336 pages | Buy this book
If you’ve been jonesing for a work of tragic reportage about the demise of an American city ever since The Wire went off the air, this is the book for you. It’s an exhaustively researched—and reargued—history of the fires that consumed New York in the late 1960s and ’70s, ravaging the Bronx, leaving 2,000 dead, and pushing the city toward bankruptcy.
What’s the Big Deal?
Flood’s book burns down a significant amount of conventional wisdom about those fires, correcting minor inaccuracies (it turns out Howard Cosell never actually said the words “The Bronx is burning”) and rectifying more serious fallacies, chief among them that arson-for-profit was the dominant cause of the blazes. It wasn’t. Ultimately, this is a story about protecting a city, with all of the bureaucracy, politics, and fiscal constraints that that entails.
Buzz Rating: Hum
One-Breath Author Bio
This is the first book by Flood, a recent Harvard graduate and a journalist living in South Dakota.
Don’t Miss These Bits:
1. Don’t put blind faith in statistics. Flood provides a richly detailed accounting of the RAND Corporation’s disastrous consulting work for the New York City Fire Department in the late 1960s. Asked to devise mathematical models that would allow the fire department to operate with fewer men and less funding, the think tank delivered. But when the fires came, burning down huge swaths of the Bronx—97 percent of the buildings in some census tracts—RAND’s algorithms were hopelessly inadequate. Among the number crunchers’ well-intentioned but moronic assumptions was that (page 206) “in the most congested city in America, traffic played no role in response time, rigs able to cruise through Midtown Manhattan at rush hour at the same speed as through Queens at midnight.” Flood explains that RAND delivered recommendations that budget-conscious Fire Commissioner John T. O’Hagan wanted to hear. So armed, he shut down dozens of the busiest firehouses in New York, gutted preventive measures, and wasted money on malfunctioning technology.
2. History from the horse’s mouth. Flood delivers fascinating interviews with firemen who, made more candid by the passage of time, confess that white firefighters responded differently to blazes in black homes. Did firemen have a reputation for stealing from homes they’d just saved, and doing more damage—punching holes in walls to check for fire spread—in black apartments? It’s complicated. Flood quotes Capt. Vincent Julius (page 169): “ ‘The most bigoted, racist guy in the company would give up his life to save a black child ... Any white firefighter would risk his life to save a black child, but sometimes he would do more damage to an apartment.’ ”
3. Commissioner O’Hagan’s legacy is a mind-bending paradox. Flood credits him as the biggest factor behind a 40 percent reduction in American fire fatalities during his tenure. Yet this period of terrible destruction occurred on his watch and was directly exacerbated by his embrace of RAND-supplied statistics. One example: O’Hagan’s “crowning achievement” was Local Law 5. It established fire-safety protocols for high-rises and has proved to be “one of the most important pieces of legislation in modern firefighting history.” Tragically, by the time it went into effect, the World Trade Center was already nearing completion. O’Hagan knew the towers had inadequate fireproofing, which would turn out to be a critical weakness on September 11, 2001. O’Hagan knew they were trouble years earlier (page 21): “ ‘You go into those pieces of s--t,’ he used to tell his men, ‘you watch your back.’ ”
Swipe This Critique
It may be as intricate as The Wire, but while that HBO series is often described as Dickensian for its portrayals of Baltimore’s downtrodden citizens, the Bronx residents actually affected by the fires are largely absent from Flood’s book. Here, statistic trumps anecdote. But that’s a legitimate choice by the author. The Fires is about the decision makers—department brass, Mayor John Lindsay, RAND whiz kids—who tried to outsmart a city’s fire epidemic with numbers and failed. It’s a damning portrait of the men who fiddled with equations while the Bronx burned.
Prose: Flood is capable of both lyricism in describing an inferno (“unburned hydrocarbons smolder in dancing blue flames that roll along the ceiling like northern lights in the winter sky”) and technical explanations of RAND’s multivariate computer models.
Construction: You may need a bit of patience to get through some of the chapter-length tangents into stuff like Tammany Hall and the birth of RAND—during a section on urban blight, it feels as though about 50 pages pass between mentions of a fire—but ultimately they’re important to the story.
Jargon: There are a few fireman-vocab gems, like “worker” (a fire a company actually has to fight; i.e., not a false alarm) and “cockloft” (shared attic space between buildings that spans an entire city block; named probably for the practice of keeping a rooster there at night as a fire alarm).