Friday, Apr. 5, 1:20 p.m.

Full Frame at The Carolina Theatre, Durham 

During the televised broadcast of Game 2 of the 1977 World Series, a raging inferno mere blocks from Yankee Stadium was screened live to millions of viewers. This iconic moment was the first many Americans had seen of the fires that tore through the South Bronx through the seventies and eighties. By the time it appears more than halfway through Vivian Vazquez Irizarry and Gretchen Hildebrand’s powerful historical documentary, Decade of Fire, we can imagine what it might have looked like to those who actually lived through the horror: the spectacle of a community being gawked at by those who had ignored it in its time of greatest need.

A stunning 80 percent of the housing in the South Bronx burned down in the seventies, which was sensationalized by the media as an “arson epidemic.” The filmmakers present a more complex story in which the Bronx was the target of national and city policies aimed at driving out its multicultural, working-class inhabitants. From redlining—in which key services to communities of color were reduced or eliminated through disinvestment—to predatory landlords who refused to modernize their heating and electrical systems, disaster was inevitable. Add in mass closings of fire departments in affected areas and landlords paying gang members to set fires, and the fires make more sense as a campaign of neighborhood cleansing. As a Bronx fire chief recalls in an interview, “Fire was a political weapon.”

The idea behind the film was originally developed by Vasquez and activist/producer Julia Steele Allen as a curriculum proposal for Bronx high schoolers, but it was dismissed for being “too radical.” Its life as a documentary began in 2008, with the help of Hildebrand as co-director. Vasquez, a veteran community organizer who grew up in the South Bronx, is the film’s narrative and emotional center. Her research into the history of the Bronx fires is also research into her own past, grounding her interviews with friends, family members, and other organizers in a personal mission to learn the truth. Combined with the evocative archival footage of the Bronx in the seventies, the film gives the texture of personal experience to this difficult history. 

This perspective is essential because this is ultimately a story about race and poverty in America, not just in the South Bronx or New York City. Decade of Fire clearly, succinctly makes the connection between the destruction of neighborhoods like the South Bronx and the gentrification of those same neighborhoods today. It also finds hope in the ceaseless determination of activists and residents to resist displacement. It’s that rare issue documentary that says something fundamental about our political moment and how we got here.