Beard Necessities (Winston Brothers, #7) murder mystery

[Prime] The Fires Author Joe Flood –

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10 thoughts on “The Fires

  1. says:

    This is a really fascinating book for people interested in the Bronx (and Brooklyn and parts of lower Manhattan) during the 70s. I never quite understood why my parents were so terrified when I announced to them I'd be teaching in the South Bronx, but after reading this book, I realized what their memories were of the South Bronx during this time period. (My dad, who is prone to exaggeration, compared it to Apocalypse Now... a war zone... hell... etc... but I see now he wasn't joking.)

    It's frustrating to read about the actions of city leaders who truly believed they were doing the right thing by purposely starving the city's poorest enclaves of resources (in this book, fire services) based on simplistic computer models, but it's also a lesson for future generations. Though the appeal of this book is probably pretty narrow, and parts for me were a bit dry, I thought the author gave a good overview of the circumstances surrounding the fires. I would have liked more perspective from people who lived through the events.

  2. says:

    This story starts out as a "Let's champion rationality and progressivism in city government" with the story of the rise of power of Mayor John Lindsay, and the lateral rise of power of the Robert McNamara "Whiz-Kids" that helped JFK and LBJ run the Viet Nam war.

    And then the story shifts to the difference between "large root-cause fixers of problems," like the power broker Robert Moses and the "small branch-and-twig fixers of problems," like the Tammany/machine street politics found in most big cities.

    The hero of the story is, John O'Hagan, who is widely regarded as a giant in the modernization of the fire service in America. But like many great men, hubris and desire for power had unintended consequences.

    The victim of the story is New York City, a city whose industrial base hollowed out by zoning, thriving neighborhoods ruined by "urban renewal", and some serious systemic revenue problems.

    Thanks to a combination of "big ideas" gone bad, razor-thin budgets, and political disenfranchisement, the NYFD ended up in "The War Years" where fires raged in the Bronx and elsewhere. Despite having the "best and brightest minds" working with the most respected Fire Chief in America. And, according to the author, Because of them.

    This is primarily a story of good intentions gone wrong and how focusing on the problem from the wrong angle can make things much much worse. And as a person interested in cities, disasters, and how communities recover, it's a sad tale, well told.

    The conclusion offers a story about how cities can thrive _despite_ the mistakes humans make running them. And this makes me feel better. Cities don't suck. They aren't hopelessly flawed. They bounce back from the harm we inflict upon them. Because cities aren't things, they're people, and people are the most flawed, resilient, and tenacious things this world has ever come up with.

    Recommended to fans of cities, city politics, and especially fire fighting.

  3. says:

    Joe Flood is perhaps the best possible name for the author of a book called The Fires. Or, more completely, The Fires: How a Computer Formula, Big Ideas, and the Best of Intentions Burned Down New York City-and Determined the Future of Cities. That title is a mouthful, but accurately reflects the amazing and diverse subtopics that Flood effortlessly moves back and forth across in explaining the rash of fires in 1970s New York and the decline of the Bronx.

    Starting with the machine politics of Tammany Hall and the various city departments’ resistance to reform, Flood traces the ascent of Fire Chief John O’Hagan, a unbelievably intelligent, young reformer in the FDNY with ideas of quantitative analysis in his head. Flood explores the origins of systems analysis and operations research in World War II, and then follows the rise of the RAND Corporation through the early days of the Cold War, and the inexorable meetings between RAND, O’Hagan, and Mayor John Lindsay that led to a radical new firefighting regime citywide.

    Sophisticated computer modeling directed the closure of many fire stations throughout the South Bronx, which (unbeknown to me) had been an upscale, classy developed area mostly inhabited by Italians and Jews escaping the slums and tenements of the Lower East Side. As fire after fire engulfed the Bronx, and the fire department proved woefully inadequate at fighting them, a massive phase of white flight began to accelerate. Coupled with Robert Moses’ Cross-Bronx Expressway and Lindsay’s repeal of a city law requiring municipal employees to reside within city limits, the number of whites in the outer boroughs dropped dramatically as they fled to suburban Westchester County and across the river to New Jersey.

    Of course, there’s far more than even that to the story. Flood does an absolutely masterful job of weaving together all these disparate threads into a cohesive narrative. There’s Moses and his misguided plan for the Lower Manhattan Expressway (LoMEX), an eight-lane behemoth of an elevated highway that would have utterly destroyed Greenwich Village and much of the surrounding area. The Ford Motor Company and Robert McNamara make an appearance as early benefactors of RAND’s pioneering quantitative research. Flood also gives the rezoning of Manhattan that banished most industry and manufacturing a brief, if absolutely intriguing treatment. He excoriates the weak building codes that existed for much of the twentieth century, and the loophole of the World Trade Center’s construction by the Port Authority that allowed it to skirt New York City building codes.

