In this award-winning documentary, Bill Moyers takes a breathtaking look at the arson and crime that nearly destroyed the Bronx in the 1970s.
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[Sirens — scene of fire]
BILL MOYERS: This is a familiar scene in America these days. Arson is our fastest growing crime affecting the lives and property of millions of people. No city is immune.
This is the Bronx, in New York. One and a half million people live in this borough — equal to the population of Houston or Washington or San Diego. It’s the home of the New York Yankees, the Bronx Zoo, and the Grand Concourse. It has also become the arson capital of the world.
Once, that smoke on the horizon signified industry, progress, jobs. Now it means someone is burning down a building: a landlord, for profit; a tenant, for revenge; junkies; vandals. It happens thirty times a day and the flames are the signal of a national disaster.
In the next hour, we’ll see what fire is doing to the Bronx and its people. It’s a report from one place in one city, but the forces at work here are no longer unique to the Bronx. The fire here is the fire next door.
ANNOUNCER: “The Fire Next Door” — A CBS REPORTS — with Bill Moyers.
[Sirens — traffic sounds — shouting — general commotion at scene of fire]
FIREMAN: Battalion One on the Bronx case, at Box 2-9-6-3. We’re going to use two-and-two. We have a fire on the fifth floor in Apartment 5-I. The address is 1-6-3-5 Poplin Avenue. It’s a six- story brick, non-fireproof, multiple dwelling, occupied. Occupants are being removed where necessary.
[Screams, shouts — general commotion at scene of fire]
BILL MOYERS: Our story begins in an apartment on Poplin Avenue, a single building, eighty families. But the alarm is for all of us. You were fifteen years in the Bronx before you carne to this apartment, right?
MAN: Twenty-two years.
BILL MOYERS: Twenty-two years in the Bronx. Is this the way the Bronx started to — [indistinct/background noise]
MAN: I would say so. It starts with fires in the vacant apartments; before you know it, the whole wing, and then the building…
BILL MOYERS: Then what happens? People move out?
MAN: People move out. The landlord starts cutting back on his maintenance ’cause he’s not making any profit. More and more apartments become vacant. And it becomes less profitable for the landlord. And then, before you know it, you have a block that no one lives in. It becomes a wasteland, like the South Bronx.
BILL MOYERS: The South Bronx. It has all the superlatives: highest crime, poorest people, greatest unemployment, worst blight — and the world’s record for arson. In just ten years, more than 30,000 buildings have been set ablaze and abandoned here — many of them good, solid apartment houses built to last hundreds of years.
These were the homes of New York’s working people: the Germans, Irish, Jews and Italians who paused here on their way to the suburbs and to the American promise fulfilled. Then came the poverty migration. Huge numbers of blacks and Puerto Ricans arrived as business, industry and the middle class left. Jobs were fewer and fewer. Welfare replaced work. And the poor were trapped with nowhere to go. Higher costs, lower profits and the peculiar chemistry of poverty caused landlords to flee their buildings. The result: a fierce, malignant urban cancer where the arsonist performs the final rite.
ANTHONY BOUZA: If you were assigned to Vietnam in 1970, what would be your — the challenge that you faced? It would be to communicate to the American people the fact that our nation is involved in a great moral struggle and a great moral dilemma. And what you’re really saying is “America, take a look at it! For heaven’s sake, look what you are doing to yourself! Look! Look at the moral dimensions of the struggle, and if that — if that is the way you choose to go, at least acknowledge it.”
BILL MOYERS: Chief Tony Bouza, Bronx Borough Commander until his maverick views cost him his job. In Harlem, during the sixties, his leadership helped prevent urban rioting. Sensitive to the people of the neighborhood, he is still a tough cop.
ANTHONY BOUZA: Strangely enough, in the sixties, this society became a little bit visible, started to riot a little bit, disorders; started to hook middle-class youngsters on heroin. And boy, there was — it was hell to pay then! And methadone came — became suddenly available. Funds — The Law Enforcement Assistance Administration was created. We were showered with goodies. And now we are a very efficient army of occupation, and the problem is invisible, and everybody’s back to business as usual, and it’s wonderful for everybody. We are creating here what the Romans did in Rome. We — we are creating a permanent under-class of — of unemployed and desperate people. They’re kind of invisible; you don’t see them because they drop out of — They stop looking for jobs; they drop out of everything but the welfare rolls. They drink and — and they try to escape the reality of their daily experience. And of course — and here we live with them. But they’re all dressed up and no place to go, and the
society has no place for them.
