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The Fires: How a Computer Formula, Big Ideas, and the Best of Intentions Burned Down New York City-and Determined the Future of Cities Hardcover – Bargain Price, May 27, 2010

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Amazon Best Books of the Month, May 2010: As Howard Cosell announced to a national television audience in 1977, the Bronx was indeed burning, as it did throughout the decade, displacing hundreds of thousands of residents and turning acres of city blocks into ghost towns. But why? The usual suspect was arson, by greedy slumlords encouraged by wrong-headed welfare schemes, but in his first book, The Fires, Joe Flood tells a different story. Tracing the history of the New York fire department, and especially the career of one of its most dynamic and dominant leaders, Chief John O'Hagan, he argues convincingly that the borough burned because the firefighters left, pulled away by department planners who claimed their computer efficiency formulas could do more by spending less. Writing a Best and the Brightest for the urban crisis, Flood takes you on a harrowing ladder-level tour of city firefighting, while performing the more difficult feat of making intellectual and bureaucratic history just as fascinating and dramatic. --Tom Nissley

Author Q&A with Joe Flood

Joe Flood is a journalist who has spent years researching the facts and implications of the epidemic of fires that swept through New York City in the 1970s.

Joe Flood

Q: The subtitle of your book is “How a Computer Formula, Big Ideas, and the Best of Intentions Burned Down New York City – and Determined the Future of Cities.” That’s quite a mouthful! What gives this story such broad and lasting significance?

A: Yeah, that’s sort of the joke—it took me five years to research and write the book, and about 4 years and 11 months before we settled on a subtitle. It is a mouthful but we were trying to figure out something that gave a sense of the different areas the book hits on. At heart it’s a narrative about a city that was burning down and going bankrupt and the men and women of the fire department, city government and burning neighborhoods that dealt with those fires. But to tell that story I needed to dig into all kinds of other fields. Urban planning, economics, the history of computer modeling, political reform movements. The fires were the result of a swirling confluence of things and I figured the title should reflect that—even if it is a mouthful!

Q: Are the number crunchers the bad guys?

A: In a lot of ways the whole point of the books is that there are no ‘bad’ guys. There’s an old line attributed to Napoleon to the effect that when something goes wrong it’s more likely to be caused by incompetence than malice. And with the fires, almost everyone involved really wanted to do good (hence the “best of intentions” part of the subtitle). But that said, the number crunchers made mistakes—understandable mistakes, but ones with serious real world consequences which they still refuse to acknowledge. To this day RAND analysts say that there is nothing wrong with a model that says traffic has no impact on how quickly a fire company can respond to a fire. When I do readings or mention that to people—particularly anyone who has ever been to New York—they laugh. Of course traffic affects how quickly you drive through city streets. But that’s one of the problems with modeling the real world—there are so many variables at play that it’s almost impossible to factor everything in.

Q: Who are the heroes?

A: Certainly the firefighters who dealt with the burnout. For all the politics and bureaucracy and big ideas I write about in the book, at the end of the days it’s the firefighters who were risking their lives to save people. And not just risking their lives at the time. The fires weren’t that long ago, 30-40 years, and yet you talk to firefighters from that time and so many of their friends are now gone. Heart attacks, lung cancer, emphysema, strokes—the consequences of years spent sucking smoke night after night.

And the other heroes of course are the people who lived in burned out areas like the South Bronx and Harlem. Not just for suffering through that period, but more importantly for rebuilding. Churches, community groups, housing programs and just average people have rebuilt housing and businesses. New York is a place of vitality and constant change, and they brought that back to communities that were left for dead by most of the experts and academics and politicians and planners.

Q: Did the number crunchers triumph? Who or what drives government today?

A: Well you know the old saying, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Ultimately government today is driven by the same competing factors it’s always been driven by—money, power, altruism, self-interest. What’s changed though are the tools we use to express those drives. More and more we rely on technocrats to make decisions for us. Congress waited on pins and needles for the Congressional Budget Office to project how much Obama’s healthcare bill would cost or save the government before voting on it; economists and bureaucrats dole out billions in bailout money here and abroad based on a handful of studies and projections; management consultants and budget commissions are coming up with ways to save money and cut services; experts in highly technical fields which the public has little to no understanding of determine the likelihood of an oil rig failing or a terror threat occurring. So in that sense yes, the number-crunchers—whether they are Wall Street quantitative modelers or government accountants or high-flying economists—really do control a lot of power despite their checkered history.

Q: At a moment when not only New York City but many state and local governments are once again in fiscal crisis, what does your book tell us about how to tighten the belt without once again courting disaster?

