Vivian grew up as the third of five children in the South Bronx during the 1970’s. Her grandfather first came to the South Bronx from Puerto Rico in the 1940s and ran a candy store just blocks from where she was born on Leggett Avenue. Her family lived there until the early 1980s, when they finally fled the destruction that had overwhelmed their neighborhood.
Now, 30 years later, Vivian has come back to uncover the truth behind the fires that destroyed her community and most of the South Bronx. Her search begins with her own family’s history, and includes interviewing her mother, Carmen Rosado, about the impact of the fires and what came after, on their lives.
Block defender (Lyman Place)
Hetty’s was the first African-American family to buy a house on her block in the Bronx. She grew up in the integrated schools and streets of the 1950’s, and for the past 42 years, has practiced “block defense,” protecting her childhood home against fires and city demolition crews. Because of her tireless efforts, fires never touched her block. But today she and her neighbors struggle to keep their community together as her block is threatened by police and gang violence and another encroaching wave of instability.
Retired FDNY firefighter and veteran of “The War Years” (Engine 85)
The son of Irish immigrants, John Finucane was born and raised in the South Bronx. For two decades he fought fires in some of the toughest neighborhoods in NYC, and watched Cauldwell Ave – his childhood block – burn to the ground. His personal experience working in some of the busiest fire companies ever (Engine 85, Ladder 59 and Engine 46) in the South Bronx was the inspiration for his first two books, When the Bronx Burned and The Usual.
The Potts Family
Landlords and neighborhood anchor (Banana Kelly)
In the early 1960s, when other landlords were fleeing their buildings in the South Bronx, Frank Potts paid cash for an apartment building on Kelly Street, known as Banana Kelly for its distinctive curve. He moved his family in and spent his off hours caring for and fixing up the building himself. Eventually their family also bought and maintained the two buildings next door and became an anchor of stability on the block, while the neighborhood around them was swallowed by fire.
By the 1970s, several other buildings on their block had nearly succumbed to fire and abandonment. Inspired by the work of the People’s Development Corporation, several younger residents, including Frank’s son Leon Potts and his son-in-law Robert Foster, teamed up with a young organizer who believed they could save their block. Together they rescued three buildings and began a movement that would change the course of Bronx history.
Sweat equity activist
(People’s Development Corporation)
Ramón grew up as one of the first Puerto Ricans in his neighborhood in the Bronx. He became a student activist and member of the Young Lords before he co-founded the People’s Development Corporation (PDC) in 1972. The PDC was the first community group to publically reclaim and rebuild abandoned housing for Bronx residents. Jimmy Carter paid him a surprise visit in 1977, when political leaders first began to acknowledge the damage done to the South Bronx. The PDC inspired other residents to take over and renovate abandoned buildings, rebuilding the South Bronx brick by brick, and sparking the urban “sweat equity” movement.
Legendary musician and composer (Casa Amadeo)
In 1947, Mike Amadeo came from Puerto Rico to New York by steamship at the age of thirteen, destined to become one of Latin music’s most admired composers. He found his musical calling in the streets and clubs of the South Bronx. Casa Amadeo, his music store, has been on Prospect Ave for over fifty years, surviving fires, floods and abandonment, and is considered a mecca for Latin musicians and fans alike.
Community housing activist (Banana Kelly)
Originally from Long Island, Harry DiRienzo fell in love with the South Bronx as a student working at a local settlement house. When his friends Leon Potts and Robert Foster wanted to try to save their block of Kelly Street, he joined forces in stopping the wave of destruction. Forty years later, he is still living on Kelly Street, fighting to keep buildings alive and the community together.
Park and cultural restoration
(52 People for Progress)
Playground 52 – across the street from PS 52, where Vivian Vazquez went to middle school – was Al Quiñones’ backyard. As a kid he would sneak out of the back of his building and follow the sound of the congas into the park. In a matter of years, his apartment building was gone and the park was filled with trash and rubble. In the early ’80s, Al and a handful of friends started coming back to the neighborhood to clean up the park. They created the volunteer group 52 People for Progress and brought life and music back to the park for the next 30 years.
Retired FDNY Commander
Vincent Dunn was a firefighter in the FDNY who rose to the level of Commander of Division 3 in Manhattan. He fought fires in the Bronx in the 1970s and 80s and worked closely with FDNY Chief O’Hagan, witnessing the department through a time of crisis and cutbacks to fire service in the Bronx.
Joe Flood is a New York based reporter and author of the 2010 book, The Fires, a study of how the Rand Corporation consulted with the Fire Department of New York during the time of the fires, ultimately contributing to the epidemic of fires that burned down the Bronx.
Roberta Brandes Gratz
Roberta Brandes Gratz is a New York-based award-winning journalist and urban critic. Her newest book is The Battle For Gotham: New York in the Shadow of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs. Earlier works were the now classic The Living City: Thinking Small in a Big Way, and Cities Back from the Edge: New Life for Downtown.