DECADE OF FIRE filmmakers bring a new perspective to the 1970s South Bronx fires & expose housing injustice

DECADE OF FIRE filmmakers bring a new perspective to the 1970s South Bronx fires & expose housing injustice

In the 1970s, the Bronx was on fire. Abandoned by city government, nearly a half-million people were displaced as their close-knit, multi-ethnic neighborhood burned. DECADE OF FIRE tells the story of the South Bronx that you’ve never heard before. The filmmakers share with us what inspired the film and its continual impact in urban communities across the country. Interview conducted by Natasha Harris.


Can you each introduce yourselves and tell me how you were involved with the film?
Vivian: My name is Vivian Vansquez Irizarry and I am the co-writer, co-director, and co-producer of DECADE OF FIRE. It’s my story and the story of the people of the South Bronx.

Gretchen: My name is Gretchen Hildebran. I am co-director and writer with Vivian and also one of 4 producers.

Julia: Hi I’m Julia Steele Allen. I’m one of the co-producers of the film and I’m also the engagement producer.

How did the three of you meet and begin working on this project?
Vivian: Julia and I worked together for a community based organization in the late ‘90s and we worked together to start a small school. We worked with the incoming 9th graders, and Julia began writing a curriculum about Bronx history so that the incoming 9th graders would learn about it. And [the curriculum] was not accepted — it was not considered appropriate. So she and I just kept talking about the fires of the South Bronx; we just kept talking and talking and she encouraged me to write about it. Eventually, we talked about making a film. That was her idea. Then she introduced me to Gretchen Hildebran, who is a filmmaker, so Gretchen came on board in 2008. We met in 2008 and Gretchen began to interview me and my friends. She came to the Bronx and conducted research and from there, that’s how the project grew, that’s how it began.

Gretchen: I think Julia had just moved back to the city — she was staying in my apartment— and I had just recently moved to New York, so this was a really intriguing and fascinating story I’d never heard about. Julia would give me a book and tell me about her conversations with Vivian, and then one day, Julia was like, “We need to write a treatment” and asked, “what is that?” My background is in documentary film so I thought, "I can’t help make a narrative film. That’s what I do, but it sounds like a great topic for a documentary.” I don’t think we totally knew what the full vision of it was: it was more about seeing what happens, seeing where it goes. 

Julia: It was in the early 2000s that Vivian and I were working with that high school, and it wasn’t until 2008 that we came back together again to think about a film. The original idea had been to create a narrative film that would juxtapose families surviving during the time of the fires with what was happening in City Hall. We were kicking around different ideas of what that story could look like; Gretchen had said maybe we could create a documentary film and then build a narrative film off of the documentary. We were following that path to see what made sense.

Are you still interested in making a narrative film?
Julia: I don’t think so, man, it’s not something we talk about anymore. It took us ten years to make the documentary, from 2008 to when it came out in 2018. It has been a much longer process than anybody anticipated, and both Vivian and I don’t have a filmmaking background, so it’s been a real educational experience. We had to learn a lot to figure out how to be useful in the process, so at this point I don’t think the idea is to create another film about the same story. 

Where did the idea come from? Can you talk more about the inception of the idea of the film?
Julia: The curriculum’s focus was the history of Bronx activism, so the idea was centered in that time period. But also looking at the birth of social resistance, graffiti movement, hip hop; looking at the foundation and the context of different types of Bronx activism. And like Vivian said, [the curriculum] was rejected for being too radical, so we were never able to teach it. But we felt very committed to the idea that this history needed to be available to young people growing up in the Bronx and beyond them. The existing narrative out there about what happened and who was to blame needed to be corrected. So our first impulse was around sharing the history with young people through a medium that would be compelling to them. It expanded in terms of how we could serve people who survived that time in the Bronx, who’d never had a platform to share what they went through, and then share to audiences beyond them.

Vivian: We really wanted to unpack policy and talk about what really happened, because a lot of folks didn’t want to talk about that history. We didn’t want to talk about the past; it’s an ugly past, but we felt like people needed to know what really happened. Blame is such a big issue with this topic, as we were told for many, many years that we were the ones who destroyed the Bronx. So we wanted to put some information out there, told through a story, about the policies which set the Bronx up to become destroyed. There were all these political and government decisions made that lead to the destruction of the Bronx. So what I say, very simply, is that my parents didn’t come from Puerto Rico to ruin their building. I don’t remember any of my neighbors coming from wherever they came from to destroy their block: we came for opportunity — not to destroy this new opportunity. The story needed to be told. 

