Saturday, January 30, 2010

The "Malignant Crime": Urban Arson in the 1970s

(picture from

By 1970, almost every major US city was suffering from severe economic turmoil. Poor and working-class neighborhoods were hit especially hard, with the biggest weight of the burden coming down on people of color.

I was spurred to write this post by the following bit of information from a Chicago Reader article on the history of the Ukrainian Village neighborhood.
[The 60s and 70s] was a tumultuous time for the villages. Real estate values plummeted as landlords neglected their buildings and speculators sat on vacant land and abandoned property. Mom-and-pop businesses along Chicago Avenue fell like dominoes. The arson rate in the area was so high that in 1976 Mayor Richard J. Daley convened a task force to address the crisis.
It was no surprise to read that Ukie-V suffered what was called "the urban crisis" in the 1970s, of course. But the bit on arson struck me. I recalled seeing pictures like the following, and reading something a while back about a massive arson epidemic in the South Bronx in the early 1970s. I also recalled some scenes from Downtown81 shot on the Lower East Side in 1981 in which every other building was a pile of rubble (also see Alphabet City (1984), whose "plot" is structured around a hired arson). I started asking questions like: Was this a widespread problem in cities all over the US? Why was it a problem at this time? What would motivate someone to, apparently, destroy properties in city? Who was involved, and with what interests?

The poster of the picture above gives the following caption:
It was pretty bad in those days as buildings burned down weekly. All arsons commissioned by landlords. These arsons occurred in all of the areas of the city inhabited by lower income minorities. Neighborhoods in Brooklyn like Brownsville, Bed Stuy and East New York. In Manhattan there was the Lower East Side and Harlem and of course the South Bronx.
I'll get to the "commissioned by landlords" bit in a moment. For now, just think about the scale of the arson crisis: all over Lower East Side, Brooklyn, Bronx, Harlem, etc. As it turns out, the problem of arson in the South Bronx, in particular, was particularly acute. From wikipedia:
In the 1970s, the Bronx was plagued by a wave of arson. The burning of buildings was mostly in the South Bronx, concentrated especially along Westchester Avenue and in West Farms. The most common explanation of what occurred was that landlords decided to burn their buildings and take the insurance money as profit.[39] Competing explanations blamed the insurance companies —since their non-renewals of policies might have encouraged the landlords— or the residents themselves. After the destruction of many buildings in the South Bronx, the arsons slowed significantly in the later part of the decade, but the after-effects were still felt into the early 1990s.
The problem wasn't confined to New York. As a 1977 Time article noted:
"Arson is a barometer of urban decay," says New York City Deputy Chief Fire Marshal John Barracato, "and most city fathers are ashamed to admit they have this problem." But the ruinous dimensions cannot be hidden. In New York City's South Bronx, where Jimmy Carter took an impromptu walking tour earlier this month, there have been more than 7,000 fires in the past two years. "The destruction is reminiscent of the bombed-out cities in Europe," says Bronx District Attorney Mario Merola, who was a navigator in World War II. Chicago's Humboldt Park area has some 400 charred, abandoned buildings. In Detroit, 10,000 houses stand vacant, victims of fire. "The city is burning down," said an anguished Lieut. Robert McClary, head of Detroit's fire-fraud squad.
Read more:,9171,945795-2,00.html#ixzz0e8X3PnKc
This is shocking stuff. Chicago, Boston, New York, Detroit and the list goes on. Over 400 buildings burned down in Humboldt Park. Views of flagship US cities reminiscent of bombed-out post-WWII European cities? Why was this allowed to happen?

As the Time article explains, and as most people seem to agree, there were strong economic motivations for landlords:
In ghetto areas like the South Bronx and Humboldt Park, landlords often see arson as a way of profitably liquidating otherwise unprofitable assets. The usual strategy: drive out tenants by cutting off the heat or water; make sure the fire insurance is paid up; call in a torch.
Of course, the Time article seems to want to attribute the majority of arson in impoverished neighborhoods to deviant youth and "hate". There can be no doubt that there were at least some cases of arson in, say, Humboldt Park committed by nihilistic youth destroying buildings for the fun of it. But it seems pretty implausible to claim that anything like the majority of cases were committed on this basis. Moreover, even if they were, it would be a mistake to attribute the causes solely to the pathologies of "drug pushers" and "deviant youth". After all, the arson epidemics were concentrated in neighborhoods ravaged by disinvestment, high unemployment, slumlording, economic devastation, redlining, racism and massive drops in population.

