A personal film about the death and life of New York's South Bronx

In the blighted South Bronx borough of New York City in the 1970's, empty and partly occupied apartment buildings were destroyed by fire on a weekly basis, rendering an estimated quarter of a million residents homeless and leaving the area looking like WWII fire-bombed Dresden. The fires, this personal account says, were not set by residents; "we are the ones who saved" the neighborhood, she says. Racist and dismissive outsiders like Nixon advisor Sen. Pat Moynahan, the prophet of "benign neglect," blamed it on locals and called it a sign of "social pathology."

This doc, Joshua Minsoo Kim of Slant wrote, "feels like a film fit for classrooms" (John DeFore of Hollywood Reportersays rather "the technically polished result of a college research project") because indeed it was originally made "for ninth graders at a social justice-focused high school" aimed to show links between the Bronx fires, "cultural resistance" by means of graffiti and hop-hop, and community organizing that "saved the borough." This is the corrective provided by Vivian Vázquez Irizarry, who narrates, drawing on her experiences growing up in the Longwood section of the South Bronx with her Puerto Rican immigrant family and witnessing the destruction.She also did plenty of research, and collected much vivid visual documentation. Those descriptions, while superficially true, are misleading, because if you're interested in urban decay and urban revival, this is a lively and inspiring film, a little gem.

The fires were often set by local youths but paid by absentee landlords to collect insurance money, it's reported. Destruction of the borough was furthered by Draconian city planner Robert Moses’s partitioning of the Bronx with the Cross Bronx Expressway or and "redlining" of which Irizarry's father was a victim: he was denied loans that would have permitted the family to move to the suburbs. We also learn NYC Mayor John Lindsay (1966-73) followed a computer analysis by the Rand Corporation and pulled fire departments out of the blighted borough, when they should have been augmented. Joe Flood, author of The Fires, talks about this. "Urban renewal," James Baldwin is seen saying, really meant "Negro removal." In the devastation of the abandoned neighborhood, the youth gangs became protectors who helped start a girls softball team.

This film is a strong, personal vehicle for Irizarry's experiences and opinions, not a detached, scientific account, and some points aren't backed up by fact. But the strength of her story, enlivened by vibrant archival film footage, is how she depicts the warm, uniquely multicultural Bronx population's efforts to fight back and survive in the face of institutional racism from the outside, forming small volunteer groups that learned building trades. Further ravages came - crack in the eighties, mass incarceration in the nineties - as well as misguided government policy and rampant exploitation of real estate. The new threat is an influx of "luxury" apartments for those escaping the cost of life in Manhattan. Irizarry appears at the end as a busy current community activist. The fight goes on and people stay in a revived and still multicultural Bronx.

As Manuel Betencourt wrote in Remezela, Decade of Fire is "a call to arms, a family memoir, and a history lesson," ad even more importantly, "a love letter to the Bronx and its inhabitants."

Decade of Fire, 76 mins., debuted at Full Frame (Durham), Apr. 2019, with limited theatrical release and broadcast on PBS Independent Lens in May 2019. Screened for this review as part of a pandemic VOD virtual theater release coming July 14, 2020.