What was the hardest part of the process or one of the biggest challenges in making the film?
Gretchen: There were many hard parts about it. I think, on a creative level, figuring out how to tell the story because it’s history. It’s the history of a place with millions of people. How are we gonna fold out all of these ideas? What did we want to say in this film? That was a big challenge, and we were very lucky to be working a certain way, which was through talking it out with our team. The team originally was the three of us, and then our producer Neyda Martinez came on board in 2016 and joined that process. What are the stories we want to tell, who are the characters that have to be a part of it? What is Vivian’s role, what is her voice like? Vivian is just a regular person: she’s not an actor, she’s not an investigative journalist. So we had to answer the question of, ‘What story does she want to tell and how does it overlay this history?’ That was a lot of work, and it took many years to figure out and was ongoing. At the same time, I think what complicated it was that we have this big idea that we knew we wanted to get to, which was that structural racism and policy were the true culprit behind what happened in the Bronx. That was the core idea that we had, but again, that’s a very abstract concept. So when we were fundraising—this is my first feature and, as Julia and Vivian said, they had never made a film before so we were a little bit untested as a team— it was very difficult to get traditional documentary funders on board. I think because it was historical, and we were going into uncharted territory as filmmakers, we didn’t have the track record. A lot of people would tell us that you need a famous person in your film for anybody to care about it or to care about the Bronx. There were many, many obstacles in general that we continue to face. Another one is the assumption that, because it’s a film about the Bronx, it isn’t going to be interesting or important to people outside of the Bronx. It’s like a replication of the original problem that we’re talking about in the film - this biased assumption that a story about the Bronx doesn’t have value.

Julia: I do think that conditions have changed significantly over the years we have created the film, to the degree that I really feel as though we’re just not hearing the kind of refusal and rejection that we encountered pretty regularly in the same way anymore. I think that’s all got to do with changing interests in terms of a hunger for images of protest and images of people taking initiative. This kind of mantra of, “No ones gonna come for us we have to do it ourselves,” has a lot of resonance now in the current climate and under Trump. Also, I think the housing crisis is so deeply, broadly felt that something has shifted, especially in the last couple years. This story is actually feeling like it’s right on time versus something that is historical and dusty on the shelf. It actually feels like it’s current and relevant. That’s not a challenge but I think beyond what Gretchen described, circumstances have also played a role. 

Gretchen: Just to add to what Julia is saying, I think that in the documentary world there are gatekeepers who decide what content or stories are valid, and which films are worth an audience’s attention or worth a funder’s attention. I don’t think it’s entirely shifted the idea of who documentaries are for and what they can accomplish and for what audiences. The people who really are hungry for this film are not traditional documentary film audiences and think it has required people to really push back these traditional ideas of who’s a worthy subject, because of market forces. I think there are some cultural shifts happening around who those gatekeepers are and what they can envision as being a worthy documentary for audiences, including audiences of color and low income audiences worth marketing and making films for.

Vivian: As an example, at the beginning we heard, “Why would people care? Why would audiences care about what happened 40 years ago?” We kept hearing that. Now audiences are so impressed and taken with the idea that what happened 40 years ago is still happening today. How we make that connection has been really powerful; it’s resonating with audiences everywhere like, “Oh my god, these things happened and it does impact housing today”. 

Do you think there are parallels between the fires and the gentrification of the Bronx today?
Julia: Our partner organization for Atlanta —a couple of them were at the screening we did last night — they’re not a traditional housing justice organization. I feel like we sort of made a call, that the slice of this story that we were going to take and bring into the present context was around housing. But the truth is there’s a lot of different kinds of threads you could pick up and move with from the film. It’s not exclusively about the struggles in housing: you could talk about racism, you could talk about policy and a variety of policies that are still having impacts today, not only in the context of housing. But that is to say that what we’re trying to offer is a tool for people. I mean, the desperation around housing and the impacts of gentrification is so nationally felt. It’s in every major city, it’s also in small cities and now even in rural areas. It’s kind of alarming how universal that has become, and I feel like people are really struggling to figure out a foothold to understand how this is happening and how to fight it. So we are offering a tool that exposes the kind of building blocks that got us here. It doesn’t get us all the way, it sort of stops off in the early ‘80s, but there is more to fill out with the local context in the conversations that will follow the film around. What’s our parallel story in the XYZ community that happened to us during that time which got us to where we are now? Instead of treating gentrification like something that blew in five years ago, and now suddenly there are a bunch of coffee shops, we’re really trying to investigate that there was a lot put in place over many years that lead us to the moment that we’re in now. It’s about being able to offer that history to communities struggling and organizing today as they try and continue to stay in their neighborhoods. The parallel is displacement: how do fires and gentrification—even though they may look like opposites—how do they function similarly? If every historically black  neighborhood in the U.S. is a target for gentrification at this point, what it looks like is people leaving their homes all over again, particularly in these neighborhoods where they stayed despite deep disinvestment. They struggled to continue and are now looking at being displaced again. 

