The Fires: A Review

Joe Flood is perhaps the best possible name for the author of a book called The Fires. Or, more completely, The Fires: How a Computer Formula, Big Ideas, and the Best of Intentions Burned Down New York City-and Determined the Future of Cities. That title is a mouthful, but accurately reflects the amazing and diverse subtopics that Flood effortlessly moves back and forth across in explaining the rash of fires in 1970s New York and the decline of the Bronx.

Starting with the machine politics of Tammany Hall and the various city departments’ resistance to reform, Flood traces the ascent of Fire Chief John O’Hagan, a unbelievably intelligent, young reformer in the FDNY with ideas of quantitative analysis in his head. Flood explores the origins of systems analysis and operations research in World War II, and then follows the rise of the RAND Corporation through the early days of the Cold War, and the inexorable meetings between RAND, O’Hagan, and Mayor John Lindsay that led to a radical new firefighting regime citywide.

Sophisticated computer modeling directed the closure of many fire stations throughout the South Bronx, which (unbeknown to me) had been an upscale, classy developed area mostly inhabited by Italians and Jews escaping the slums and tenements of the Lower East Side. As fire after fire engulfed the Bronx, and the fire department proved woefully inadequate at fighting them, a massive phase of white flight began to accelerate. Coupled with Robert Moses’ Cross-Bronx Expressway and  Lindsay’s repeal of a city law requiring municipal employees to reside within city limits, the number of whites in the outer boroughs dropped dramatically as they fled to suburban Westchester County and across the river to New Jersey.

Of course, there’s far more than even that to the story. Flood does an absolutely masterful job of weaving together all these disparate threads into a cohesive narrative. There’s Moses and his misguided plan for the Lower Manhattan Expressway (LoMEX), an eight-lane behemoth of an elevated highway that would have utterly destroyed Greenwich Village and much of the surrounding area. The Ford Motor Company and Robert McNamara make an appearance as early benefactors of RAND’s pioneering quantitative research. Flood also gives the rezoning of Manhattan that banished most industry and manufacturing a brief, if absolutely intriguing treatment. He excoriates the weak building codes that existed for much of the twentieth century, and the loophole of the World Trade Center’s construction by the Port Authority that allowed it to skirt New York City building codes.

It’s hard to do The Fires justice. It is so far-reaching – but never over-reaching – that to describe all the different components of its narrative would be impossible without actually writing the book again. But in that sense, hopefully this represents a new trend in historical writing, a truly interdisciplinary effort that never seems to bog down. From sociology to politics to urban planning to history to engineering, Joe Flood just bounces around without getting distracted, but while conveying the sheer complexity of a series of events like this. There’s no single explanation; there are six or seven. It’s an impressive feat.

While this book certainly is a “commercial” history (i.e. no footnotes), it has a wealth of information in the back anyways, using the page-number/quote-fragment system (on another note, does anyone know the actual term for this citation method). Much of Flood’s sourcing consists of personal interviews, giving him a truly first-hand perspective of the events he’s covering. The obscure documents he unearths in some instances also speak to his devotion to the subject. And I know that some of the random tangents he meanders down have given me ideas for a book of my own.

If it’s any kind of testament to the quality of The Fires, not only did I buy it for myself, but I got my father a copy for Christmas. I would buy pretty much everyone a copy of this if they don’t already have it. The Fires is unequivocally recommended by me to anybody who can read.

Buy The Fires: How a Computer Formula, Big Ideas, and the Best of Intentions Burned Down New York City-and Determined the Future of Cities at Amazon.com.

One thought on “The Fires: A Review

  1. Pingback: In the mountains… – The Smolerian

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