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The Fires: How a Computer Formula Burned Down New York City--and Determined the Future of American Cities
     

The Fires: How a Computer Formula Burned Down New York City--and Determined the Future of American Cities

3.3 3
by Joe Flood
 

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New York City, 1968. The RAND Corporation had presented an alluring proposal to a city on the brink of economic collapse: Using RAND's computer models, which had been successfully implemented in high-level military operations, the city could save millions of dollars by establishing more efficient public services. The RAND boys were the best and brightest, and

Overview

New York City, 1968. The RAND Corporation had presented an alluring proposal to a city on the brink of economic collapse: Using RAND's computer models, which had been successfully implemented in high-level military operations, the city could save millions of dollars by establishing more efficient public services. The RAND boys were the best and brightest, and bore all the sheen of modern American success. New York City, on the other hand, seemed old-fashioned, insular, and corrupt-and the new mayor was eager for outside help, especially something as innovative and infallible as "computer modeling." A deal was struck: RAND would begin its first major civilian effort with the FDNY.

Over the next decade-a time New York City firefighters would refer to as "The War Years"-a series of fires swept through the South Bronx, the Lower East Side, Harlem, and Brooklyn, gutting whole neighborhoods, killing more than two thousand people and displacing hundreds of thousands. Conventional wisdom would blame arson, but these fires were the result of something altogether different: the intentional withdrawal of fire protection from the city's poorest neighborhoods-all based on RAND's computer modeling systems.

Despite the disastrous consequences, New York City in the 1970s set the template for how a modern city functions-both literally, as RAND sold its computer models to cities across the country, and systematically, as a new wave of technocratic decision-making took hold, which persists to this day. In The Fires, Joe Flood provides an X-ray of these inner workings, using the dramatic story of a pair of mayors, an ambitious fire commissioner, and an even more ambitious think tank to illuminate the patterns and formulas that are now inextricably woven into the very fabric of contemporary urban life. The Fires is a must read for anyone curious about how a modern city works.

Editorial Reviews

Throughout the 1970s, fires lit up the skies of New York. Blazes sweeping through the South Bronx, the Lower East Side, Harlem, and Brooklyn, displaced more than 600,000 people; killed over 2,500 civilians and hundreds of firemen. There were whispered rumors of arson, but the truth was far more frightening: A RAND Corporation computer model designed to streamline public services was drawing fire protection from New York's poorest neighborhoods. (Hand-selling tip: Before you consign this book to old NYC history, consider this: RAND sold their computer models to cities across the country and the system remains in use in New York and numerous other locales.)

Kirkus Reviews
A Bronx-based journalist examines the epidemic of fires that swept New York City in the 1960s and '70s. Flood focuses on John O'Hagan, the fire commissioner who presided over the worst of "the Wars," as the era is known in FDNY lore. Ambitious and self-educated, O'Hagan came up from the ranks to become the youngest chief in the department's history. When reformer John Lindsay was elected mayor in 1966, O'Hagan, who strongly believed in the use of statistics and systems analysis to organize the department, became one of his leading allies. The new mayor sought the advice of the RAND Corporation, the legendary think tank that had made its reputation analyzing nuclear warfare for the Air Force. On the surface, it was a perfect alliance. RAND needed new clients, Lindsay needed a blueprint for rational government and O'Hagan needed support for his ideas for making firefighting a scientific discipline. But as Flood shows, the reformers' characteristic weakness was a lack of the local knowledge that had been the bread and butter of the machine politicians they had ousted. The author writes that harried fire captains, given stopwatches to time how long it took their men to reach a fire scene, often lost or broke them, then submitted figures they thought made them look good. RAND whiz kids used simplified formulas to analyze the flawed data they received. O'Hagan, eager to help Lindsay cut the city's bloated budget, used the RAND results to close down firehouses he already "knew" were underperforming-which often turned out to be the ones where union leaders were based. Flood casts a wide net, looking into New York machine politics, the development of systems analysis, the dynamics of urban growthand an array of unexpected byways of NYC history. While his conclusions perhaps go to far in generalizing from the excesses of Lindsay and RAND to condemn liberal reformers as a group, Flood provides 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781594488986
Publisher:
Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
Publication date:
05/27/2010
Pages:
336
Product dimensions:
6.20(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.30(d)
Age Range:
18 - 17 Years

What People are Saying About This

Thomas Von Essen
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)
Dennis Smith
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)
Ed Koch
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)
Steven Johnson
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)

Meet the Author

Joe Flood is a journalist who has spent the last seven years—since before he graduated from Harvard—researching the facts and implications of the epidemic of fires that swept through New York City in the 1970s. He has worked for DoubleTake Magazine, and The New York Sun, and is the co-editor of the "definitive" anthology Resistance: A Political History of the Lower East Side.

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Fires: How a Computer Formula Burned Down New York City--and Determined the Future of American Cities 3.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
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Seerpaw finds a nest near the back and claims it.