The Path To Ruin > The Fire War
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Public Disinvestment: Planned Shrinkage | "The Fire War" | The Many Causes of Arson | Hitting Bottom
The Fire War
by Adam J. Schwartz
Between 1965 and 1980, the New York City Fire Department (FDNY) fought over a million fires. This period is often referred to as "The Fire War". Fires burned in different areas of the city--most infamously the South Bronx.
But in Brooklyn, Bushwick was the hardest hit. The area was very vulnerable to fire because of its deteriorated housing stock of wooden frame homes. The "cocklofts" that connected the attics of these houses allowed fires to quickly spread from one house to another until the whole block was consumed.
Added to this vulnerability was the impact of Planned Shrinkage, which affected even funding for fire protection. The closings and cutbacks to fire service were advised by the Rand Corporation, which was contracted to advise the FDNY. Their rationale used a simplistic and flawed formula for calculating the real needs of the city, especially its poorest neighborhoods. It was criticized by many, including the Uniformed Firefighters Association, as it laid the implicit blame for fires solely on residents. Critically, arson was not cited as an issue.
While no firehouses in Bushwick were closed, firefighters were laid off, forcing surviving Bushwick fire companies to spread themselves thinner and thinner. With longer response times, more damage was done in every fire.
While the first fires may have been accidental, their causes soon shifted. By 1975, an epidemic of arson was destroying Bushwick. As more houses were abandoned, the fires grew into a destructive firestorm, leaving a scarred landscape of abandoned buildings in its wake.
By 1980, Bushwick had lost one third of its population to relocation, and in the areas hardest hit, 50% of residents were gone.
"The Rand Institute policy of attempting to supply more fire protection with less equipment and less money has proven fatal to both lives and property. The city has cut the number of firefighters in action from 12,500 to 8,500. 33 fire companies have been disbanded altogether. Nearly 400 persons have perished in fires in neighborhoods formerly covered by these disbanded companies, and the City has lost over $300 million in assessed tax evaluation, due to fire damage and spreading blight."
Carl Clemens, Rev. James Kelly, and Maureen Walthers
Ridgewood Times, July 27, 1978
"During that time, a building was worth more burned down than standing."
Associate Editor, The New York Times
Former Staff Reporter, Daily News
In interview 1/26/07
"There were people I knew that used to sleep in their clothes with a suitcase at the foot of the bed, because they were afraid that someone was going to set the building on fire. I knew lots of people that moved away because of those fears. And all that just because there were people who saw this community as a way of making money."
In interview 3/19/07
Relates to "Trial by Fire Map"
Bushwick experienced many raging fires in 1977. The blocks of Greene Avenue between Wilson and Central went through much tragedy. There were 41 fires on the same block and some houses burned down more than four times. Many people on that block lost their homes and belongings, and a few lost their lives. The community was scared for their lives as they never knew when the next fire was going to start.
by Ashllen Haynes and Audrey Rochelle
The Academy of Urban Planning