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Who is harmed most by Bronx fires

Wmc Fbomb Bronx Fire Pixabay 1718

Growing up in the Bronx, it was clear that the borough hadn’t been, wasn’t, and perhaps never will be a priority for New York City officials. The Bronx is a bustling community of many first-generation immigrants from places like the Dominican Republic, Nigeria, and Jamaica.Their journey through the idiosyncrasies of making their life work in America, however, is marked by low incomes: the median household incomes are still some of the lowest in New York City, and schools in the borough have long been underfunded.

But even more than poverty, the one thing that characterized my childhood in the Bronx has been fire. I remember reading about the Bronx burning in the 1970s, when landlords and bureaucrats burned buildings as a scheme to cash in on their insurance — further displacing Black and Brown people in the area.

When I was young, my entire Bronx apartment building had to be evacuated due to a fire. The firefighters were very vague about the entire situation, but apparently some underground wiring had heated up and they believed there was a possibility the building would blow up. I remember my mother scrambling to find all of our legal documents as I grabbed the one thing I wanted to save: my piggy bank. When we got outside, dozens of my neighbors were already standing there, waiting for the firefighters who had swarmed our building and banged on all of our doors to give us instructions. Most of the residents were immigrants who would have to go to work the next day, regardless of surviving a fire. “False alarm,” the firefighters eventually said. Everyone went back into the building and resumed their daily routines.

Later, my family’s favorite 99 cent store burned down, along with the fruit stand next to it. A few years later, a men’s formal wear store on the same block burned down, followed by another 99 cent store two blocks away from it. This past summer, one block away from my apartment, three houses burned down. Some of the residents were killed in the process. One retired Bronx firefighter who worked during the fires of the 1970s, Tom Henderson, recalled, “The smell is one thing I remember. That smell of burning — it was always there, through the whole borough almost.” Indeed, the smell of burning hasn’t gone away — it lingers over the heads of Bronx residents every day.

The most recent tragedy is being called the “deadliest” fire in all of New York City in almost 25 years. On December 28, 2017, a Bronx apartment fire killed 12 people, the youngest of whom was a one-year-old child. The building that burned down is thought to have many safety code violations, one of which was a defective smoke detector on the floor where the fire started.

While tragedies like this one have textured the history of Bronx, affecting the lives of its residents, it still seems likely that those 12 deaths were preventable — that they might still be alive had they not lived in an ill-kept apartment building. There are many buildings throughout the Bronx that are particularly overpriced given their violations of health and safety codes — violations that receive little oversight and little intervention from city officials.

These deaths also reflect broader feelings within the community that officials both within the borough and in the larger city government recklessly neglected and indolently inflicted abuse on Bronx residents for years. It’s no coincidence that earlier this year a number of Bronx residents through the South Bronx Tenants Movement protested deplorable living conditions including mold, a roach infestation, and leaking water pipes. These complaints echoed those from years past: a Google search of “Bronx residents protest building conditions” brings up articles that highlight the efforts of residents to protest their living conditions dating back as far as 2009. Residents of my own building have endured countless freezing winter nights because our landlord didn’t feel like turning on the heat. Many times, residents have not been able to find anyone to complain to — or at least no one who will listen to their complaints.

In the New York Times coverage of the recent, deadliest Bronx fire, a woman said she had to leave babies behind in the fire because she could not carry any more babies than the ones she was already carrying.

Five days after this fire, on January 2, another fire ripped through an apartment building in the Bronx, injuring 23 people. Seven of those people were children.

These stories, these facts, alone should not only galvanize officials to step up and do more for the borough, but also make them writhe in shame. If the deaths of innocent babies and injuries of children are not enough to get the city to do something, to actually care for once, I don’t know what will be.



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Roberta Nin Feliz
WMC Fbomb Editorial Board Member
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