But now everything is being done by machines, and the second Industrial Revolution has sort of replaced unskilled human labor. And that’s the only leg they can get up on the ladder. So they’re really in trouble. And if these people weren’t permanently pacified on alcohol, they’d be a lot more visible. If it weren’t for the ready availability of alcohol, we’d all be in trouble.
So what I should say is, “America, take a look around! Look what you’re doing in your ghettos! You’re creating a permanent under-class of disaffected and poor, drugged on alcohol, on welfare, living in bombed-out situations, an educational system that doesn’t educate, a bureaucracy that doesn’t respond, the sanitation doesn’t clean, the police don’t police. We’re all here. We’re all very visible and we — I suppose some of us are working reasonable hard, but the fact of the matter Is we’re all failing and we’re just a holding operation.
[Firemen’s radio exchange: “Increase your pressure to-the multiple pressure by ten pounds, okay? “You want the pressure increased? Correct?” “That’s affirmative.” “Ten-four.”]
CAPTAIN PALMER: I remember as a kid, the firemen came down the block, everyone was excited and everyone ran to see the fire, Now you have, you know, four or five floors of blazing fire, and people will walk by and just laugh and keep going, you know. It’s amazing, you know. At one time, it was such an exciting thing; now it’s becoming like — something, you know, very commonplace.
BILL MOYERS: The South Bronx is a society out of control. Kids start a lot of the fires. They burn vacant buildings for the hell of it. A nine-year-old told me, “If you don’t take my picture, I’ll burn the building down.” He meant it.
A nineteen-year-old woman lived here with her parents and sisters. When she and her boyfriend broke up, she refused to see him again. At 4:30 in the morning, he poured gasoline under her door and struck a match. The building has been burned eleven times since. Eighty families lived here.
A couple who owned a candy store put their life savings into their building as a retirement investment. A rent control law, left over from World War II, kept “a ceiling on rent, while fuel and maintenance costs soared. Losing money, they let the building decline.
As tenants moved out, junkies moved in, using the abandoned apartments for shooting galleries. Parents, fearful for their children, complained. The junkies retaliated — with fire.
[Sirens — horns]
BILL MOYERS: A woman and her six children lived here — $300 a month for six rooms — with rats, roaches, leaky plumbing, and junkies urinating in the hall. She wanted to move to a public housing project, but a sign in her welfare office declared she would have a very long wait, unless she were the victim of a fire. Burn-outs get first preference. At 2:00 AM, she moved her possessions to a friend’s place, leaving some junk furniture behind in the apartment. Her nephew set the fire. She and her children received a little over $2,000 for new clothing and furniture and were moved to a new apartment at public expense. Arson is now a way of doing business in the South Bronx, encouraged and made profitable by well-intentioned public law. It’s both bewildering and frustrating to the city’s arson detectives.
DETECTIVE O’HALLORAN: You got a place to go, do you mean?
MAN: Yeah, like, you know, if you’re on welfare down here, they find you somewhere else to go. You just move.
DETECTIVE O’HALLORAN: You get burned before you move, though?
MAN: Yeah. That way you get money for the furniture. You get burnt out.
DETECTIVE O’HALLORAN: Oh yeah? You think many people do that?
MAN: A few. You know, a few.
BILL MOYERS: You can buy a large occupied apartment house in the Bronx for less than a thousand dollars. By taking advantage of-the city’s three-year tax moratorium, you can collect several thousand a month while paying no taxes; provide heat and services infrequently, and only under duress; no maintenance. A few promises will keep the rents coming in until the tenants give up in disgust. Then $200 will buy you a first-class arson job. Federally-subsidized fire insurance is required by law. A quick settlement, with few questions, puts you ahead by $70 — or $80,000.
DIANA SIMS: She set the apartment on fire, ’cause I am witness. I was home” that day. It happened on a Tuesday.
DETECTIVE O’HALLORAN: Well, you didn’t see her set the fire, actually, You said —
DIANA SIMS: She had to! The — How can you leave out your house in two minutes and sit on the steps, and go back in your house in fifteen minutes and holler fire?
