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Wednesday, August 21st, 2019

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Film Review: “Decade of Fire” is Not Just About the 70s

A Bronx store on fire in the 1970s. (screenshot via Decade of Fire)

This is an installment of a regular thisistheBronX film/TV review series by Bronx film reviewer and writer Adam McPartlan. Check back every Friday for Adam’s film reviews.

FILM REVIEW – by Adam McPartlan

August 15, 2019

“The Bronx is burning,” although never actually said, is a quote etched in the minds of many Bronxites and non-Bronxites alike. When the camera shot changed from inside Yankee Stadium to a schoolhouse a short distance from the stadium, the entire country saw what almost every resident of the South Bronx had seen for almost a decade: fire. Decade of Fire recounts the years of the fires that consumed much of the South Bronx through the eyes of its director and others who helped rebuild the neighborhood in the aftermath.

The documentary tells the story of the Bronx fires by following the director, Vivian Vazquez Irizarry, as she grew up in the South Bronx. She recalls thinking that it was ridiculous that so many South Bronx residents were accused of setting the fires that burned down their own homes, and how that thought never reconciled with the kind, loving, friendly people she called neighbors.

After realizing that there must be another side to the story, the film follows the slowly increasing number of fires through the years and the story line runs through Irizarry, slowly but surely uncovering more about targeted fire engine closings, broken government promises, insurance payouts, and abandoned buildings. As the Bronx fires rise, so too does Irizarry’s sense of injustice and ultimately parallels are made between the burning and abandonment of buildings in the 70s and the current wave of gentrification in the South Bronx.

The main difference between this film and other documentaries is that the documentarian is the driving force on-screen as well as off. Irizarry’s presence throughout the film gives the subject not just a clear direction, but also emphasizes the personal connection she has with her subject. Often there is more to documentaries than following others around and finding a story; sometimes you have lived through the story yourself and instead of finding another lens to tell the story through, Irizarry does not shy away from making the story hers as well as everyone else’s.

Much of the film shows how the Bronx got where it is today: how the South Bronx got such a bad rap, why people were told to stay away from certain areas, and what happened that caused such housing and displacement issues that still linger today? There is also a great deal of pain in the film, from the obvious loss of property and life, to broken government promises, both Democrat and Republican, to politically-motivated decisions in the guise of cost-cutting maneuvers.

The moral of the story, though, is not that the Bronx gets a lot of bad breaks, although that certainly is a point the film does convincingly make. The soul of the film is in the ordinary people who saw they were being ignored and instead of whining, decided to do something themselves. South Bronx people saw the lack of government assistance and came together to clean up the burned out buildings and rebuild their homes and communities. Out of necessity many learned new trades, they dug themselves out from under the rubble and built themselves back up.

The film closes with outrage at current board meetings and protests against community restructuring and zoning. This ending serves as a question to Bronx audiences, as well as to audiences in other areas of America where gentrification has begun: will you let it burn, or will you grab a hose?

Check back next week, when I’ll be posting a Q&A with director Vivian Alvarez Irizarry. Decade of Fire will next be screened on August 22nd at Playground 52 in the Bronx.


Adam McPartlan is a graduate student in the Sports Broadcasting Program at Sacred Heart University. He’s a life-long Bronxite with a deep love of film, television, and writing.

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