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Tuesday, September 17th, 2019

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Q&A with “Decade of Fire” Director/Producer Vivian Vazquez Irizarry

(Decade of Fire screen shot)

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.

by Adam McPartlan

August 23, 2019

Last week, Decade of Fire was the subject of my weekly film review. I found this film to be incredibly important to not just Bronxites, but also to people from other communities across the country who experienced the same thing through the 70s. Because of its weight, I felt it only right to add a Q&A with the director, Vivian Vazquez Irizarry.

TTBX: During the panel discussion, you said this started out as a conversation. What was the conversation?

Irizarry: My co-producer, Julia Allen and I worked together in the Bronx. Despite the fact that we could not implement a high school curriculum about the history of the Bronx, we continued to talk about Bronx history and we continued commenting and having talks about the damaging effects of fires in the 1970s. And it was really, she who encouraged me to do some writing about my experiences growing up at that time with the fires as a backdrop and and then she encouraged me try to see if we can create a film.

TTBX: What was it like for you to grow up during this time and in that place?

Irizarry: I have to say that it was a mixed bag. It feels like we could have had sort of like normal, coming-of-age story, that we had a normal childhood. I went to PS 62 and then went to IS 52 and my brother was a member of the boy scouts. Both my parents completed their GED at 62. I remember going to my prom at 52, which was really wonderful. I went to Wonderama, which was a kid’s show and we were actually chosen to participate in it. I was part of a like district wide science fair. So, there were things that we did that normal children did.

But at the same time, I think that we were growing up in an environment, as you can see from the film, that was pretty much not well kept. There were real gaps in services and real gaps in access to quality educational opportunities, quality housing, and quality healthcare. Even our parks were less than quality.

At that time as a kid, when you talk to people who grew up back then, they’ll say that we all thought it was normal that gangs were a part of our lives and drugs were part of our lives. You look back at it now and think, oh my God, would I ever allow my kids to grow up that way? I don’t think my parents had a choice. It was tough and I grew up learning to look with eyes in the back of your head. We grew up with a resentment and a toughness about what happened in the neighborhood.

So, it was mixed. We went to sweet sixteens. We went to baptisms. We went to weddings. Traditional American things happened to us and at the same time, like I say in the film, by the time I got to college, I struggled academically. My siblings and I went to school every day. I performed well. I did the right thing and by the time I got to college, I realized that I received a very poor education.

TTBX: Where does the film play in these memories?

Irizarry: Tonight (Thursday night) we’re going to have a screening at 52 Park. It means a lot me because that was my childhood playground and every time I see the folks back in the neighborhood, it gives this sense of admiration and adoration for each other, because I think that there was a sense of like, people taking care of each other despite what was going on around us.

TTBX: What was it like to revisit these memories during the filming process, especially when you started to realize what was going on with targeted firehouse closings and landlords bribing arsonists?

Irizarry: It was painful. It wasn’t always easy to talk about it, to go back and make the connections between the memories of the abandonment and neglect, and finding out that there were actual decisions that were made that impacted our communities.

(In the film) When I learned about red-lining, you don’t see me. I’m asking the questions, but there was a moment red-lining was described in such a brutal way that I was just gushing with tears. I had to grapple with how I was gonna represent myself in the film, because there were moments where I just closed up and I didn’t want to talk about it. Much to the credit of [co-producers] Gretchen and Julia and Neda who helped me figure out how to find my voice in this. It was painful, and as you know, being a Bronx kid, I’m not going to show my vulnerability on camera. But there were moments when I had to go there, I needed to show that disappointment, that anger.

TTBX: During the panel discussion after the showing on Fox Street last week, you said it took ten years to finish this film. What kept you going through the years?

Irizarry: The more information we found, the more we found it compelling and had this urgency to share it. We spoke to a lot of people who were just burning to tell their story. That’s what kept me going. We got to a point where we said, oh my God, we need to flip the narrative on what people think about the folks of the South Bronx because the conventional wisdom out there is that the people of the south Bronx burned it down and it’s not true. We didn’t create those conditions. Those conditions were created for us to leave and not survive and not do well. It was like put out there to destroy us. Actually I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but once we saw this information we said, “oh my God, we have to tell this story, we have to let people know.” I need the people from the south Bronx to know that it wasn’t their fault. I think most people understand that, but I think to bring out the details of why is very important.

TTBX: Was there a moment or were there any moments positive or negative, that stuck out to you during filming or research?

Irizarry: There were two that really stuck out. I already mentioned when I sat down to interview Joe Flood, who wrote the book The Fires, and described the process of redlining and how it starves a community. As he was talking, I was thinking about my neighborhood and the shambles it was in. Another moment was when we met with Evelyn Gonzalez and she described urban renewal. We knew that there were a lot of people who moved from Manhattan into the Bronx, but I didn’t know it was 100,000 people into buildings that were already falling apart. Another thing that was not surprising but just so heartwarming is the story of the Potts family. How this man, with his bare hands, on his own time, having a full time job with a large family so committed to taking care of his own buildings, just went at it every single day and was really committed to nurturing the social fabric of the people that lived on Kelly Street. What a hero, and I hope that his legacy lives on forever. And then of course you have Hetty Fox. Her block was one of the only blocks that did not burn because she would not allow her block to burn. Buildings around her burned, but not her block because she was fearless. She was a real bad ass.

TTBX: What do you hope audiences take away from this film?

Irizarry: There are government policies that negatively affect our community and there’s policies that are affecting communities of color in cities all across this country. We still need to understand that we can prevent those things from happening. We have to keep our eyes open. We have to be aware. We are now at the foot of displacement and gentrification in the south Bronx. What are we going to do about it? I hope it wakes people up.

Of course it’s a good thing to improve the area. Everybody wants an area to be improved. Everybody wants a nice neighborhood. However, you’ve got to include the people in the neighborhood to decide what improvement means.

We wanted a nice neighborhood. My parents wanted a nice neighborhood. Why didn’t we get it? Now all of a sudden because we have the wealthy population moving into the South Bronx now we want to improve the area? That’s not right. Everybody wants an improved area and sometimes some communities need support. So, we have to sort of look at all the nuances and think about what improvement means, what quality of life means, what quality, affordable, decent housing means to everybody, not just folks that have lots of money.

I’m hoping people will understand that displacement is here and people are at risk of being displaced and we need to stop that.

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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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