It’s one thing to say “that politician closed that firehouse.” It’s another to say “science closed that firehouse.”
Game 2 of the 1977 World Series was a bit of a blowout, with the Los Angeles Dodgers jumping to an early lead and eventually beating the New York Yankees 6-1. While the action on the field may not have captured its attention, the audience watching from home was witness to a piece of broadcasting history. A few hours before the first pitch, a large fire had broken out in an abandoned school near Yankee Stadium. As flames engulfed the building, not a firetruck in sight, legend has it that Howard Cosell uttered one of his most memorable phrases: “There it is, ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is burning.”
It’s a powerful and enduring collective memory, and it almost doesn’t matter that Cosell never actually uttered those words.1 It was the nation’s glimpse into a time when the Bronx — and many other parts of New York City — were decimated by fire.
Between 1970 and 1980, seven census tracts in the Bronx lost more than 97 percent of their buildings to fire and abandonment. Forty-four tracts lost more than half. The results were staggering — blocks and blocks of rubble.
At the time, the prevailing narrative was that many of the fires were due to arson — either by slumlords looking to collect insurance money or tenants looking to take advantage of a housing law that prioritized victims of fire for subsidies.
But in his book “The Fires,” Joe Flood2 lays the blame on something else — a misguided “best and brightest” effort by New York City to increase government efficiency. With the help of the Rand Corp., the city tried to measure fire response times, identify redundancies in service, and close or re-allocate fire stations accordingly. What resulted, though, was a perfect storm of bad data: The methodology was flawed, the analysis was rife with biases, and the results were interpreted in a way that stacked the deck against poorer neighborhoods. The slower response times allowed smaller fires to rage uncontrolled in the city’s most vulnerable communities.
On this week’s episode of our podcast What’s The Point, Flood tells the story of the fires and what happens when data and urban policy intersect, affecting people’s lives.
Stream or download the full episode above, and find a video and partial transcript below. Flood also hosts his own podcast, “Numbers and Narrative,” and you can listen to an excerpt below.
Audio extra: Flood discusses why fire response time matters so much. Find the clip on Dropbox.
Video: When the Bronx burned
How the FDNY algorithm affected poorer neighborhoods
Jody Avirgan: How much is race and class a factor here?
Joe Flood: This is a period of time where the old Democratic machine model of politics in New York, and really any major city, really falls apart. Traditionally, Tammany Hall and the Democratic machine took in all the poor newcomers [to New York City]. Famously, Tammany Hall did not do this with non-white newcomers. Through the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, the city had a really serious influx of black and Puerto Rican residents, and Tammany Hall did not incorporate them in the way they did with Jewish, Italian, Irish [communities]. So the traditional political power models had fallen apart in these neighborhoods and had not been built back up again. So you don’t have these effective longtime civil servant and city council members and people like that that can actually stand there and say, “What are you doing? You can’t cut services in my neighborhood.”
Avirgan: Was racial and class bias built into the algorithm that [dictated] closing firehouses in these neighborhoods? Or was it just that when the algorithm made suggestions, that’s when there weren’t people to advocate for themselves?
Flood: It’s a little bit of both. I think that, to some extent, the algorithms show a lack of understanding of the dynamics in these really dense and poor neighborhoods: what firefighting actually meant, what landlords and building inspections really meant in these neighborhoods, versus in nice Manhattan neighborhoods where these [politicians] were living or had grown up. So that’s part of it. But one of the lead chiefs who ran the Fire Department statistical operations group told me in an interview, “Yeah, when we get the recommendations of which firehouses to cut, sometimes you get one that would be down the block from where a judge lived or it would be in a powerful city councilman’s district. We would skip that one and move down the list.” Where they knew they were going to get pushback, they actively did not cut in those places. So, naturally, it goes through places where they are poorer, less powerful, more disenfranchised.
“Numbers and Narrative”
This one-minute highlight from Flood’s podcast is from his conversation with physicist Yaneer Bar Yam, founder of the New England Complex Systems Institute, about complex system mathematics and how it is used to fight diseases like Ebola.
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