DETECTIVE O’HALLORAN: Did you speak to her about that fire? Did you speak to her about that?
DIANA SIMS: You know what she said?
DETECTIVE O’HALLORAN: What?
DIANA SIMS: She told her husband — or boyfriend, or whoever he is — she’d come home; that the lady upstairs was looking out a window, and a cigarette fell from her house into her apartment and started the fire.
DETECTIVE O’HALLORAN: Would you want to talk to us about this and testify about this — what you saw?
DIANA SIMS: What I saw?
DETECTIVE O’HALLORAN: Yeah.
DIANA SIMS: No.
DETECTIVE O’HALLORAN: You don’t want to? Why not? Why not?
DIANA SIMS: No. No. But I’m just saying — What’s the use in talking about it? Because I don’t know. I don’t like to, you know, put other people in trouble. ‘This lady would definitely be in trouble.
DETECTIVE O’HALLORAN: Well, put — “put people in trouble”? She burned you out of your apartment!
DIANA SIMS: That’s right. That’s what I’m saying. You should see my apartment. I’m not —
DETECTIVE O’HALLORAN: Do you have any kids?
DIANA SIMS: Yeah. The kids are right here.
DETECTIVE O’HALLORAN: Well, what if your kid was killed?
DIANA SIMS: That’s right. I would — Oh, honey! I would have really got on her case then.
DETECTIVE O’HALLORAN: But just as long as your kid wasn’t killed, you feel “What the heck? Why get involved? QUESTION: And how much damage was done?
DIANA SIMS: She claims all her furniture was burned up.
DETECTIVE O’HALLORAN: But she had no furniture in the apartment, did she?
DIANA SIMS: She had — she had — The little bit she had in there, I mean, pat they’ll come forward with the information. Their reasoning is that they’re afraid, because if they’re in the area, if they’re going to remain in the area, it doesn’t make sense to tell the police what you know, because if that person — even if he is arrested, chances are he’ll be back.
[Shouts: “Fire! Fire! — sirens — general commotion — indistinct radio exchanges]
MRS. TORRES: That apartment was not on fire; it was — Well, a little while ago, about an hour and a balf, when I \’Tent in there, all that was there was garbage. Whoever lived there set fire to it or somebody went in there and set fire to it before they left, ’cause the girl that was living there moved out. That’s — [indistinct] Huh? No, that apartment was like that. I was laying down with my daughter when they came and told me the fire there. They shouldn’t do shit like that. I burn up because she wants to set fire to that dumpy apartment. She’s gonna pay me. If they don’t do anything about it, I’m going to the precinct and I’m going to the police department and I want them to know. Whoever lived there, I want them to know that I’m going. I want them to know that I’m going. And if they don’t care about the children, I care about mine — you understand — I care, about mine.
BILL MOYERS: What did you think the night you woke — woke .uP and heard the sounds of fire next door?
MRS. TORRES: I was terrified. I ran out of here without any — had on no clothes. I had on my nightgown, a robe. I went to the second floor. I was so mad. I — If I were to put my hands, you know, dn someone, I could have hurt them, you know, ’cause I figured I just–I only been living here a year and a half. And it took me a lot to do all I have, And then, all of a sudden, a fire breaks out and I lose everything I have, to start allover again.
BILL MOYERS: And you were mad because you ‘thought somebody had started it?
MRS. TORRES: Yeah. That’s right.
BILL MOYERS: When I say the word fire…
MRS. TORRES: Hm-hmm.
BILL MOYERS: — what do you think of?
MRS. TORRES: Disaster. [Laughing] It’s the truth — because when there’s a fire, you lose everything. If you — If it’s in your house, there’s very little you could save. The firemen don’t give you that much of a chance, once something’s burning. They’re not going to let you go in there and risk your life. What they try to do is get you out and make sure you’re safe. I know, you think about what you got and trying to save it, but they’d rather save you. So, I don’t want to lose what I have.
[Scenes of fires]
POLICEMAN: At the time of the fire, you were being arrested, you said.
WOMAN: They were one — There was one that was around six months right?
MAN: No, no. No, about ten months.
WOMAN: Ten months?
POLICEMAN: And what was the other one?
WOMAN: I don’t —
MAN: Oh, about four or five years old.
POLICEMAN: Four or five years old?
WOMAN: And my two brothers —
WOMAN: She’s only three years old.
