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We Are Still Here: A Look Into The Burning and Gentrifying Of The South Bronx

Last night, Bwogger Miyoki Walker attended a screening of the 2018 documentary Decade of Fire, followed by a panel and Q&A with the filmmaker Vivian Vázquez Irizarry, community organizer Fitzroy Christian, anthropologist Marc Dones, affordable housing organizer Gregory Jost. The documentary recounts the story of the 1970s South Bronx fires. 

Monday night, a community once ignored and subsequently implicated by the very government entrusted with keeping them safe was honored with a short documentary titled Decade of Fire, directed by Vivian Vásquez Izizarry. The community in question is made up of those impacted by the string of fires that raged throughout the South Bronx in the 70s. 

In the 1950s, white Americans began fleeing urban, populated areas such as New York in response to the rapidly growing minority population in a phenomenon deemed the “white flight.” This (and the staggering effects of redlining) resulted in major demographic shifts in many areas, one of them being the South Bronx. 

The South Bronx, almost completely made up of black and Puerto Rican residents in the 1970s, began suffering from a string of fires burning down apartment buildings completely, leaving hundreds of residents displaced. By 1980, 40% of the buildings had fallen. In the film, a clip of a South Bronx resident shows him, just moments after a fire, claiming there were no firemen to help them. “We was the fire engines,” he says. 

Despite the devastation faced by this community, news outlets and officials began sensationalizing the story of the fires, claiming the residents—a few of them drug addicts and gang members—were responsible for lighting the fires themselves. Not only had they been neglected, but they were also now being accused of committing the very crimes disrupting their lives and wellbeing. 

Eventually, it was revealed that the landlords of these South Bronx buildings were paying gang members to burn their buildings, all to get a hefty insurance payout. To make matters worse, once these landlords collected their checks, they were allowed to walk away without accounting for their residents. With no one to help them, the residents began to feel like there was no hope for the place they called home. 

What saved their community was those who decided to stay in the South Bronx and work to fix it, Vázquez Irizarry being one of them. Their motto, “Stay, fight, build,” is exactly what they did. Vázquez and other community members have visited town halls, written entire class curriculums, and held group discussions with students to ensure their people are never displaced again and the younger generations never forget the history and resilience of the South Bronx. 

The documentary was met with a standing ovation and boisterous round of applause. Many of those filling the room were also New York residents impacted by the same gentrification pushing out South Bronx residents. One audience member saying “change the name South Bronx to Bushwick and it’s my same story.” 

After the screening, Vázquez Irizarry was joined on stage with Fitzroy Christian, organizer for Community Action for Safe Apartments (CASA), Marc Dones, anti-racist educator and anthropologist, and Gregory Jost, and affordable housing organizer, for a quick discussion and Q&A session. 

Here, Vázquez Irizarry spoke more about change and the power of grass-roots organizing, as well as the humanity in the neighbors she grew up with, stating “we had gang members that did bad things, but they also took care of us.”

Dones, giving an impassioned explanation of gentrification, illustrated exactly why it is the product of system-level performance and design. White communities do not thrive because they’re better, they thrive because they’re who the system is designed to benefit. 

Christian made the point that these institutions have never been there for poor communities of color when they needed it, in fact, they are the very institutions working to push them out. They were pushed out of Bushwick, they were pushed out of Greenpoint, and Columbia’s working to push them out of Harlem right now. This last statement showed that, although we may not have started the fire, we should always be working to extinguish it. 

Event Photograph via Bwog Staff

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