Urban Decay: The Bronx Is Burning

category: > History Now/Then, > Photography

written by: Jaap Proost

URBAN decay is a fascinating process. At one time a neighborhood is safe & clean. But then something happens and lawlessness & decay enters the area. This was the case in the Bronx in the seventies and eighties. President Reagan once compared the place with ‘London after the Blitz’.

 

But the taxman has a blind eye for this kind of downfall. In the early eighties the Department of Finance in New York made photographs of property in the Bronx and the other four boroughs. They also photographed vacant lots and tax-exempt buildings. The thousands of pictures were made step by step in de streets, like Google Street View avant la letter. The result is a collection of images that gives a accurate look of the Bronx in the early eighties.

 

At the peak of the downfall over 40 percent of the South Bronx’s buildings had been burned or abandoned. Residents left whole blocks and the only way landlords could make any money was to set fire to the apartments to collect the insurance money. Read this story in the New York Times about how an apartment slides into decay.

 

A steady pillar in the middle of this decay was Yankee Stadium. In 1977, during a game in the World Series, a helicopter filmed the stadium from the sky. The viewers at home could clearly see an uncontrolled fire burn the corner of their television sets. When the commentator saw the fire, he said the iconic phrase ‘The Bronx is burning.’

 

Next to the rundown buildings, another typical feature of urban decay are the car wrecks in the street. They lay in the streets like whales on the beach, waiting for the elements to finish the job.

 

The pictures below are from New York City Municipal Archives. Over 800,000 color photographs were taken for tax purposes. Every New York City building in the mid-1980s can be viewed in this collection.

 

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