POLICEMAN: She’s three years old? Three? They were here by themselves?
MAN: Three years old.
MAN: That was my girlfriend’s kid.
POLICEMAN: And your girlfriend was here also?
WOMAN: No, no. She was downstairs.
POLICEMAN: The two kids were by themselves?
WOMAN: No! Really!
JIM McLOUGHLIN: Unfortunately, what’s going to happen here is — is something that happens throughout the South Bronx, that people have a lack of respect for other people’s property. And since nobody lives in this apartment, nobody’s going to realize or stop to think that this still is somebody else’s property. So it’s open, you know; it’s free game now. The radiators’ll go; they’ll walk in and they’ll just take the radiators — because nobody lives here, you know. I want to show you something else that…
BILL MOYERS: Arson detectives, Jim McLoughlin and Ed Murphy.
JIM McLOUGHLIN: The fire was Thursday night. I want you to take a look at this. The fire was Thursday night and already the sink is gone; the sink is already missing. The commode will be taken, these pipes here, fixtures off the bathtub, there.
MURPHY: They’ll even take out the bathtub if they have —
JIM McLOUGHLIN: They’ll even take out the bathtub if they have enough — if they have enough time. Then, of course, the radiator in this room here — this will go. And the place that they seem to work the most are two places; are the bathrooms and the kitchens, you know. As you see here, all this’ll go.’ They’ll pull that sink out. They’ll break the pipes behind the sink, and then this will stop the water. If somebody wanted to steal the stove, they’ll just pull it out and the gas’ll still be going. They can come around at night, and they know what they’re doing and they can work very fast. [Laughing] You know? They won’t make that much noise, either. They’re in and out, and they’re gone, man.
MARY: I give this building a good two or three months, and it’ll be vacant. You come back here in December — probably before December — it’ll be gone. It’ll be vacant.
BILL MOYERS: Mrs. Torres’ building is not a slum tenement, but a comfortable apartment house in a healthy Bronx neighborhood. The fire is the first step toward a process of destruction that has levelled thousands of nearby acres. These buildings could be next.
BILL MOYERS: Davidson Avenue in the West Bronx. For years, it was a desirable community of middleclass families. While the South Bronx was dying, this was a good place to live. But decay spread quickly through here. Fire engines have come again and again. Well-constructed buildings are now abandoned and bricked up in a feeble effort to discourage vandalism. For all their drama, fires are not the story. Arson is a symptom -a symptom of a far deeper condition that persists here after the firemen have left. Society has collapsed; there remains an almost primitive system offering little protection, little safety.
SCOTT: When I moved over here, as little as two and a half years ago, it was quite a beautiful place — and serene, so I thought, l’ll wait ’til nightfall.
BILL MOYERS: You live alone?
MARY: Yes. With my dogs.
BILL MOYERS: With your dogs?
MARY: Three now. I had five. Three were thrown off the roof. I had six.
BILL MOYERS: Thrown off the roof?
BILL MOYERS: By whom?
MARY: Some pathetic little boys.
BILL MOYERS: Threw your dogs off the roof?
MARY: Off the roof, right. Right, sir. Killed them.
BILL MOYERS: Why don’t you move?
MARY: There’s people that don’t want to accept me with three dogs. So, rather ·than give them up — they’re my friends — I stayed in that abandoned building, terrified.
BILL MOYERS: You stay in that abandoned building?
BILL MOYERS: Do you have heat?
MARY: No heat, no hot water, no electricity, no facilities.
BILL MOYERS: Well, how do you live, Ms. Scott?
MARY: Well, I have friends across the street — two, as a matter of fact. And I go over there and cook, and bring the food home. Originally — I had a hot-plate and I could heat the food when it was cold. But now I don’t have that, so mostly I eat out of restaurants. And I go to my friend’s house to take a bath. [Laughing] One has to be a social.
BILL MOYERS: That’s right.
MARY: My grandmother said, “It’s not important how you look; it’s how you smell!”
BILL MOYERS: Aren’t you frightened to death of living there by yourself?
MARY: Yes, I am.
BILL MOYERS: So you — you’ve been on this street two years and you’ve seen fire literally destroy apartment after apartment?
MARY: Yes. Well, this is my castle — all by myself
BILL MOYERS: Do you pay any rent?
MARY:[laughing] No, I don’t. I’m a squatter.
