Two tales of a city: fires and gentrification in postwar New York

Recently I’ve read two very different books about opposite trends in New York boroughs in the third quarter of the 20th century.

The Fires: How a Computer Formula, Big Ideas, and the Best of Intentions Burned Down New York City–and Determined the Future of Cities by Joe Flood, explains why poor neighborhoods in Brooklyn and the Bronx burned in the 60s and 70s.  The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn: Gentrification and the Search for Authenticity in Postwar New York by Suleiman Osman explores the gentrification of select Brooklyn neighborhoods starting earlier and through the same era.

Conventional wisdom holds that the main cause for the New York fires was arson, as landlords responded to catastrophic declines in property values by taking out the nominal value in insurance. Flood shows that arson, at its worst, took only 7% of buildings; and then only after buildings were abandoned; most fires had ordinary causes like cooking and electrical shorts, exacerbated by lack of building maintenance and lack of inspections.

The extreme level of destruction was driven by technical hubris; Mayor Lindsay brought in computer whizzes to rationalize government departments and increase efficiency. But the administration’s blind faith in technology was misplaced. With flawed models and bad data inputs, the computers generated destructive recommendations to shut down fire stations in poor neighborhoods with frequent fires. These recommendations dovetailed nicely with existing prejudices, so city leaders did not second-guess the recommendations to cut service in areas with little political clout.

The book is a fascinating and solid work of history, with detailed and empathetic reporting on the cultures of the firehouse and public fire department; the information technologists who came up through military and corporate bureaucracies; and civic technocrats who sought to apply the technologies. Particularly interesting for those unfamiliar are the innovations in fire-fighting tools and methods that greatly reduced the death and damage from fires. The fire chief who made the calls during the period is portrayed as a tragic figure whose leadership and technical competence was undermined by political ambition and prejudice.

Brooklyn burns, the fire chief who implemented the disastrous technology that crippled firefighting watches

The stories of destruction aren’t portrayed as ruin porn; anecdotes about fires include vignettes and quotes from the largely Puerto Rican and African-American families who were burned out and displaced. And the book also discusses the resilience of people who regrouped and rebuilt after the destruction, and the culture heroes who created hip-hop in the burnt-out ruins of the Bronx.

“Fires” puts the political dynamics of urban firefighting in context of New York’s oscillating competition between local patronage-based ward bosses and reformist technocrats. In recounting a colossal failure of technocracy, the book is sympathetic to the more incremental, practical, small-scale approach of the ward system. But it seems to me that this sympathy underestimates the longstanding, large and complex systems needed to manage water, power, transportation and public health, and the expertise needed to create and maintain these systems.

The book puts decay of New York’s neighborhoods in the context of highway destruction, redlining which made it impossible to fund maintenance in urban areas, deindustrialization, and white flight leaving residents of color in concentrated poverty.

What isn’t clear, with the book’s exclusive focus on New York, is how much urban destruction affected New York distinctively, and how much was common to de-industrializing cities in the same era. The South Bronx experienced devastating destruction; so did North Philadelphia, Baltimore, Detroit, St Louis, and more. Did New York actually burn harder for different reasons?

Flood attributes the deindustrialization of New York to new zoning codes driven by real estate interests eager to repurpose industrial land for new high-end office and residential development. Were these trends similar in other cities or distinctive in some way to New York?

Meanwhile, as the South Bronx and Central Brooklyn burned, largely white middle-class newcomers painstakingly restored dilapidated brownstones in other neighborhoods of Brooklyn. The gentrification story started earlier than one might think, with white collar professionals, artists, and social workers moving out from Manhattan into Brooklyn in the 1950s.

Where Fire draws on journalism and narrative social history with dramatic or telling vignettes sourced with interviews and documents, Brownstone draws on cultural criticism, with the landscape itself described as a “text” using the vocabulary of academic literary theory. Brownstone pays close attention to the cultural perceptions of Brooklyn gentrifiers, and the representation of Brownstone Brooklyn neighborhoods in works of literature, film, and television.