I think it’s all about balancing the power and strengths that centralized technocrats and efficiency experts have with the more local knowledge of people who actually live and work in the places that will be affected by cuts. I’m not saying you can’t have budget cuts—for decades now this country has refused to either cut services or raise the tax revenue needed to pay for them, and it’s about time we faced up to that fact. But sometimes cutting certain programs can be more expensive than leaving them intact. I read an article the other day about city and state-funded day care programs that are being shut down, and a lot of single moms who are having to cut back on working, and in turn are relying more on food stamps, welfare and other government programs. That’s a great example of a budget cut that looks good on paper, but ends up costing more in the long, and even in the short-run. I’d also say that when it comes to cutting budgets, more attention needs to be paid to savings made by cutting fancy programs and upper-level management. The FDNY right now is looking at closing as many as twenty fire companies for a savings of about $30-$40 million dollars. But no one has said a word about cutting the billions being spent on fancy new computer and communications technology, or the ranks of expensive, upper-echelon chiefs and advisers at fire department headquarters. But those with the gold make the rules…

Q: What are the pitfalls of a “city in crisis” narrative like the one that captured Mayor Lindsay in the 1970s? How do we avoid falling prey to it as we face hard times?

A: Any time a politician runs a campaign based on the idea that a city, state or country is “in crisis,” he or she is going to have a tough time transitioning from campaigning to governing. People in crises have to make snap-judgment decisions, they have to think in the short-term, they can’t afford to be thoughtful or circumspect or even empathetic. That’s not a good way to run a government. It makes us feel important to run around saying we’re in a crisis, that the world is changing forever, that this is the first or last time people have faced the challenges we face today. But it’s usually not true, and more importantly, it’s almost never helpful to have such a self-centered approach to politics. Obviously crises occur and they need to be dealt with—be it anything from the Depression and World War II to Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill hashing out a social security compromise to the BP oil spill in the Gulf. But history is very long, and any government that wants to be around for much of it should worry more about producing quiet results than about hyping the latest crisis.

Q: This is a meticulously researched book that required a lot of old-fashioned reporting. What’s the most surprising thing you uncovered?

The most surprising thing was just how big the disconnect is between the people who make decisions, those who carry them out, and those affected by the consequences of those decisions. This isn’t really surprising, we all know there’s an information and experience gap there. But it really brought things home for me to take an issue or event in the book and ask people from different backgrounds and perspectives to talk about it and see how broad the reactions were. It’s a reminder of how hard governing can be—the way a policy looks on paper and the way it is actually implemented and plays out can be so different.


"Flood casts a wide net, looking into New York machine politics, the development of systems analysis, the dynamics of urban growth and an array of unexpected byways... a riveting look inside one of the most challenging eras of recent NYC history. Important reading for anyone who cares about cities and how they are governed."
-Kirkus Reviews

"[Flood's] compelling research resonates in another era of budget-cutting and data-driven decision-making."
-The New York Times

""Flood's book, an account of the fire epidemic that ravaged the city in the 1970s, traces the history of well-intended government intervention that, the author claims, inadvertently fanned the flames of an era that FDNY veterans still call "The War Years." The period has a certain eerie connection to the present day: a technocratic mayor closing firehouses amid massive budget cuts while the local economy stagnates. ... The story warns against the risks inherent in even the best-intended reformist plans."
-The Wall Street Journal

"It's comforting to believe that science, technology, and intellectual rigor can solve the world's ills. In The Fires, Joe Flood pierces that progressive certainty by exhaustively researching a long-forgotten period of New York's history-when algorithms helped the city's smartest leaders let the city burn. Flood's book reads like the best fiction, but is all the more important for its depiction of a real-life metropolitan tragedy."
-Farhad Manjoo, Slate's technology columnist and the author of True Enough

"The Fires is a gripping story of human tragedy and intellectual hubris that casts important new light on one of the most extraordinary episodes in the history of urban living. A cross between The Power Broker and The Wire, The Fires gives us crucial answers to a big question: how do cities fail?"
-Steven Johnson, author of Everything Bad is Good for You and The Ghost Map

"I arrived in the South Bronx as a young firefighter in 1970. The enormity of the devastation was overwhelming. The fact that the city kept burning, despite the dedication of my fellow firefighters, seemed to defy logical explanation. Joe Flood has done an outstanding job making sense out of the chaos, showing the forces that were permanently reshaping New York-starting with the Fire Department-as it headed for the triumphs and tragedies of the 21st century."
-Thomas Von Essen, Former New York City Fire Commissioner (1996-2002) and author of Strong of Heart

"In a novel, fascinating manner, Joe Flood uses the NYC Fire Department as the anvil on which to hammer out the events between 1965 and 1977 that led to the city's collapse and changed the way we run big cities. Although already familiar with what occurred-not only did I live through it, but I inherited it when I became Mayor-I was enthralled by Flood's spectacular and insightful account."
-Ed Koch, former Mayor of New York City