What do you hope people will take away from the Bronx fires?
Vivian: I think it’s a lot of what Julia and Gretchen have been talking about, there are ways in which people are identifying with the film about housing rights and housing injustice in this country. One of the things that we’re hoping to do is really to elevate the national conversation about the housing crisis everywhere. That’s a goal and I think that with the impact campaign, we are traveling to different places all over. Three weeks ago I was in Appalachia, and I assumed that we were showing the film, but when I got there realized more than what I assumed that they would just be interested in seeing some kind of film about the Bronx. They’re really suffering from abandonment and now displacement in Appalachia and eastern Kentucky. And they see this film as opening their eyes; there are community activists who want to use the film to get people talking about what they’re gonna do to save their own neighborhood, their own communities. It’s just elevating the conversation like, “What are we gonna do?” We have the agency and, like Julia and Gretchen mentioned before, people are sort of thinking “OK, so folks have to get up from the sofa and do something to save their neighborhood. We can do the same, we must do the same.” Another goal with the film for me personally was to set the record straight: it wasn’t the poor people of color who lived in the South Bronx who burnt it. They actually saved it. That’s been a kind of refreshing way to switch that narrative, when you have audiences not just from the South Bronx, but audiences where the people who have been living in cities that have been destroyed and ghettoized. They get that immediately when they see the film, they’re like, “Oh my god, we’re changing this storyline.” We’re saying that it wasn’t us; you guys are putting out a different alternative tale and that’s resonating. That was something that I wanted to see happen, and it is happening. 

Gretchen: I would just add that we really wanted to unpack the policy and make that really accessible to people. I think that the policies that are used have shifted and taken different forms but have very similar impacts today on people. We didn’t do this to ourselves. We’re the ones who saved it, and this is a direct outcome of segregationist policies which have shaped our cities through the last century. Knowing that history really changes the actions or thinking you do moving forward, being connected to that history and understanding those policies was a big goal too.

Vivian: Unpacking those policies took us a while to try to get to a place where it could be simple enough to explain. Because looking at what the Rand Corporation did and how they used algorithms to make decisions that are not based on any human consequence, you know, it’s just like, “Let’s look at these numbers, let’s use math to affect peoples lives.” That's difficult but people really have appreciated the concrete explanations that we give. We offer up what we found, so it’s not just looking at Vivian’s story of suffering. No, these are things that actually happened that destroyed the community and that have been extremely powerful for folks sitting in the room. 

Why do you think the false narrative surrounding the Bronx was so widely circulated and believed?
Gretchen: We live in a country in a culture that is built on white supremacy so part of how my perspective really was shaped while we were making this was around these policies about resources, the policies were in place to make sure government resources went to white GIs coming home from WWII, to white people living in the cities who wanted to move to the suburbs. When neighborhoods were denied mortgages because people of color lived there, the money for those mortgages and the government credit support went to white neighborhoods instead, and that was very intentional. That was the point of the policy, and those policies didn’t come out of some sort of racial ignorance or bigotry. They came out of a desire to funnel resources to specific communities at the expense of other communities, and that the racist stereotypes are there to justify the policy. They are the reasoning that can be given of why the policy must take place or why it's ok or why we don’t need to be responsible for the outcomes that we are still living with today. We don't have to look very far today to see those same ideas about low income communities of color are out there in the world. Those communities are that way because there's something wrong with those people over there; it's an insidious narrative and the narrative has to be overturned and the policy has to be overturned.

Julia: I think that was also really reinforced by the media, as there was a lack of accurate media coverage during that time. A media blackout essentially, and there was also all this sensationalized media people bought into. One, because it served them, like Gretchen is saying, but also because there wasn’t a counter, there wasn’t an offering of the people’s experience that was getting out there. The World Series game was the first time there’d been any national coverage at all about what was happening in the Bronx. So I think the role of the media shouldn’t be overlooked, just as it shouldn’t be overlooked today in terms of the reinforcement of those ideas. I think something we talk about is that the ghettos were very deliberately made. I think there was such an emphasis on ghettos—whether it’s South Central or North Philadelphia, all kinds of ghetto areas in different cities—there was so much out there about these places that kind of branded them. Now that’s changing, and now all those places are being gentrified so it's a lot harder to say what the ghetto is of any given city. I feel like the media plays a part in terms of how a mythology like that can be unchecked, and there’s the fact that the city never took any responsibility for it, so it's not like someone else was gonna take the hit. 

