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The Fires of 1970s New York City: Background information when reading Remember Us

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Remember Us

by Jacqueline Woodson

Remember Us by Jacqueline Woodson X
Remember Us by Jacqueline Woodson
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    Oct 2023, 192 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Callum McLaughlin
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About this Book

The Fires of 1970s New York City

This article relates to Remember Us

Print Review

In her novel Remember Us, author Jacqueline Woodson draws from her own experiences growing up in 1970s New York. Her protagonist's hometown of Bushwick is plagued by housefires, landing it the callous nickname "The Matchbox."

Bushwick wasn't the only community affected by numerous fires at the time. Records show that by mid-1974, the number of serious blazes across the city of New York had risen by 40% over the past three years. Worse still, the civilian death rate from fires had risen by 35% over just the past year. Brooklyn, where Bushwick is located, and the Bronx were hit particularly hard. In seven Bronx census tracts, fires destroyed more than 97% of buildings throughout the '70s, while a further 44 tracts in the borough lost more than 50% of their buildings.

The reasons behind New York's fires are complex, varied, and continue to be debated to this day. One of the more controversial theories claimed that landlords and disillusioned residents deliberately started fires in order to make insurance claims. In more recent years, efforts have been made to debunk this idea, at least where residents are concerned. Many believe the idea rose from racial and class bias against the area's population, which included high numbers of immigrants and people of color. Filmmaker and educator Vivian Vázquez, who grew up in the South Bronx at the time and whose documentary Decade of Fire (trailer below) addresses this issue, explains:

"What people learn on the outside is that the people in the Bronx burnt it; that it was us who destroyed our community […] My family didn't get here from Puerto Rico to burn buildings; my grandparents came here to try to get ahead in life. How did this narrative become that the people in the Bronx wanted to destroy our new chance of success, our new chance of opportunity?"

Possible contributing factors associated with the racism and systemic factors Vázquez confronts include the rapid spread of poverty, which left many buildings in a dilapidated condition that made them vulnerable to fire, as well as fire department cutbacks and a significant reduction in "preventive inspection efforts," which are crucial in identifying and resolving structural issues that can lead to fire and fatalities. These cutbacks also meant there were fewer fire officers operating on the ground, leading to an increase in response times, which in turn allowed blazes that may previously have been confined to a single property additional time to spread throughout the tightly packed buildings.

Edwin F. Jennings, president of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association, explained at the time: "We have fewer units to respond, so it takes longer to arrive at the scene. [...] When they get there, there are fewer men to stretch lines and get into buildings, so a fire that might have been confined to an apartment spreads."

The fires that ripped through New York did so much more than destroy property; they devastated lives. With Remember Us, Woodson portrays the perspective of those who lived in constant fear that their homes would be next to go up in flames, while reminding us that every person affected was an individual with their own life and hopes for the future.

Filed under People, Eras & Events

This "beyond the book article" relates to Remember Us. It originally ran in November 2023 and has been updated for the October 2023 edition. Go to magazine.

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