BILL MOYERS: A squatter?
BILL MOYERS: Across the street, in 19-95 Davidson Avenue, several families are trying to hold their lives together in a building which, while occupied, barely clings to life. Fires, vandalism, and the lack of services have forced most people to leave. A few struggle to stay — in apartments whose parquet floors and keen workmanship recall better days. Mrs. Barclay, the first thing I noticed when I came in to your apartment is that your furniture’s not unpacked. Why?
MRS. BARCLAY: Oh, my goodness! Well, see, from the bed that I bad had before, when I had took it up to get this in the house, I saw mice droppings all up underneath it~ so I said: I’m not about, you know, to let out my other bed and the mice be running all through that, ’cause it’s brand new.” So I’ decided to keep the package. .And as you can see, if you look around, most of my stuff is packed. So as soon as I get the place, I’m just gonna move.
BILL MOYERS: How long have you lived here?
MRS. BARCLAY: About — Let’s see. I moved in in April. I guess the following year. That’s when the fire on — was in that building, and burnt it out completely.
BILL MOYERS: Are you afraid of this building burning?
MRS. BARCLAY: Yes. I feel it’s definitely a fire hazard.
BILL MOYERS: Can you show me your apartment?
MRS. BARCLAY: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: How many rooms are there?
MRS. BARCLAY: Well, I have three rooms. This, I guess you can say, is the living room. And the bathroom, as you could see, half of the ceiling is missing.
BILL MOYERS: Did you ever have any trouble getting water?
MRS. BARCLAY: Right. I have no cold water now. So the toilet doesn’t flush.
BILL MOYERS: And this is the bedroom?
MRS. BARCLAY: Right. This is basically where I — we hang out at.
BILL MOYERS: You really do live in a kind of battle zone.
MRS. BARCLAY: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: Fire zone.
MRS. BARCLAY: Hm-hmm. That’s why I just be cool; don’t deal with too many people; just go on about by business and do what — I gotta do, you know, ’cause I’m not here to be socializing with too many people anyway. And then, the type of people who live around here anyway, like, they’re part of the reason why it’s — it’s like this, you know. Like, a lot of people always want to blame it on the landlord — this, that, and the other! Now, it’s partly his fault too; but then, also, why do you have to throw garbage out the window? I can look out my window any day and see big bags going down the stairs and, you know, out the window. So, it’s the people, too. It’s the people who basically make it like this. And then, with the landlord not keeping it up, it just gets worse and worse. Me and my sister was just talking about the garbage the other day. She was teasing me. She said, “You better hurry up and get out of here before the garbage is piled up to the third floor.” And then, me and the woman upstairs was laughing. She was saying, “Yeah, you know, we gotta get out of here, because after a while the garbage will be so high the rats won’t have to go through the building to get into the apartment; they’ll just step right off of the garbage…[Laughing]
BILL MOYERS: Finding out who’s responsible can be difficult. The last owner sold out when their efforts to renovate and maintain the building failed. It has changed hands six times in nine years. No one is sure now who owns it. Landlords refused to provide services until tenants paid rent. Tenants refused to pay rent until owners provided services. People are moving out. The building is doomed. For survivors, life in a dying building can be an overwhelming experience, especially if you’re chronically ill.
MRS. HUGHES: Well, I believe in — I put my trust in Jehovah. I’m a Jehovah Witness, and that’s where I put my trust. And I’m relying on Him and I know, from what the Bible says, that this system’s not gonna last too much longer anyway_ So I don’t worry about my health to that extent.
BILL MOYERS: How many kids do you have?
MRS. HUGHES: Well, I had nine kids but they all — three of them
are not living at home. But now it’s eight kids living here and two adults.
BILL MOYERS: Do you get any help or any support?
MRS. HUGHES: Yes. I’m on welfare.
BILL MOYERS: How long have you’ been on welfare?
MRS. HUGHES: Since 19 — I think it was ’67.
BILL MOYERS: 1967? What about your husband? Does he provide any help or support at all?
MRS. HUGHES: Well, he’s not here. And he’s very seldom here. And when he is here, he says that he don’t feel like he should say anything because he’s not doing — he’s not providing for ’em — for them the way he should. So he doesn’t feel like he should say anything to…
BILL MOYERS: Mrs. Hughes, when I was here a couple of days ago, you were telling me your son was arrested. Where is he now?
