‘Decade of Fire’ Review: A Community Rises From the Ashes

Gretchen Hildebran and Vivian Vásquez Irizarry chronicle a series of South Bronx fires that raged throughout the 1970s.

Decade of Fire
Perla da Leon via Metrograph

Decade of Fire shows us the history of a community in flames. Throughout the 1970s, a series of fires raged in the South Bronx, devastating local tenement buildings as well as the lives of those who called them home. The borough lost nearly 80 percent of its housing over the course of 10 years, displacing a quarter of a million residents and creating widespread structural ruin in the years to come.

In the wake of the fires, those who still live in the South Bronx are saddled with a difficult legacy. “A lot of us still believe that we were to blame,” states Vivian Vazquez Irizarry, who co-directed the film with Gretchen Hildebran, “because that is the only story that’s ever told about the fires.”

With this documentary, Irizarry aims to present a different narrative. Through a chronological framework, Decade of Fire traces the multitude of factors that contributed to the burning of the Bronx, bringing an emphasis to unjust institutional tactics that targeted the community and others like it across the nation.

The film explores the effects of racist government policies like Redlining and Urban Renewal and how they contributed to the overcrowding and low structural integrity of local buildings. It also chronicles the rising racial tensions of the decade, as media representations of the area (including films such as 1981’s Fort Apache: The Bronx) further stigmatized the community’s youth as the root cause of their own trauma. And in one pivotal thread, we even follow Irizarry herself as she tracks the history of local fire department companies, searching for answers to the abandonment faced by her community on a city-wide, and nationwide, level.

Indeed, Irizarry’s perspective drives the film, offering a moving personal dimension to its narrative. In addition to being a prominent organizer and researcher, Irizarry presents herself first and foremost as someone who grew up in the South Bronx during the titular decade, offering firsthand anecdotes about what it was really like to live amid that chaos.

Home movies and family photos from Irizarry’s childhood are interwoven with the film’s impressive array of archive footage from the 1970s, as she shares her story with both the audience and her now-adult son. In a particularly powerful moment, Irizarry recalls the loss of her friend at age 11. It was her first memory of a fire, as she watched her friend’s building go up in flames just across the street from her bedroom window. “I was too young to know why,” she tells. “I just knew I never saw her again.”

Further personal stakes arrive with the film’s involvement of other South Bronx community members. Throughout the documentary, Irizarry conducts interviews with a wide range of local residents, many of whom also came of age during the troubling days of the fires; from Hetty Fox, a local activist, to Mike Amadeo, the owner of a long-operating record shop, to Fredrick Melahn, an archivist working at the FDNY library.

This emphasis on the South Bronx community as a whole comes to be the greatest strength of the documentary. Eventually, the film illustrates how residents have taken it upon themselves to rebuild their blocks in the wake of tragedy. Through the efforts of Bronx-centric grassroots organizations like Banana Kelly (a name inspired by a curved street in the borough) and the People’s Development Corporation, it is community organizing that ultimately brings an end to the fires ravaging the city.

But the film itself doesn’t end in flames. Decade of Fire leaves viewers with details about how these organizations are still working through the present day, as they focus their efforts on combatting issues of gentrification and displacement by corporate developers. A fitting sense of closure is wrought by these details, as we are presented with the ways in which the community has emerged from their own devastation, more empowered than ever.

Ultimately, the nature of Irizarry’s work as a local activist bleeds into a dual goal for the documentary: to pass the history of the fires down to younger community members, as well as reframe typical onscreen representations of the South Bronx towards healing. The film is successful on both accounts; while Decade of Fire may have benefited from the use of a few more outside voices, it still offers the moving story of a local community as told by its own members, all in service of their quest to overcome the harsh legacy of their past trauma.

Overall, the documentary is well-researched, engaging, and due to the involvement of Irizarry, strikingly personal. In chronicling this Decade of Fire, the filmmakers offer audiences a moving portrait of a community united against systemic oppression.