"In a story that reads like an epic novel, Joe Flood illustrates for us just how our greatest city declined and completely fell apart forty years ago, at the hands of a managing elite who believed they could plan, organize, and control a city by studying computer trends and implementing lofty plans. Our leaders, from Barack Obama to Michael Bloomberg, have much to gain from reading The Fires, and the rest of us have much to lose if we do not read this enlightening and erudite book, for we are on the brink of letting this history repeat itself."
-Dennis Smith, author of Report from Engine Co. 82 and Report from Ground Zero

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Hardcover (May 27, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594488983
  • ASIN: B004J8HXYK
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.2 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (24 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,678,743 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Andrew Martin on June 2, 2010
Format: Hardcover
Ask a New Yorker on the street why the South Bronx burned in the 70's, and you might get "arson." The conventional wisdom in the volumes on the New York table at the Strand tell only a slightly more complicated story - one of Robert Moses and "One Mile" of the Cross Bronx Expressway, tearing through the beating heart of a beating borough.

Joe Flood's book covers that ground, but what emerges is a much more interesting (and complete) take on an iconic era of New York history - a failure of ideology and planning, where decision makers and policy choices bear the lion's share of the blame. And while The Fires makes it clear that Lindsay's city hall was dealt a challenging hand, it's hard to chalk up the obliteration of entire neighborhoods in the Bronx simply to impersonal forces like 'de-industrialization' after weighing the evidence Flood has collected. The burning of the South Bronx is recast as an avoidable tragedy, and it's hard to read Flood's book without imagining what might have been.

The Fires is well argued and engaging, and nicely complemented by photographs from the Fire department archives. The geographer in me wishes for a map or two, and readers who are completely unfamiliar with New York City might get lost in some of the references, but these are minor quibbles indeed.

Flood's cautionary tale of the catastrophic consequences of blind allegiance to mathematical models resonates all to strongly with today's front pages. If there is any justice in the world, expect to see paperback copies of The Fires appearing on the front table of your local Barnes & Noble months from now.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Lancer on June 1, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Joe Flood's book The Fires should do be read along with The Power Broker. Doing so would give anyone interested in the history and politics of New york City an unbroken look at almost 100 years of decision making...both successes and failures. Mr. Flood has taken little known names with important contributions to the City, and turned them into lessons for students of government, and almost any area of management. Characters who start out with the best goals and integrity are undone by their own ideals. Flood shows us that there is no one right way to improve our society and teaches us once again that no one has a monopoly on good ideas. Computer models have their place but so, too, do the experience of real people whther they be firefighters or politicians. When a leader puts too much faith in only one aspect of knowledge, the results can be heart-breaking. Chief O'Hagen represents a modern day Greek hero, raised to great heights, and struck down by his own hubris. While I think Mr. Flood relied on some of his sources too heavily, there is little to quibble about. This is a book that should be required reading for all city managers and urban professionals.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Daniel R. Rasmussen on June 22, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Joe Flood hsa an incredible voice - combining an earthy vernacular, polymathic references to literature and history, and a real ear for great and evocative quotations. Every chapter ended with a great cliffhanger that made the book really move and kept me as the reader charging forward. This is non-fiction at its best - richly written, dramatic, and with characters that rival any novel.

I was fascinated (and shocked) to read the story of how the city-planning elite systematically destroyed whole neighborhoods in New York pursuit of their own vision of how a city should look. Yet this is no polemic: Flood shows how smart people with good intentions were blinded by their own biases and caught in their own politics and completely lost touch both with common sense and the true heart of the neighborhoods they analyzed. Flood tells this story best through O'Hagan himself - his rise to power, his politicking, his change from uniform to a suit, and ultimately the double edged sword of his technocratic bureacracy.

Flood manages to both provoke and excite the reader with the perfect mix of intellectual insight and straight good storytelling. A must read.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Fire Marshal Jack on June 24, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Being in the field of fire investigation, and having worked with various NYC Fire Marshals over the years, including during certain of the times in the Book, I was rather shocked to finally see in print what many suspected was occuring "back then". There was an increase in the area of "fire investigation", which typically may indicate more "arsons" being detected, but the continuing $$ cutbacks and the seeming lack of concern over the FD closings and relocations, just added to the overall problem. Sure, there were increases in "arson", but the "normal" expected fires in a city this size were able to, many times, overpower the decreased FD responses. The author really has addressed the problem with full details. Whether the reader is in the "fire service" or not, this is a fantastic opportunity to view how and why a city "burned". Further, the cutbacks, decreases in municipal services, and elimination of fire stations mirrors what is currently happening with the fire service across the country TODAY! I urge the reader not to get overwhelmed with some of the involved details, rather,take the time to fully understand just how and why this scenario occurred, and the angst of those, "in the field", who had to cope with it. GREAT reading!
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