MRS. HUGHES: He’s in Spartan. And I have to go down tomorrow to see about — They’re having his trial tomorrow.
BILL MOYERS: They’re having his trial tomorrow? And how old is he?
MRS. HUGHES: He’s fifteen.
BILL MOYERS: Fifteen. And what was he arrested for?
MRS. HUGHES: For being — having — being in possession of burglars’ tools and he was in a vacant apartment.
HUGHES [Son]: I was with him and they~-they said that we — he had ripped off this — this Puerto Rican dude. And they took all of us in — or it, but him and Barry had — they — a knife — Barry had a knife, and he had a stick. And they called it a discipline — disciplining for a dangerous weapon.
BILL MOYERS: Now, he was arrested and you were arrested?
HUGHES: Yeah, both of us.
BILL MOYERS: Why are you out and — and he’s still in?
HUGHES: My mother said that she wanted him to stay.
BILL MOYERS: Why?
MRS. HUGHES: Well, I thought it would teach him a lesson, because this make his third time. And I thought if he stayed in there awhile, you know, doing — until time for his trial, that he would learn a lesson and, maybe, when he come out, he’ll behave himself.
BILL MOYERS Well, he’s only fifteen years old. I mean, won’t that
MRS. HUGHES: Oh, he’s sixteen now. He turned sixteen since he been there. He’s sixteen.
BILL MOYERS: [to another Bronx tenant] You are leaving today?
MRS. SULLIVAN: Today or tomorrow, when I get the moving men.
BILL MOYERS: Why are you leaving?
MRS. SULLIVAN: Because I couldn’t stay here. They beat me up, they threw me down the stairs, and they broke in my — my — all my windows are broken.
BILL MOYERS: Who did this?
MRS. SULLIVAN: You know who did it.
BILL MOYERS: No. These kids?
MRS. SULLIVAN: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: These very ones?
MRS. SULLIVAN: Not them, I don’t think: They were older.
BILL MOYERS: Older kids?
MRS. SULLIVAN: Oh, I was cooking one night in the — in the kitchen, and the whole glass carne down. It’s not the first time. All my windows are broken.
BILL MOYERS: While you were in the apartment?
MRS. SULLIVAN: Yeah. Everyone of them.
BILL MOYERS: How long have you lived here?
MRS. SULLIVAN: Thirty-six years, thirty-seven, thirty-eight.
BILL MOYERS: Thirty-eight years? In this building?
MRS. SULLIVAN: Yeah. Yeah. It was nice when I carne here. Everybody was nice; nobody was disagreeable. But you couldn’t walk–I couldn’t walk the stairs alone; I had to get someone to go up with me — because one kid said he’d cut my throat if he had a knife.
BILL MOYERS: Cut your throat?
MRS. SULLIVAN: Yeah, if he had a knife. Yeah. That’s right. He said, “She has money and we kill her some day!” So now I can’t stay there. I never slept for a moment, because they watch me when I came in, they followed me up the stairs and they threw me down, and they took everything I had. What can I do?
BILL MOYERS: What did you say to them?
MRS. SULLIVAN: I couldn’t say nothing.
BILL MOYERS: But weren’t you scared?
MRS. SULLIVAN: Of course, I was scared. I went into — I went down
to the third floor to save me from them killing me.
BILL MOYERS: How old were the kids?
MRS. SULLIVAN: About — Oh, they’re hanging around there, listening. Fifteen — fourteen, fifteen — no more.
BILL MOYERS: You keep looking around. Are you nervous?
MRS. SULLIVAN: I can’t even move. I’m so nervous.
BILL MOYERS: You’re afraid it could happen again?
MRS. SULLIVAN: Oh, yeah! They follow me up now, but then my girlfriend is here waiting for me. I worked at the Plaza Hotel for forty-six years.
BILL MOYERS: You worked in what hotel?
MRS. SULLIVAN: The Plaza Hotel.
BILL MOYERS: Yeah? What did you do?
MRS. SULLIVAN: I was a supervisor. They gave me getaway watch.
BILL MOYERS: A getaway watch? When you — when did you retire?
MRS. SULLIVAN: 1972.
BILL MOYERS: Don’t take it out now. Somebody — No, don’t take — Don’t do it now.
