It’s got to be more often than annual that this happens, that I read a book and end up so jinxed and amazed by the thing that my world sort of stops. Most frustratingly, when I find myself falling into one of these books, I don’t read as much: I try to force the book slower, and so it means that I spend a whole week or two just staring down one book, taking little readerly nips (something like the same thing’s happening presently with the upcoming Lewis Hyde). The latest book to have coated me in its ambery, time-slowing glow is Joe Flood’s The Fires, which I’ll just go ahead and claim here, barely halfway through the year, as among 2010′s best book. I’d actually like to get behind it right now and just say it’s *the* best book—that’s how hard it is to imagine a better book anytime soon.
Let’s go forensic right off the bat: here’s a chunk of text from the book’s middle, and it contains several of the apsects that make reading Joe Flood such joy:
It was a perfect storm of blight for the Bronx. Redlining and clearance for highways and housing projects chased whites to the suburbs and further segregated the rising black and Puerto Rican populations. Rapid deindustrialization not only caused widespread unemployment and poverty, it changed the very character of (now non-) working-class New York. Men who had worked difficult, low-paying jobs to support their families suddenly found that they couldn’t even do that. Children who watched their fathers go to work—saw the money and respect they earned, internalized the value of work, learned the discipline themselves by selling papers, running errands, or stacking boxes in a nearby store—suddenly saw and experienced very little of that. Social services dealing with the symptoms of joblessness—like unemployment, welfare, and food stamps—surged. Local politicians, who in past decades had secured the support of the newest immigrants by supplying jobs, now turned to those social services as the only rewards they could bestow upon loyal voters.
Look, one doesn’t have to be a writer, or even much of a reader, to have a keen awareness of the monstrous difficulty involved in trying to carefully tease out all attendant threads in a story—narrative’s Rube Goldberg-ian, and just trying to get basic details straight, get clear messages sent through text, is exceptionally hard (If you need evidence: write down with 100% clarity what happened to you in the last 24 hours; now, write down why those things happened. Welcome to the rabbit hole). Look again at that paragraph above: in just more than 150 words Joe Flood’s sketched not just the city planning issues that knocked the Bronx to its knees, but the quick and attendant result of those issues, plus he’s just heartbreakingly elegantly planted the seed of what the future’s gonna hold because of those decisions. That’s Big-Picture socio-economic past, present, and future all in one paragraph; that’s damn near miraculous.
It’s not just that Joe Flood can adroitly break down to constituent-level the most difficult stories, it’s that he can do it so interestingly, so well. The Fires could be a companion or lead-up to Mahler’s achingly great Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx is Burning: Flood’s The Fires is about the bureaucratic decision-making processes that led to H. Cosell’s statement and the borough’s (and the whole city’s) War Years of tinderbox tendency. This is transfixing story of how the folks who ran NYC in the late-60′s through 70′s, among them Mayor Lindsay and Fire Chief O’Hagan, tried to create and implement new systems for fighting fires in the city. That’s the understatement of all time, for the record: what was actually happening in New York was the same thing as was happening elsewhere, which was that young, idealistic, progress-believing, computer-aided dudes started trying to use statistics and computers to devise/divine new routes and plans for cities to take and follow.
Another book that’d be a good readerly companion to The Fires? Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff. In all sorts of ways, the books both sketch the schism that formed post-WWII, the schisms that formed as young pencil-protector-sporting horn-rimmed guys moved into territory that’d, until then, been exclusively the terrain of older, gruffer dudes who relied on feel, instinct and history instead of numbers, data, and stream-lined programs.
What The Fires shows, heavily, in ways that make it occasionally tough to read, is, thankfully, not how dangerous data or modeling can be (meaning: this isn’t some oppositional screed), but how relying exclusively on statistical models is the same degree of wild hubris as relying purely on instinct, on feel. Most impressively, though, is how The Fires shows that the problems which led to NYC’s fires in the 1970′s had everything to do with information, specifically its lack. For instance: for all the statistical analysis O’Hagan and his RAND guys could run, they were woefully inexperienced with slum-building fires, those which ravaged buildings which, for instance, had been changed from the original structures in small but critical ways, but which changes hadn’t been registered or inspected.
The book’s subtitle—How a Computer Formula, Big Ideas, and the Best of Intentions Burned Down New York City—And Determined the Future of Cities—is shockingly fascinating, or should be for anyone with a do-gooder bent (maybe especially for those of us who went to liberal arts schools and have a propensity for social justice). The Fires is an excellently written and fascinating account of various modes of information—experiential vs. numbers-based—being deployed, with the very very best ideals and hopes possible, for the sake of making New York City better. Maybe this, last: the very best books, at least to me, are those which make me think every single other thing in the world somehow relates to them (yes, I’m absolutely one of those dorks who finds connections to DFWallace’s writing in just about everything, though ditto J. Graham and Richard Powers and Conover and the rest of the folks I huff and puff about here). And I’m presently 100% seeing everything through lenses tempered by The Fires. Please, please get behind this book: you owe it to yourself to read something this great, and we all owe it to our cities to read such riveting, fantastic history.
