Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Fires by Joe Flood

At this point I've read a lot of books about the history of New York City, so much of the content of this book was nothing new to me (in fact, I recognized a lot of the material cited from Robert Caro's The Power Broker and Jane Jacobs' The Death and Life of Great American Cities). However, its main thesis was rather unique--that the majority of the fires ravaging parts of the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Manhattan in the '70s were caused by a flawed computer model, and not greedy landlords hoping to collect insurance money. In the '60s Mayor Lindsay teamed up with the RAND corporation, a think tank established to provide research and analysis to the U.S. army, to develop a way to govern the city more efficiently and statistically, starting with the fire department. But their methods were deeply flawed, resulting in severely reduced service in the neighborhoods that needed it desperately and new stations opening in sleepy suburban areas that really didn't need them at all. Added to that were lax building codes--it seems like most of the serious fires detailed in the book were made far worse because of illegal constructions the FDNY was unaware of--and firefighters' lack of proper training on how to approach a truss-style building.

The Fires doesn't really succeed much in painting a vivid picture of what conditions were like in the fire-ravaged neighborhoods. But maybe that's not really the point of the book. I'd never heard of the RAND corporation before, and found those aspects of the book to be pretty interesting.