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.

October 3, 2017

The political economy of hurricanes and debt

Filed under: climate,colonialism,financial crisis,Puerto Rico — louisproyect @ 8:53 pm

Yesterday I interviewed Ian Seda-Irizarry, an economics professor at John Jay College, about the situation in Puerto Rico, where he was born and raised, The interview covered the hurricane aftermath as well as the ongoing economic disaster that makes recovery all the more difficult. Despite the grim situation, there are signs that a new left is emerging in Puerto Rico that prioritizes class demands and a new approach to the age-old question of the island’s colonial status. Ian recommends the following articles as good background on Puerto Rican politics and economics:

2) https://www.telesurtv.net/english/opinion/Politics-Primaries-and-Crisis-in-Puerto-Rico-20160602-0035.html
3) http://www.fsdrecertification.com/sites/default/files/contentgroups/economics/SedaAJuntaforPuertoRico.pdf
4) http://www.fsdrecertification.com/sites/default/files/contentgroups/economics/02-Ian_1.pdf

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