MRS. SULLIVAN: Hm-hmm. No. No. It was a beautiful gold watch, with my name on it and everything at the back. And I got a hundred dollars.
POLICEMAN: Is this the building here? Anybody in the alley? Downstairs?
BILL MOYERS: The arrival of police interrupted our conversation with Mrs. Sullivan. We followed them into her building.
POLICEMAN: All right, four male Hispanics. They went down the cellar through the fire escape.
[Indistinct radio exchanges — “All right, I’ll go down… ” “Jimmy, how about this one? “All right, we gotta break-in, Sarge.” “Now, we checked that out, Dennis, and it’s not that one.”]
POLICEMAN: Not it? Yeah, Sarge, we checked that out. They broke into here. They took it from there and they came down one of these two, so come up through here, eh? Check out every apartment in there. He’s sure that’s the one they went down.
[Radio exchange — “All right, fellows — let’s get going with this… “]
BILL MOYERS: So what happens to these kids now?
POLICEMAN: These kids’ll go to children’s court; have their mother come in. They’ll probably be “personally recog’s” although it’s kind of early. Might get off in court. If not, they give us a date; they bring them over with the officer who arrested them, the complainant. But they look young to me. I don’t know. They look about twelve, maybe, tops.
BILL MOYERS: So?
POLICEMAN: What’s going to happen? If it’s their first offense, nothing’s going to happen.
POLICEMAN: How about those other two, Dan?…
[Indistinct radio exchanges — “They’re still looking over everything out here, Sarge. There haven’t been anything new, but they keep looking down, like…looking at one of the apartments and whatnot.” “All right, keep working.” “Good… But the four of them. We got two, but the other two, they must have. — indistinct]
BILL MOYERS: Why aren’t the kids in school?
POLICEMAN: I just asked them that, you know, the standard, HThey went to my family” — liMy class went away on a trip”. And they come here. There’s a terrif — terrific amount of truancy in this area.
BILL MOYERS: I was intrigued by what you said; you said a lot of these people work. Sure, they work. You see peoples working, right? People are working where we just came in. That’s why they’re so vulnerable, because they don’t stay home. Otherwise, the husband the wife both work, right? So that leaves the apartment vulnerable. And if it isn’t, they usually hit —
[Indistinct radio exchanges]
Or, if the wife is home, usually when they go to school. The most vulnerable times are, like, from 8:30 to 9:30. A big time is from
11:30 to 1:00. The biggest time is 2:00 to 3:00, 2:00 to 3:15, ’cause if the mother is home, she’s going out to get the kids.
BILL MOYERS: You’ve been at this work eleven years, at least.
BILL MOYERS: Fourteen years. Is — is there any answer?
POLICEMAN: Yeah, the answer is people have no money. That’s the answer. You know, they have to steal. You know, narcotics is —They’re heavy users, and they need money. It’s the same old story; nothing new. I’m not adding anything new, you know. It just goes back to — to basics. People have no money, so they steal. It’s —
[Radio exchanges: “Sarge?” “Go ahead.” — indistinct — “10-4, I’m on my way down.”]
POLICEMAN: The officer’ll call you when you have to go to court. Okay? But you’ll be moving out today, then, right?
MRS. SULLIVAN: If I can. If the movers come, I will; if not, then I’ll be moving this week:
MRS. SULLIVAN: Yeah.
POLICEMAN: Very good. Okay. Thank you very much. All right?
BILL MOYERS: You won’t believe this — but, while we were talking to her about her previous burglary, this was going on.
POLICEMAN: Yeah, what happened is they watched her go out, evidently, and then they went right in.
BILL MOYERS: Let me tell you something. She’s got about a hundred dollars in her pocket. She came down this morning to the bank to get it out.
POLICEMAN: To get a mover, I know.
BILL MOYERS: That’s right.
POLICEMAN: She couldn’t get one. I know.
BILL MOYERS: Can you do anything about that? Maybe you can!
POLICEMAN: Mrs. Sullivan?
MRS. SULLIVAN: Look! Oh, God! I — [Crying] I can’t stay here tonight. Look!
BILL MOYERS: You see your cat?
MRS. SULLIVAN: No. My cat is gone — Nufti.
BILL MOYERS: We will find your cat.
MRS. SULLIVAN: Oh! Oh! Look what they did! They broke everything here. Oh, God! [Crying]
BILL MOYERS: Did you have any valuables in the house?