How do you think police of today compare to those during the Bronx fires, and do you think there's been any positive change?
Gretchen: There have been positive changes that came about because of community action. The Fair Housing Act of 1967 was supposed to outlaw redlining, but that has been an ongoing fight and it has been generations of people attempting to change the practices of lenders and the government. But then there’s the bigger question of investment, you know? Public and private investment into certain parts of the city wasn’t happening until these places like the Bronx were suddenly ripe for development. In general, we live in a market-based economy, and the housing market is considered a commodity; it’s not appreciated or protected or considered something that we as people have a right to. Not just an individual home but also a right to a community and some longevity and stability in your community, in New York City especially.  I’m sure Vivian and Julia can talk more clearly about this than I can, but basically, you have a series of mayors who have been incredibly pro-development. They dictate the terms of how housing is handled or managed and how development is handled or managed; they have an incredible amount of power, and they have an incredible amount of leverage. And our current mayor has really pushed his own particular plans to rezone not just the Bronx but kind of the poorest areas of the city to make them more attractive in market rate development. Along the way, the communities have really fought for some way to remain in their neighborhood even while that’s happening, but the vision of the city and the vision of the policy, if you just look at the math of it, it’s a policy of displacement. The vision of improvement or investment is premised on this idea that poor people, and especially people of color, don’t figure into the equation. It’s just based on private profit, that is the underlying motivator and driving force of the whole thing, and I think it would be a longer conversation to talk about why the previous policies were similar. But I do think that’s the underlying force that’s been allowed to prevail, I don’t think it’s improved. I think displacement is at an all time high and unaffordability is at an all time high. 

Vivian: The South Bronx still scores 62 of 62 for the Health Indicator in the New York State Department of Health, meaning that we’re at the bottom of healthy living in the Bronx. People here are still suffering from heart disease, asthma, diabetes, and other ills: we are 62 of 62, we’re in a crisis situation in terms of health. In addition to that, only 35% of the people in the South Bronx have gotten their high school diploma, and in the South Bronx, you still have about 15% of young people who go to college and get a degree, a bachelor’s degree. We’re still in crisis. If you look at neighborhoods like the Upper East Side, almost 80% of people have gotten bachelors degrees as compared to 15% in the South Bronx and we’re only like 5 miles away, not even. 

Do you think the legacy of the fires in the Bronx has been positive or negative? I know a lot of community groups have spawned in the aftermath of fires but just in general, if you were to look at the Bronx today, what has been the legacy of that time period?
Julia: I think the stats that Vivian just rattled off are essentially the outcome legacy of the fires, in the American consciousness throughout the late '70s through the '80s and into the '90s. [The Bronx] came to represent everything a ghetto is, so that has just continued, it’s all of those factors; it’s the poorest urban congressional district in the U.S. and has been for a couple generations now. When I talk with high school students about this, and we talk about, like, imagine, “Close your eyes for a minute, imagine what would this place be like if there were no fires?” Let’s say redlining didn’t happen, let’s say this wasn’t the country we lived in, where this community was targeted for its integration: what would this place be like? What would be the impact of people who had grown up in this place? How would you see yourself as someone coming from the Bronx? The legacy of “We stayed, we fought” … this kind of spirit of resistance, that’s real and that’s very alive still as long as those people are going to be allowed to stay in their homes. The Bronx still has a kind of different pulse than other parts of the city; it still feels more like a cohesive community, a lot of families are still connected there, you know, cousins live here, aunts live here. It’s a different place, but that’s fragile. If people are displaced, —long time residents, older folks—that can be destroyed, but there is a feeling of, “we survived, we fought.” And I do think that’s part of the legacy of the fires, but then also all of the ways that people struggle today are a legacy of that time.

Vivian and Julia, you’ve both worked in schools and with students and parents so I guess specifically for students, what do you hope they will take away from this film? Whether in the South Bronx or other communities around the U.S.?
Vivian: I’m hoping that young people will see that there is history to where they come from and that even if the history is not a pleasant one, I think that it can help explain why some things are the way they are, not just in the South Bronx but anywhere. It’s very important to understand how decisions are made that affect the way we live and the way we are treated. Just as importantly, we’re hoping that the film will inspire young people to understand that they have agency and that they can fight injustice where they see it. That they can be a part of this conversation about changing housing policy, that they can be a member of their community and help fix up their block or work in education, that they have to come together with others in collaboration to make change for themselves and for their larger community. 

