriorating by the 1960s, it was by no means uninhabitable. Essentially, the banks and the capitalist state decided not to help keep it afloat, a pattern that keeps being repeated in the USA, with the latest iteration Obama’s cozy arrangement with Wall Street that bailed out the bankers, who avoided criminal prosecution. In the case of the South Bronx, a tightly-enforced red-line policy made investments in the upkeep of the buildings there next to impossible.

Once the deterioration began to quicken, landlords decided to bail out. To get the most they could out of their abandonment, they hired locals to set fire to the buildings in exchange for a paltry payment. In every instance, they were paid for their efforts by the insurance companies. The role of the fire department in all this was key to the wholesale destruction. It failed to sustain the arson investigation unit and went along with drastic cuts in firehouses in the South Bronx, all under the watch of John O’Hagan, a racist who we see explaining the fires as the result of people being crowded into apartments and not understanding the norms of urban life. He might as well have called the people of the South Bronx apes.

One after another we see politicians like the iconic liberal Republican mayor John Lindsay to the execrable Ed Koch justifying the neglect of the South Bronx. Worst of all is Patrick Moynihan, the life-long Democrat who was Assistant to President Nixon on Domestic Policy and notorious for his theory of “benign neglect”. Watching him defend his ideas is enough to turn your stomach.

What finally began to stanch the bleeding was community activism that the director became part of. In the 1980s a series of co-operatives began to clean out the burned buildings and renovate them. These efforts were actually closely tied to the emergence of Puerto Rican nationalism that viewed the South Bronx as a kind of “liberated” territory. In the decades that followed, money began to be funneled into the area but often as part of a gentrification project that is ongoing. Community activists have insisted on the right of residents to determine the future of housing in the South Bronx, not banks or real estate developers.

2 Comments »

  1. Sol Yurick is a terrific novelist, and some of his qualities come through in the film of The Warriors. As a rule of thumb, Hollywood does best converting mediocre novels into films. Rare is the classic film based on great literature for reasons that should seem obvious. But a lurid novel like Night of the Hunter became a great film because it’s so visual. Another Hollywood classic, the Postman Always Rings Twice, is mediocre fiction. Ditto Psycho. If you want your latest novel to be turned into a good film, write crap. The few exceptions are mostly Europe adaptations, often Russian, including War and Peace.

    Comment by Elliot Podwill — May 4, 2019 @ 5:15 am

  2. Got laid off because I couldn’t keep my mouth shut about the shitty pedagogical direction our language school took after the newly arrived management dismantled a rigorously-put-together curriculum that we had designed painstakingly over a few years, and which was paying rich dividends with students learning English much better, more fluently, with better vocabulary and much better reading & writing skills than the older curriculum.

    The new managers came in, threw everything out, and presented us with a ‘curriculum’ (based purely on a single textbook series; not how your design curricula), a non-curriculum that us old-timers knew was a deep-dive into charlatanry. I wrote up a list of concerns in response. So, they stopped putting me on the schedule. After fourteen years of giving them my best years, they did’t even notify me that I wouldn’t be on the schedule; not heads-up. No nothing.

    So, I dusted off an unfinished manuscript of something I started back in 2009, when it got interrupted by social upheavals in Iran, and which I never fully got back to. I hope that the manuscript is as carp as I can make it! (Thank you Elliot for the tip!)

    Comment by Reza — May 4, 2019 @ 8:43 pm


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