Brownstone Brooklyn analyzes the romantic view of the neighborhoods and neighborhood life held by college-educated white collar migrants. These residents viewed urban neighborhoods as having soulful authenticity, in contrast to the artificial and soul-less experiences of gleaming Manhattan towers on the one hand, and sterile suburban tracts on the other. But these romantic perceptions, along with place names drawn from pre-urban farms, farmers markets and street festivals, were brought into being by the migrants themselves. “Boerum Hill, for example, was a name invented in the 1960s and 1970s to describe an area that had always been flat.”

A fascinating section of the book reviews the school of literature focusing on the working class and demimonde, crafted by writers all living in the same part of gentrifying Brooklyn: Mailer, Capote, Kazin, Selby; all exploring aspects of the gritty realities they perceived in the lives of their working class and poor neighbors. “Novels such as Albert Halper’s Atlantic Avenue and Frank Paley’s Rumble on the Docks shocked readers with their uncompromising depiction of life in the slums.”

The romantic ideals of the “brownstoners” often contrasted with their economic livelihoods. The white-collar professionals, artists, writers, and academics cultivating the “historic” neighborhoods of Brownstone Brooklyn worked in gleaming new corporate headquarters, research universities, medical centers, and media conglomerates of high-rise Manhattan and downtown Brooklyn.

In the name of authenticity, new homeowners in gentrifying neighborhoods would evict rental tenants living in subdivided flats, and restore buildings that had been converted to rooming-houses back to their “authentic nature” as single family homes. The new residents banded together to oppose the expansion of longstanding industrial uses in the neighborhood. Which uses of a building or a block are the most “authentic” are up for debate. The newer property-owners would lovingly restore or recreate the original surfaces and decorations of their homes in the Victorian era, while objecting to the decorations of older working-class residents that newer residents perceived as crass and tasteless.

The book portrays a complex political environment, with where white middle-class liberals tussled with a system with ward bosses, and largely lower-income African-American and Puerto Rican residents. Brownstoners were continually frustrated by working-class residents who looked to old-school ward politicians for the concrete delivery of services through longstanding personal relationships rather than espousing broader social goals and policies.

In the 1970s, a multi-class and interracial coalition of homeowners and landlords battled redlining in the area. But In the name of preserving neighborhoods, liberal middle class Brooklyn residents defended local control of schools, demanding policies that kept middle-class white children apart from lower-income brown and black children; and many opposed public housing in their neighborhoods, with preferences suspiciously hard to distinguish from racist segregationism.

The romantic view of their Brooklyn neighborhoods contributed to relentless fights against urban renewal megaprojects, which were protested even when resubmitted in scaled down form until they were finally killed. This tradition of opposition to massive redevelopments that displaced hundreds or thousands of residents calcified into a custom of opposing even smaller-scale, infill developments that didn’t displace anyone. An ethic favoring historical preservation became an ethic of suppressing most changes, creating a “slow-growth” political movement that crossed class and ethnic lines, that contributed to later housing shortages.


The two books together provide enlightening and cautionary lessons.

The lessons of Fire about the dangers of blind faith in civic technology remain timely today, as new waves of hype about “smart cities” promote black-box algorithms sold by profit-seeking vendors. Our cities remain vulnerable to enthusiastically hyped technologies that civic leaders are encouraged to accept on faith and without corresponding transparency and accountability.

Brownstone Brooklyn’s portrayal of the romantic ideals, self-deceptions, and hypocrisies of middle-class renovators provides enlightening historical context for the origins of today’s urban housing crisis. The romantic ideals of preservationism contributed to diminishing the stock of affordable housing by deconverting flats and preventing the building of new apartments that didn’t meet the ideals of a small-scale village.

American racism and classism is woven through both stories, very clearly in Fire, where the prejudices of policymakers and bureaucrats allowed neighborhoods to burn. These threads are woven through with more nuance in Brownstone Brooklyn, where more affluent, whiter residents evicted lower-income tenants and more downscale industries, but the ebb and flow of neighborhood class and ethnicity mix over time defies facile narratives of gentrification as colonization, and the interests of wealthy homeowners and lower-income neighborhood leaders aligned to fight development in ways that paradoxically accelerated changes they wanted to prevent.