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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 – 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.
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'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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The desires of the Chief to succeed in difficult economic times forces his hand in trying unique ways to deliver service and the union trying to keep firefighters working the traditional schedule results in additional conflict. The citizens loose as they wouldn't work together.
...if you are interested in government and reality, it offers no easy answers but looks at very tough realities. Especially, the idea that technocrats should be brought into government and turned loose.
...if you are at all involved in big data, this is a clarion call warning about the huge errors that come from trusting the simplifications that always come from data analysis.
...if you are in business, this offers a reality check on some of the most common approaches taught as "best practices" in business school without cautions on their limitations. Especially...data based continual improvement programs like Six Sigma.
The author offers no easy answers. And he carefully sidesteps ideology.
Sadly, this may mean this book will never get the wide readership it deserves. But that's also what makes it such an important book.
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.
Flood's tale starts with the tragic Waldbaum's fire and the 23rd Street collapse, but looks at the broader history of New York as well, including looks at the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire (arguably the gensis of FDR's "New Deal"), Tammany Hall (the old Democratic machine) and racial and cultural developments in the city.
For a student of fire history, public management, urban planning, or politics in general, this should be a must-read.
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