The Fires

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Joe Flood. The Fires: How a Computer Formula, Big Ideas, and the Best Intentions Burned Down New York City—and Determined the Future of Cities. Paperback edition. New York: Riverhead Books. 2011. Pp. 351. $16.00.



1. The War Years

2. The Fireman and the Reformer

3. The Hangman's Trap

4. Of Whiz Kids and Think Tanks

5. Enter the Poet

6. The Fire Next Door

7. How the Other Half Thinks

8. Red Lines and White Flight

9. Of Riots and Airmail

10. O'Hagan's Choice

11. Going Along to Get Along

12. Quantifying the Unquantifiable

13. A Disproportionate Share of the Economy

14. New Math

15. The Fiscal Crisis Kool-Aid Test

16. Waldbaum's Revisited

Joe Flood explores the tension between the cultural dynamics of the urban landscape and the social construction of a technological solution to the problem of urban firefighting. His populist narrative approach hinges on New York City’s adoption of RAND Corporation game theory-based modeling to balance limited economic resources with an upsurge in fires. Flood argues that because the RAND modelers accepted a narrative of decline in the Bronx that they tolerated an unprecedented uptick in fires in the Bronx that they did not elsewhere in the city and that many of the recommendations undertaken created a feedback loop of increasing urban devastation that literally resulted in the South Bronx becoming a burnt out hulk by the mid-1970s.

Flood turns his narrative on several key individuals, including Mayor John Lindsay, who, “shared the RAND Corporation’s belief that the biases of human judgment and corruptions of power politics could be replaced with hard numbers, rationality, and scientific management.” [23] This ultimately led to the state where, “arson became an economically rational act in the Bronx’s shattered housing market.” [159] However, the principal actor in Flood’s narrative is John T. O’Hagan, as NYFD chief-of-department and commissioner, not only embraced Lindsay’s enthusiasm for the RAND approach, but was also the head of department to do so in such a thorough and complete manner. In Flood’s perspective, O’Hagan is a tragic figure – smart, cared deeply for his firefighters and wanted the best for his department and was willing to fight city hall to improve fire safety. He is led astray by both political ambition and an over-eagerness for technical solutions, causing him to lose touch with his personnel. Most significantly, he emphasizes the construction of new skyscrapers as the critical technical obstacle for the department rather than the mundane tenements of the Bronx that when neglected, became a socially (as well as literal) combustive force. Instead of addressing the social problems of the Bronx, attributed to Robert Moses’ destructive freeways and the destruction of the local industrial base through rezoning, Lindsay and O’Hagan saw the Bronx as a lost cause and as a result, did not see the destruction by fire of thousands of its structures as a social catastrophe.


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