Title

Born in Flames: Arson, Racial Capitalism, and the Reinsuring of the Bronx in the Late Twentieth Century

Date of Award

Spring 2021

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

American Studies

First Advisor

Meyerowitz, Joanne

Abstract

During the 1970s, a wave of arson coursed through cities across the United States, destroying large portions of neighborhoods home to poor communities of color. Popular memory confuses the arson wave with the 1960s uprisings, yet these fires were lit not for protest, but for profit, most of which flowed into the ironically named FIRE industries—finance, insurance, and real estate. By asking why cities went up in flames in these years, how their fires were extinguished, and what arose in their ashes, this project casts new light on the restructuring of U.S. cities since 1968. The answers hinge not on insurrection, but rather indemnification, and at the center of the project is the untold history of the racially-stratified property insurance market, a key force in the making of U.S. urban inequality. Through a case study of the Bronx, I examine how the rise of the FIRE industries, which eclipsed manufacturing as the engines of urban economies in the 1970s, reshaped neighborhoods of color in the direct aftermath of the civil rights movement. The hand that torched the Bronx and many other cities in the 1970s was guided by the market and firmly attached to the arms of the state. Although physical science would have it that fire requires only oxygen, heat, and fuel to ignite, the crucial ingredient during the 1970s was state-sponsored fire insurance, initiated by federal fiat in response to the 1960s uprisings. The most destructive arsons in these years were performed for profit, which accumulated in the bank accounts of absentee landlords in the form of insurance payouts. Tens of thousands of Bronx families lost their homes to fires, but for much of the decade, tenant vandalism and welfare fraud stood as the prevailing explanations for the arson wave, thus indemnifying landlords from culpability. In the Bronx, the blazes only subsided after a groundswell of tenant organizing. From the embers of the fires arose a host of new organizational models—anti-arson organizations, sweat equity initiatives, and community development corporations (CDCs)—all of which would transfigure the landscape of urban politics in subsequent decades. A final thread of the project turns an eye to the cultural responses to the firestorm by considering how the ubiquity of the fire trope in film, novels, and popular music of the 1970s—from The Towering Inferno to “Disco Inferno”—offers a hidden transcript for contested interpretations of the arson wave.

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