Joe Flood recently answered some questions over email as well, as follows:
In as broad and general a sense as possible: who are some writers who’ve influenced you? Or specific books? Or is there some specific here’s-how-J.Flood-got-into-writing-to-begin-with story? And, maybe more fun (and usually, strangely, more importantly), what’s your writing in dialogue with? (Cummings said his poems were competing with flowers and race cars or something; DFWallace talked about his nonfiction having to contend with Total Noise; is there some mental framework out of which you’re writing?)
Tough question, there are too many answers! In a lot of ways the most important books for me were Hardy Boys books, Jonathan Bellairs, Bunnicula, Matt Christopher sports novels, Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, the things I read as a kid. In high school and college I read a lot of short fiction, Raymond Carver and Sherman Alexie in particular, and Modernist lit, like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Joyce. I’m going to be reading from Ulysses for a pre-Bloomsday James Joyce event in a couple weeks with a lot of great Irish and Irish-American writers like Colum McCann and Pete Hamill—I’m simultaneously really excited and incredibly nervous. Over the last five or so years of working on my book though I’ve really focused on reading a lot of narrative non-fiction—Robert Caro, Jon Krakauer, Michael Lewis and Sebastian Junger are some of my favorites. And Urbanist thinkers like Marshall Berman and Jane Jacobs have had a huge influence on the way I view cities and other shared spaces.
In terms of what my writing competes with, I actually referenced your question during a Q&A I did after a reading. I think the biggest thing I try and do is get out of the way of the story. Over the seven or so years I spent researching and writing the book I really became obsessed with the story of the fires and New York in the 1970s. The characters and ideas and swirling influences and back stories and intellectual histories. I figured that if I could boil down and convey even a small part of that story for anyone reading the book, I’d have done my job. Obviously I’m the one choosing which anecdotes and quotes to use, which snippets from other writers and thinkers to incorporate, but I was just trying to keep things moving and stay out of the way. The same goes for the actual writing—I spend a lot of time re-reading out loud to myself, seeing where the words bottleneck themselves or where characters or events get obscured instead of revealed by the writing. That makes it doubly embarrassing when I’m doing readings and find some clunky phrase or poorly constructed sentence—I always think “that many revisions and you didn’t catch THIS?!” but that’s just part of trying to get better.
In the press-release materials for this book, you described the book’s genesis as one borne out of curiousity about the actual story—that you couldn’t find an account of the fires from that time period and so ended up having to write the story. I’m curious if you think there’s a difference in coming to the story out of a need to tell that specific story instead of looking around, as a writer, for a story/problem that hadn’t fully been covered.
Well, how you approach a story obviously affects the way you write (cue: Derrida, deconstructionism, and meta-history musings). But ultimately if the story is good and you have a decent sense of it, it’s the process of uncovering it that matters more than the way you originally found it.
I understand that this may be a horrifically unfair question, but have there been other cities which’ve suffered through something similar to what NYC suffered through? Not the fires, necessarily, but the tragic failure of a centralized root-based problem-solving system?
It’s almost impossible to find a single city that didn’t suffer from a top-down, root-approach to development during the 1950s-1970s. Chicago, Detroit, Boston, Baltimore, Minneapolis, Seattle, San Francisco and dozens more all had expressways laid down without much thought to how it would affect the local economy, had “slums” torn up and replaced with projects and other massive developments without much thought as to what had created the poverty of slums in the first place, or what the people who were evicted from their homes were supposed to do. And it’s not just the US, you look at cities like Brasilia, the Banlieue in Paris and even today with the slum clearance proposals on the table in places like Mumbai and you see the same process at work. Big ideas of carving up cities along supposedly Rationalist lines, claims of helping the poor based on some abstracted conception of poverty, not real understandings of what people want and need in their communities.
Having now spent so much time immersed in this stuff+subject, what have you gleaned as far as what should be done for cities? It seems clear that, by the end, the solution you come to is much more on the Jane Jacobs end of the spectrum (esp. if the other end of that spectrum is Moses), given that we’re living in a time of more and more centralized executive powers (at the federal level and in NYC esp [hello, extended Bloombergian period or Mayorship]).