Sociologist James Brady, who was the director of the City of Boston Arson Strike Force in the early 80s, has done a lot of work on this topic, and skewers the classic conservative thinking characteristic of the "deviance" explanation motivating the 1977 Time article. According to Brady:
Traditional methods of dealing with the problem are based on a view of arsonists as pyromaniacs or vandals. [But, there is a] clear link between the policies of banks and insurance companies, on the one hand, and the arson-for-profit schemes of organized crime, professional arsonists, shady landlords, and corrupt public officials... The dramatic upsurge of arson fires in the United States since 1960 has made a shambles of these assurances. Arson now outstrips all other "index" crimes in terms of injuries, deaths, and property losses, forcing us to rethink both our current control measures and our notions about the causes of this menace.
Brady continues:
I argue that the routine profit-making practices of banks, realtors, and insurance companies lead to the processes of abandonment, gentrification, and neighborhood decline which destabilize urban communities and provide the context and motivation for several varieties of arson. Organized crime syndicates, professional firesetters, and corrupt officials all figure prominently in arson-for-profit schemes, but the urban economic context also lies behind the fires of vandals and small property owners desperate to escape losing investments by means of convenient fires.This seems to me to be basically right on. Other studies have also constructed models whereby the best profit-maximizing strategy for certain banks, insurance companies, and landlords is basically a combination of abandonment and professionally-commissioned arson by hired "torches".
I find this heartbreaking. We don't need to talk about arson in order to grasp the inhuman, cold, calculated cruelty of slum-lording, blockbusting, redlining, etc. But this pushes things to another level entirely. Good ol' capitalism, indeed.

The role of public officials in this cruel process would be worth looking into more. Brady discusses it some, but it seems like all levels of government can be indicted for the prevalence of this phenomenon. They (public officials) literally stood and watched as powerful organizations set fire to poor (largely black and latino) neighborhoods. There's something very Katrina-esque about this whole thing.

Examples of this phenomenon abound. For instance, as David Harvey points out:
Something ominous began to happen in 2006. The rate of foreclosures in low-income areas of older US cities began to increase. Officialdom and the media took very little notice because, as had happened many years before in the early stages of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, the communities affected were low-income, mainly African-American or immigrant (Hispanics), in cities like Cleveland and Detroit that were in any case already blighted and deteriorated. It was only in mid-2007, when the foreclosure wave had spread to white middle class areas as well as to the US South (Florida in particular) and Southwest (California), where new housing tract developments, often in peripheral areas, were becoming vulnerable, that officialdom started to take notice and the mainstream press began to comment.
One moral of the story, as the crisis in Haiti is reminding us everyday, that we should never underestimate the propensity of capitalism to extract profits from the most heinous human crises and disasters. As if anyone (except Obama and the Democrats) has forgotten, its worth recalling here as well that our for-profit health insurance industry cashes in everyday on human suffering. It's not for nothing that those on the Left call capitalism an exploitative system.

The other moral seems to be that the powers-that-be don't value black and latino life in the same way that they care about white life. Kayne's claim that "George Bush doesn't care about black people" is to the point, only we might substitute any number of politicians or organizations for Bush in that sentence. People can say what they want about Barack Obama, the person... but Barack Obama the president is the same company as Bush on this score.


Richard said...

yes, I have posted on this subject in the past

here is an excellent summary of the concept of spatial deconcentration, the underlying policy that ended up motivating these arsons

my post, in relation to post-Katrina New Orleans

and, Roanoke and San Francisco

t said...

interesting stuff, thanks for sharing.

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Big City Actuary said...

If the fault of arson lies in 'Good ol' capitalism,' then why did it stop? Did capitalism grind to a halt in the 80s and 90s?

Or, did something else happen?