Decade of Fire: An Overdue Reckoning with the Bronx’s Misrepresented History

When Vivian Vázquez asked the Bronx teens if they had heard derogatory comments about their borough, hands shot up. Vázquez’s new documentary film Decade of Fire gets to the root of this damaging label. Over the span of ten years starting in the late 1960’s, fires ravaged the South Bronx, leading to loss and trauma across what had been a vibrant and diverse community. The common perception is that the largely black, brown, and poor residents were responsible for the fires. Decade of Fire depicts how this blame permeated the psyche of not only American culture, but the fire’s own victims. It proceeds to decisively unpack this stock story, which is, in fact, false, and to reframe the fires as the outcome of systemic racism and neglect.

Vázquez, a Co-Director and Co-Producer, is my colleague at New Settlement Apartments, a community organization in the Southwest Bronx. My team at Community Food Action, New Settlement’s food justice program, attended a viewing of Decade of Fire in March. Together with an all-female directing and production team, Vázquez won the Women in Film Stella Artoir award at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Closer to home, an audience member noted the significance of the film’s being made by “one of our own.” Vázquez grew up in the South Bronx during the ‘60’s and ‘70’s and so her story is intertwined with the subject. The film is a tribute not only to the grit of the Bronx, but to its joy and vitality, qualities that are embodied by our children and families. The filmmaker doggedly pursuits the truth because of her own proximity to the tale.

The fires ultimately subsided, and the film reflects on how that came to be; it credits the residents of the Bronx who together rebuilt their home. Communities organized tenant unions, repaired housing, and advocated for change from elected officials who up until that point had broken promises. Grassroots activists continue to fight oppression; today, the battle in the Bronx is over displacement.

A colleague recently asked, “What does it mean to be a neighbor in this place?” In the Bronx, it means understanding this legacy and its parallels to our present-day food justice efforts, from the prevalence of self-blame to the persistence of gardeners creating green spaces out of vacant lots, just as tenants once restored apartments.

What role do red-lining and inequitable investment play in your community?

What histories inform your food justice work? Who tells these stories?

How can the food movement purposefully counteract these legacies?   

Decade of Fire will premiere on PBS in 2020.

Taisy Conk