I think the biggest conclusion I’ve come to about cities is that it’s incredibly easy to disrupt or destroy communities—and by communities I mean interdependent networks, be they social or economic or intellectual. I think Jane Jacobs’ analogy to the environment and how messing with a single species can have untold consequences on a whole ecosystem really holds up well here. Conversely, it’s difficult to use big public policy initiatives to rebuild fractured communities. How do you promote innovation, creativity and cohesion? It’s hard to say.
But I’m also a capitalist—I believe in free markets and their ability to solve problems. That’s not to say they shouldn’t be regulated or kept in check in some circumstances, but the idea behind free markets is that no government or group of experts can say for certain and always what people want and need—those are decisions better left up to small business owners, landlords, churches and community groups, local artists, consumers. Ideally, I think government tries to create situations where markets can operate freely, begrudgingly regulates them when they go astray, and stays out of the way.
This was the great irony of Robert Moses’ career. He was an ardent patriot, anti-communist and supporter of big business, and yet he wasn’t really a free marketer at all. He built projects where commercial life was outlawed, or confined to the spaces and functions he saw fit. He built business-free Jones Beach as an answer to the hurly-burly hucksterism of Coney Island. He gave massive subsidies to companies and industries he liked and bulldozed those he didn’t. He was deeply uncomfortable with confusion, complexity, anything that didn’t seem orderly or wasn’t devised by some panel of experts. The Jacobs-Moses argument is an old one, but I think that their true feelings on capitalism are sometimes forgotten. Jacobs may have been the Greenwich Village liberal and Moses the uptown corporate boardroom type, but it was Jacobs who was the free marketer and Moses the big government socialist.
Are you a sports fan? Specifically a Red Sox fan? And, if so, how’d you end up writing about yr team’s hated rival without growling every day? (I’m a Twins fan, so I’m not asking out of any personal stakes at all)
Hah, yeah I’m a huge sports fan and specifically a Boston fan. I will say, the fact that the Sox won the World Series in ‘04 and ‘07 and the Pats and Celtics have been so good made it a lot easier to live in the Bronx and write about New York. If I’d been forced to carry around the chip I had on my shoulder after all those decades of Bucky Dent and Aaron Boone I’m not sure what I would have done…On a side note, I used to walk from my place on 139th Street to Yankee Stadium in a Sox jersey whenever Boston was in town and never had any trouble. Usually I wore a Manny Ramirez t-shirt underneath the jersey though, people still have love for the boy from Washington Heights.
This is somewhat sports-related, actually: in the last, what, 15 years, there’s been the huge rise of Sabermetrics; B.James+Co are trying to find new ways to analyze data more accurately. It seems like there’s room for a shift like that in city planning stuff: new ways to use empirical, quantifiable data to show the value of, say, more mixed-use stuff, higher density, etc. This may get too into the wonky side of city planning, but the real tragedy of THE FIRES is that the best-intentioned, fully-number-stocked folks so badly bungled things. The question is: could well-intentioned number-stocked folks not bungle things, if they had different/other numbers?
To start with, I’d say there isn’t a single aspect of city-life that’s as easy to quantify as baseball. Baseball is all discrete relationships: a pitch results in a finite number of possible outcomes which can be broken down and analyzed with (relative) ease. The real world is so much more complicated than that–changing a traffic pattern or re-zoning a neighborhood has so many potential outcomes that you can’t apply the same type of reductive calculus to it. This is the problem Wall Street has run into. A few months ago I interviewed Michael Lewis for AI5000, a financial magazine where I’m the Editor-at-Large, and he said that his newest book about the financial crisis is really the story of Moneyball gone wrong. Statistical analysis can be done really well, but too often the models and numbers go from being a tool to produce more rigorous and better thinking to an excuse for not thinking. “Moody’s rated those mortgage bonds AAA, don’t bother investigating them…Our risk models say there’s no way we can lose by providing insurance on all these credit default swaps, it’ll be fine…” that kind of thing. There are great things to be done with statistics in city planning and a host of other fields, but only by people who are willing to delve into the complexities of what they’re trying to quantify, and have the humility to study and understand how the metrics sometimes come up short.
Just as someone who is now a pretty massive fan of your work: do you have any idea of what you’ll be writing (toward) next? Your work seems awesomely immersive: the man-hours of research to prop this book must’ve been staggering. Have you got any sense of what you’d like next to do?
For the next few months I’m really just focused on promoting the book and writing magazine and newspaper pieces. As you said, I like really delving into a subject and the next book will probably be a big long research project like this one. I can say it probably won’t be as city-focused, right now I’m splitting my time between New York and a really rural part of South Dakota on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation—a lot more cows and horses out there than stop lights and subway cars.
What’s the view out your window?
Gray skies! It’s Memorial Day evening and it feels like the heat has kicked up a little thunderstorm.
(Last thing: there’s a phenomenal interview, plus a really incredible RAND-employee rebuttal in the comments, here)