The cultural significance that accompanies the Bronx, N.Y. in the 70s and 80s is undeniable — for better and for worse. The era that birthed hip-hop was the same setting for the beginnings of the city’s crack and heroin epidemics, examples of the ways in which trauma is inseparable from the very foundation of the art.
And then there were the fires — which native New Yorkers are terrified to see happening again with the latest string of deadly fires in the borough.
The phrase “the Bronx is Burning” was coined in the 70s by New Yorkers to describe the epidemic of arson crimes. The borough lost over 97 percent of its buildings to fire and abandonment in the decade between the 70s and 80s. History has painted the borough with towering flames rising from the ground over the East River, a thick cloud of smoke taking up almost permanent residence where a forgotten city of the New York’s most vulnerable population once lived. Children made a playground from ashes and boarded up buildings, running around a wasteland.
The majority were written off due to “unknown causes” and the origins and perpetrators of these arsons are debated to this day. Some believe that a number of fires were set by crooked landlords who sought insurance money from the destruction of their buildings and were aided in some cases by the desperate tenants who wanted relief from their decaying, old apartments and qualify for priority admission to the projects. However many believe this era of arson served as an inside job between the mayor’s office, the FDNY itself, and a team of computer scientists to orchestrate an extermination of sorts — to smoke out the city’s lower class.
Fast-forward to present day.
Within the past week, two deadly fires have raged through the Bronx, in Fordham Heights and Van Nest neighborhoods consecutively. The first in Fordham is the deadliest fire that has occurred in New York City in over 25 years with at least 12 fatalities. The second and most recent took place not too far away and 16 are injured as a result.
The first one was allegedly caused by a three-year-old boy playing with the kitchen stove and his mother who fled the burning apartment without closing the door. But the second one, for which the cause is still unknown, took place in a building that had 14 complaints about construction work without a permit lodged against the building and five open violations. One tenant told The Daily News that there were walls in the building that weren’t supposed to be there and that a few months ago they tried to change a lightbulb in her ceiling and gas came out.
Many have taken to Twitter to comment their suspicions of the recent fires and how it beckons the memory of the borough just over 35 years ago. Considering the most recent plans to gentrify the Bronx, it wouldn’t come as much of a surprise. A luxury rental company has been trying to change the South Bronx’s name to the Piano District, the Universal Museum of Hip Hop will be opening in a brand new building there in 2022, and natives are protesting against being pushed out of their neighborhoods. It was only a matter of time before developers took things into their own hands and aimed their next big culture death star at the boogie down borough.
There is a classic saying that says “those who do not remember their past are condemned to repeat it.” The Bronx is burning once again, less than 50 years from the last time it was smoked out. If history has shown anything, it’s that while we haven’t always been able to trust the political systems, the true hope lies in community. This isn’t a time to wait and see what happens, it’s a call to action. The Bronx has birthed some of the loudest voices in our society, journalists, performers, and politicians alike. This is the time to uplift the city’s “forgotten borough” before it’s remembered for all the wrong reasons.
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