    It’s hard to do The Fires justice. It is so far-reaching – but never over-reaching – that to describe all the different components of its narrative would be impossible without actually writing the book again. But in that sense, hopefully this represents a new trend in historical writing, a truly interdisciplinary effort that never seems to bog down. From sociology to politics to urban planning to history to engineering, Joe Flood just bounces around without getting distracted, but while conveying the sheer complexity of a series of events like this. There’s no single explanation; there are six or seven. It’s an impressive feat.

    While this book certainly is a “commercial” history (i.e. no footnotes), it has a wealth of information in the back anyways, using the page-number/quote-fragment system (on another note, does anyone know the actual term for this citation method). Much of Flood’s sourcing consists of personal interviews, giving him a truly first-hand perspective of the events he’s covering. The obscure documents he unearths in some instances also speak to his devotion to the subject. And I know that some of the random tangents he meanders down have given me ideas for a book of my own.

    If it’s any kind of testament to the quality of The Fires, not only did I buy it for myself, but I got my father a copy for Christmas. I would buy pretty much everyone a copy of this if they don’t already have it. The Fires is unequivocally recommended by me to anybody who can read.

  4. says:

    In The Fires Joe Flood seeks to explain what led to what the NYFD called ‘The War Years’-- 1968-1977 when large swathes of The Bronx and other areas were devastated by extensive fires. This is no easy task given the complex web of factors at play including the battles between Tammany political culture and reform agendas, the long run consequences of city planning policy, changes to the city’s economic fortunes, social change and upheaval, and tussles within the fire service as it sought to modernize and change organisational structures and working practices, drawing extensively on the systems op analysis of RAND. Flood, however, does an admirable job of untangling the various forces at play and how they interacted to create a deadly maelstrom. This is achieved by focusing on the intentions, decisions and actions of a handful of key actors, especially Mayor John Lindsay, Fire Chief John O’Hagan, and the RAND Corporation, contextualising these with respect to particular events and wider economic and political factors. This analysis draws on extensive archival research and many interviews with key actors, including politicians, public servants, serving firemen, and families. The result is a nuanced and layered story that demonstrates that there is no, and can never be, a magic formula to running a city; that despite good intentions, reams of facts and statistics, and clever models made by very bright people, cities are messy, complex, multi-scalar, open entities that are social, cultural, political and economic in nature, acting and reacting in diverse ways to myriads of factors and competing and conflicting interests. The book is an excellent read -- well written, engaging, and insightful -- and provides a fascinating story to anyone interested in contemporary urban history. In my view it’s a must read book for all those presently involved in conceiving and building smart city initiatives.

  5. says:

    Joe Flood writes a solid history of the twentieth century city planning through the lens of The War Years fires that burned out large swathes of the poorest parts of New York City. It's well-researched and hangs together nicely. He cribs a good bit from Robert Caro's massive biography of planner Robert Moses, and some of his points get repetitive—disrupting the otherwise nicely narrativized of history and analysis that Flood puts to paper.

    Students of cities and planning and of power politics will find this an interesting read touching on the complexity of decision-making and the way that politics and management are bound to the times and trends in which they occur. And of course, the indictment of RAND's systems analysis is an important reminder that we can't play god even when we are good with all the numbers. The Fires is as a political biography of the men of New York City that did this work and why they did it. As such it offers a companion of different style and scale to James C. Scott's masterful Seeing Like a State, which makes a similar point about reductionist system analytical planning but over a longer historical and geographical arc.

    It's a quick, fun read. New Yorkers especially should pick up to learn how their city evolved into what it is today and the long development of the city's racial and economic politic (which were unfortunately replicated around the country).

  6. says:

    This story of how a bunch of know-it-all nerds juggled some numbers and burned down the best parts of NYC filled me with rage. Flood -- a Bronx native -- tries for an evenhanded, no bad guys approach, but when there are overtly racist motivations at work he doesn't shy away from describing them. Although he is trying to simply be critical of certain approaches to governance and avoid conspiracy theory weirdness, I was left thinking that a bunch of bad people orchestrated a decades long ethnic cleansing program in my grandparents' neighborhood. Flood uses the oxymoron "free market" a little too often for me, but his general point feels right: that systems that gather knowledge and solutions from the bottom up and with an "entrepreneurial spirit" are less capable of large scale destruction than top-down grand planner hierarchies, and that both are prone to corruption.

