Portfolio: Decade of Fire

Gretchen Hildebran is a filmmaker with a passion for social justice, often distilling the effects of public policy through the lens of human experience. Her documentaries include the internationally screened “Carve” (2003), “Worth Saving” (2004), which was presented in HBO’s Frame by Frame documentary showcase, and “Out in the Heartland” (2005), the story of gay parents in Kentucky facing a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. Hildebran is currently directing and co-producing “Decade of Fire,” a film that explores the legacy of the fires that destroyed the South Bronx throughout the 1970s and celebrates the people who stayed and rebuilt their communities. Hildebran, along with long-time Bronx resident Vivian Vazquez and community organizer Julia Allen, has created a Kickstarter campaign to help complete the project’s shooting and editing. The campaign ends in one week, so be sure to check out the site soon if you’d like to pledge your support for this inspiring film. –S.F.


Decade of Fire | Vivian Vazquez

Vivian Vazquez

Decade of Fire began to take shape for me several years ago, when a friend, Julia Allen, mentioned to me that nearly eighty percent of the housing in the South Bronx burned down in the 1970s.  I was stunned by this figure, but only began to comprehend its meaning after I was introduced to people who had lived through this disaster.

One of these people, Vivian Vazquez, grew up in the South Bronx during the ‘70s. She shared stories with me about the vibrant community that existed before the fires. But by the time she was 18, her neighborhood was nearly destroyed. To her, the legacy of the fires was not just buildings lost and neighbors disappearing, but more a residual feeling of abandonment, a sense that the city purposefully turned its back as the community was destroyed.

Over the next several years the three of us became co-producers. We read up, and talked to current and former residents, defining the outlines of a story about the South Bronx that had yet to be told.  Our research turned up a history of migration, de-industrialization and racially biased development policies that shaped U.S. cities throughout the 20th century.

Although they arrived only after decades of segregation, redlining and urban renewal, the fires were immediately blamed on the pathologies of ghetto residents. In 1970, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then Nixon’s advisor on urban affairs, popularized this claim and suggested that government adopt an attitude of “benign neglect” towards unruly communities of color. During the next decade, as the fires raged on, New York cut fire service in the Bronx down to the bone.

By 1976 much of the South Bronx had burned away. City leaders like Housing Commissioner Roger Starr were proposing that the city perform “triage” and level what was left, including dislocating the 100,000 Bronxites who remained. Starr called this “planned shrinkage,” a term that is today being touted as the solution to urban malaise in places like Detroit. This technical-sounding term masks a brutal policy of abandonment, and ignores how historical forces have created poor neighborhoods of color that are now considered be extraneous and expendable.

I’ve heard that New York has a fiscal crisis every 30 years. If so, today we are right on schedule. While the Bronx has been spared the worst of Bloomberg’s proposed 2011 cuts to fire service, some of the poorest parts of Brooklyn will see their fire protection on the chopping block in the next year.

Today the South Bronx has come back, rebuilt on residents’ love, desperation and sweat equity that finally convinced government to rebuild housing there. Alongside the history of the fires, there are stories of the places and cultures — hip hop, for one — that sustained lives and even allowed them to flourish. But the South Bronx is still one of the poorest areas of the country. As Vivian says in the film, “The people who survive these policies of neglect, we survive. People survive, people cope. But at the same time, it came at a huge cost.”


The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.

All images courtesy of Gretchen Hildebran.

Gretchen Hildebran is a documentary filmmaker who has often focused on the connections between policy and human experience. Her love of documentary was inspired by a 2002 collaboration with homeless and low-income people to create No On Prop N, a TV ad campaign that opposed cutting general assistance benefits in San Francisco. Since then, Gretchen co-produced the internationally screened WORTH SAVING (2004), which was presented in HBO’s Frame by Frame documentary showcase. OUT IN THE HEARTLAND (2005) tells the stories of gay parents in Kentucky facing a constitutional amendment banning marriage. Since graduating from Stanford University’s documentary program in 2006, Gretchen has worked in Los Angeles and New York as a cinematographer and editor for TV and independent documentary productions. Gretchen shot RamonaDiaz’s THE LEARNING (2011), and contributed camerawork to Joan Braderman’s THE HERETICS (2009) and Socheata Poeuv’s NEW YEARS BABY (2008). Still getting her bearings since moving to New York in 2006, Gretchen is currently shooting and co-producing DECADE OF FIRE, which examines the legacy of the fires that destroyed the Bronx throughout the 1970s.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.


Chelsea Bruner July 1, 2011

I look forward to your film. This is a story that needs to be told, and I hope that doing so will shed light on the real impact so-called urban renewal had on this neighborhood and others like it. The South Bronx is coming back, but arson is still part of life here in 2011. It’s a sad continuation of benign neglect intensified by lending practices that are proving to be the scourge of this most recent decade.