Julia: We worked on a high school curriculum to accompany the film this past summer, we met with a group of Bronx based educators. Over a series of discussions, they created a very compelling, pretty original, exciting high school curriculum that’s going to accompany the film once the film is publicly available. And one of the threads they identified that they thought would have a lot of resonance for young people—they sort of zeroed in on this idea that Vivian chose to interrupt and create a new narrative about her community and her people. So the essential question on the curriculum is: how are community narratives shaped, interrupted and reimagined? So students have a project-based aspect of the curriculum where they themselves get to either interrupt an existing narrative about their place, their people, or they can create a new narrative. So that can look a lot of different ways in terms of using media and using creative tools, but I think essentially we are hoping that young people feel empowered by this, both to have access to all that history and also to see all these images of heroism from communities that have been otherwise maligned. And for young people growing up in the Bronx, there’s a lot of stigma, and to be able to challenge that, to share a different story and have it be embraced by young people to feel proud of where they come from and who they come from, is a big deal. So I think that is a real hope that we have for the film. 

Do you want to touch on what your goals for the impact campaign are?
Julia: We did this thing called the New York City roll out, where we screened in 12 neighborhoods around New York City. So the film had its premiere in November at Doc NYC, but then we were really specific about how we wanted to introduce the film to the city. We wanted to prioritize communities that are in the South Bronx and parts of the city that are similar to the South Bronx and have struggled in parallel ways in that time, and also now; anchor [the film] with community organization housing justice groups and tenant organizations that are fighting to stay in their homes. [We wanted] to be able to offer it to those groups as organizing tool to have conversations, and so that’s what we did, we screened it in 12 neighborhoods. Essentially, we’re taking that model of prioritizing communities. The urgency of these conversations in the housing crisis today and bringing that out nationally, so in every city we screen it in partnership with a housing justice organization, and they are the ones who identify the venue, they identify their target audience ... I work with them through a series of calls and conversations to think about how to most strategically use the film for their work. [We] think about whether they use it as a way to inspire their existing membership, whether they use it as a way to engage or challenge other people in their community. They get to have a lot of authority around how best to share this film with that community so it’s being used in really different ways. Like Vivian can tell you, we screened it at a homeless shelter in Baltimore; she’s screening this weekend in St. Louis as a part of a Malcom X Day celebration. It’s gonna be pretty diverse in terms of how people are sharing it but every screening will be followed by a conversation and a dialogue;  we’ll have some kind of action compliment also trying to encourage people to get involved, support that work and take some action while they’re in the space. 

Vivian: Again, people in these different environments and spaces are connecting really deeply with the film. It’s been very inspiring for me and humbling at the same time. 

What was your favorite part about making the film?
Vivian: There were a lot of favorite parts, I don’t know if I can say one. Just talking to people in the Bronx and feeling the sense of community spirit that was so truly wonderful back then; even though we grew up in a bubble, we have such a great sense of community that was beautiful, and it was nice to go back to that. The other favorite part was just working with my colleagues and unpacking and growing. It was sort of a bittersweet thing in a way because I was excited about working on the project even though it kept pushing me to edges, you know. But it was exciting to be a part of this process. 

Gretchen: It was an incredible process, it was a part of my life, it’s [been] ten years, so I think finding a way to take all of these pieces and put that process together into a film really moved people. DECADE OF FIRE speaks to a really wide range of people and especially speaks to people who, like we’ve been saying, something about the film really reaches them, and it’s a story that doesn’t make it to screen very easily. The fact that we were able to do that and we were able to stay together as a team and really be true to the vision that we carried all along, we could talk all day about the many different parts that were so fun or satisfying ... I think maybe for me, one of my favorite parts was seeing you, Vivian, come into your voice as a narrator. That was immensely gratifying because we worked on it for so long, and it was so challenging for so long; you really just didn’t give up, and I loved seeing that pay off so well.

Vivian: You didn’t let me give up.

Julia: I feel like it’s been such a whirlwind since the film came out. I feel like we haven’t as a team gotten to come back together; we haven’t had time to celebrate so it’s a useful thing to reflect on. Because in some ways, I would say my favorite part right now is that it’s been something that we’ve been dedicatedly working on among a very small group of us for a very long time. And it’s so rewarding now ... I feel like the response has been beyond my dreams in a way of how positive, how grateful how excited and invigorated by it [people have been]. Tt feels like we- it’s amazing to work on something for so long and to see what we created is what is needed. That’s very profound for me, and I feel like that part of the journey, which we’re just beginning, it’s already been so satisfying to have those conversations.