The Celebs Who Attended the #BronxIsBurning Party Need a History Lesson

Last Thursday, A-list celebrities flocked to a poverty-themed party in the South Bronx, where, at the behest of two Manhattan real estate developers, they were urged to spread the #BronxisBurning hashtag while posing beside icons of urban blight—ya know, like poor people did before we solved income inequality.

Fit with swanky bullet-ridden cars and trash can fires, the rave offered a chic take on traditionally frumpy issues like abject poverty, cultural erasure, and bureaucratic neglect. Guests included Kendall Jenner, Adrien Brody, Naomi Campbell, Gigi Hadid, and Baz Luhrmann, who all came out for the cause of luxury real estate development and neighborhood rebranding.

via Twitter

via Twitter user @ProjectBronx

Via Twitter

Via Twitter user @Reesito

Seriously though, who could’ve thought this was a good idea?

Well, real estate moguls, apparently. The event was hosted by Keith Rubenstein, head of development for Somerset Partners, who recently signed a $58 million deal with the Cherit Group to build two luxury towers on the South Bronx waterfront. Those developers are already in hot water for a recent billboard, which unveiled plans to rechristen the South Bronx as the “Piano District.”

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via Twitter user @Eddie_Small

“We’re developing about 2,000 apartments along the waterfront in the South Bronx,” Rubenstein tells WWD. “Tonight is an amazing opportunity to introduce a whole new world to the South Bronx, and celebrate its heritage.” Not everyone is thrilled about the one-percent’s introduction to the ‘area formerly known as the South Bronx,’ as City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito makes clear in astring of tweets:

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It’s worth noting that the “lack of basic awareness” mentioned here is not just an issue among the tone-deaf developers and celebs. Few of us bother to fact-check the narrative we’ve ascribed to the Bronx of the 1970s—memorialized by Howard Cosell’s announcement in the 1977 World Series, following broadcast footage of an abandoned schoolhouse ablaze: “Ladies and Gentleman, the Bronx is burning.”

Though it’s unsure if Cosell ever actually said this, the truth is that the Bronx was burning. During the 1970s, seven census tracts in the borough saw more than 97% of their buildings decimated by fire and desertion. Out of 289 tracts, forty-four lost over half.

But the notion—by now seared into our collective memory—that most of these fires were caused by hoodlums and insurance-scamming arsonists is a gross misreading of the real history. As journalist and author Joe Flood writes, “Hoodlums didn’t burn The Bronx. The bureaucrats did.”

In his book The FiresFlood describes the colossal failure of a joint effort by Mayor John V. Lindsay and the New York City-RAND Institute, a group of computers experts hired to save the city money through data-driven modeling. Seeking to close a ballooning budget gap, the mayor’s office tasked the group with determining which fire companies could be cut.But, as Flood explained in a column for the New York Post, the supposedly iron-clad data was full of errors:

One [model] assumed that fire companies were always available to respond to fires from their firehouse — true enough on Staten Island, but a rarity in places like The Bronx, where every company in a neighborhood, sometimes in the entire borough, could be out fighting fires at the same time. Numerous corners were cut, with RAND reports routinely dismissing crucial legwork as ‘too laborious,’ and analysts writing that data discrepancies could ‘be ignored for many planning purposes.’

Worse still, adoption of the models’ recommendations were governed by political interests—read: racism—that placed the majority of the cuts in underrepresented neighborhoods. Never wanting to offend the wealthy and politically active, one RAND member recalls, “If the models came back saying one thing and [Fire Chief John O’Hagan] didn’t like it, he would make you run it again and check, run it again and check.”
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In all, the group shuttered 50 fire units, cut inspections by 70%, closed the fire marshall program, and left an unknowable number of safety hazards unchecked. The result was a large scale burnout throughout the Bronx that reduced neighborhoods to rubble while taking the lives of so many.

More on the history of the city’s failed fire prevention efforts can be heard in FiveThirtyEight’s interview of Joe Flood, which happened to take place just hours before Thursday’s ill-advised party. And to all those who were attendance: Your hashtag is bullshit, in more ways than one.

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