    There is a warning here for all the people currently enamored with "big data" and "data mining" ... these mostly white boy tech-heads are just going to justify their racist and sexist garbage with a bunch of crap numbers they pulled out of their butts, claiming, "I am not racist, the computer says this is the right thing to do... and if it harms people of color... all the better..." well, sorry, but that's basically what happened when they let the Bronx burn and the same kinds of jerks are working on the same kind of evil today. But that's me, Flood is much more chilled out about the whole thing.

    I wanted to read this book because the fires and the fiscal crisis of 70s NYC are the context for true school hip hop and Fania salsa. But this is mostly about the planners and the jerks at RAND and the firefighters and not so much about the people of the Bronx... although the founders of hip hop get a mention in the conclusion.

  7. says:

    Alarming to think that the computer algorithms everyone is rightfully yelling about now were being used (with the same lack of nuance) as early as the 70s. Computers and statistics can only tell you what you’ve told them, and if the input is biased and racist, it follows that the results will be too.

    This book has a personal connection for me, describing as it does the burning of the Bronx and central Brooklyn. My dad’s family was composed of German immigrants who settled in Bushwick in the late 1800s and my great-grandmother was born at home there. She and her daughter (my dad’s aunt) were the last to leave, in 1978, as block after block was being literally decimated by fire. She died two months later. My great-grandfather, her husband, was a firefighter who died in the line of duty. At the 100th anniversary of his firehouse awhile back, we each received a booklet prepared for the occasion, full of pictures and statistics. You can see the number of fires that the company took on double between 1966 and 1967.

  8. says:

    Recently covered this topic on a PBS show which had me intrigued. This comprehensive book uses each chapter to explore a different facet f how this awful neglect and razing of a huge section of a major city could come to pass. Topics are the leadership in the fire department, the financial fashions governments were led to, the racism and racist policies, city planning ideas, and of course the new idea of using computer analysis that was supposed to make every thing more efficient. I was hoping for more of the latter form the title, but the one chapter that covered it was pretty good. There seems to be little talk of taking responsibility for fixing problems caused by governments' poorly executed ideas, or being certain to check on a safety net for the peoples affected,just the idea of voting officials out and continuing on with newer untried ideas.

  9. says:

    Reminiscent of Seeing Like a State.

  10. says:

    Another book about the Mayor Lindsay administration with a reference to "Good Intentions" in its title. In my review of Morris Cohen's book, "The Cost of Good Intentions," I mentioned that one of the few successes Cohen attributed to the Lindsay administration was its revamping of the fire department under the influence of RAND studies. Considering that significant parts of New York burned to the ground in the 1970s, Cohen probably should have been careful to play up even that claim.

    In this book Joe Flood investigates the RAND-influenced fire station closing policy implemented under Fire Chief and Commissioner John O'Hagen that clearly exacerbated the fires of that decade. Flood begins with a largely complimentary picture of O'Hagen, pointing to him as the origin of much contemporary fire-fighting technology (under his leadership, the NYFD was the first to use telescoping tower ladders that extended both up and over burning buildings, the first to use early "jaws of life" steel cutters to save trapped victims, and it used some of the first practical air-masks for fire-fighters. O'Hagen also conducted a study to prove that accelerants in cigarettes were the largest cause of preventable death in NYC, and he helped pass the pioneering Local Law 5 in 1972, which became the standard for building code safety ever-after). Yet Flood goes on to note that the RAND-NYC study of fire-response times, when used to condone cuts demanded by the city's fiscal situation, led to disproportionate closing of stations in the neediest areas (especially the Bronx and Bushwick) that led to fires getting out of control in what firefighters still call "the War Decade."

    Of course, as is typical in much contemporary journalism, Flood goes on to indict statistical models in general, and even veers further off tangent to discuss the shortcomings of President Bush and the War in Iraq. His facts, however, actually point to the problems with simple political applications of statistical models. For instance, the stopwatches used by the RAND researchers to measure response time were sabotaged by firefighters' unions worried about budget cuts. Likewise, in order to give the wealthy areas of the cities better response times, RAND divided the city into seven completely arbitrary "hazard categories," with the wealthiest getting more hypothetical stations. Commissioner O'Hagen also pushed the RAND researchers to find more cuts for "second stations" in dangerous areas where his union opponents were most powerful. In the end, the RAND-NYC study (which was later purchased by HUD and became the basis of many fire insurance maps) seems to be more the product of what Hayek called "scientism," a false scientific sheen laid upon fairly arbitrary assumptions.

    A lot of the book trods over familiar and often inaccurate territory (HOLC maps, urban renewal, Robert Moses), and does it in a pretty bland way. One cool takeaway though: arson probably never accounted for more than about 7% of all NYC fires in the 1970s, and those were often in buildings already abandoned because of other fires.