MRS. SULLIVAN: No. I had everything wrapped, but they took ’em. I had — I had lots of things. They were in here all morning, and look what they did.
BILL MOYERS: You seem to have everything all packed up, ready to go.
MRS. SULLIVAN: I had everything — Look! I had everything nice. Everything was beautiful this morning. And I was waiting for the moving men. [Crying]
BILL MOYERS: What are you going to do now?
MRS. SULLIVAN: I can’t stay here tonight. I’ll have to go someplace.
BILL MOYERS: Can we call your brother?
MRS. SULLIVAN: He’s sick in hospital. He has arthritis.
BILL MOYERS: What is that?
MOVING MAN: Ireland! [Bells ringing]
MRS. SULLIVAN: This was in — in here too. If I find my cat, I’ll be all right.
MOVING MAN: Okay. We got a deal.
MRS. SULLIVAN: Yeah?
MOVING MAN: All right. They’re gonna take your furniture.
MRS. SULLIVAN: How much?
MOVING MAN: Huh?
MRS. SULLIVAN: How much is it?
MOVING MAN: If we sell it, lady, well, what did you say? A hundred, dear? A hundred, right?
MRS. SULLIVAN: Hmmm?
MOVING MAN: He won’t go out. He won’t go out.
MRS. SULLIVAN: She’s gone back there. I heard — Oh, God! She’s here! She won’t come to me now. [Calling cat]: Nufti? She’s gone behind the…
MOVING MAN: Okay. She’s — See? She was probably here all along. I told you; they always come back.
MRS. SULLIVAN: You want one of these nice pictures, each? Oh, oh, Nufti, no! No!
MOVING MAN: Hey, that’s not nice.
MRS. SULLIVAN: No. No, no, no! Oh, no! Stop it!
MOVING MAN: All right. She’s scared.
MRS. SULLIVAN: No, no.
MOVING MAN: Are you all right?
MRS. SULLIVAN: Yeah, yeah. Yeah. She — She’s…
MOVING MAN: She’s scared. She’ll come out.
MRS. SULLIVAN: Yeah. Leave her alone now.
BILL MOYERS: Mrs. Sullivan is moving to a safer neighborhood. It too is in the path of the affliction that wasted Davidson Avenue. But for the moment, at least, it’s a way out. The building is one step closer to death. Each vacant apartment invites more fire, more looting, and more danger for the handful of survivors.
[Sirens — general commotion]
BILL MOYERS: They were playing the World Series in nearby Yankee Stadium when we began filming here last October. By January, the last occupant had gone. A sound building, vandalized and abandoned, in a city of people desperate for places to live. Now it is empty.
ANTHONY BOUZA: The indomitable human struggle goes on here fiercely. There’s no doubt of it. No — no question of it. I certainly would–would hate to think that anybody thought I said they were giving up hope. What I’m really saying is that society has failed the hope of the people who live here and struggle here. That’s what I’m really saying. They’re gonna go on struggling anyway, whether we fail or succeed.
MAN: What — what did I tell you this morning? I told you to put a beam over here, across this way. Hold it, hold it, hold it! And to put the wall tie, the guard, right into the beam, right into the beam and right into the beam. It’s the same shit. The only thing is he doesn’t want a perpendicular wall tie; he wants a horizontal tie in to get the strength outward. It’ll never come down, it’ll never belly out from an engineering standpoint on paper.
BILL MOYERS: For all the devastation and decay, there is plenty of life in the Bronx, and the worst crime of all would be to write it off.
RAMON RUEDA: Eleven-eighty-six, two years ago, was an abandoned city-owned building. That’s where we are right now. And it was 36 units. There were at that time, in December of 1974, three squatter families. And when I came into this building I asked them about their problems and what, you know, they were lacking. And it turns out they were living in this building, prior, for two year — without no heat and no hot water. I made a commitment then, in December 1974, that I was going to put this building back together, with the help of the people in the community and with the group of people that I was involved with.
BILL MOYERS: Ramon Rueda is a Vietnam war re.sister who came home to hi.s South Bronx neighborhood to organize a grass-roots attack on urban decay. To Ramon and his friends, unemployed people and abandoned buildings were resources to be nourished. They applied to the city for funds to redeem a blighted, gutted and empty building — and to train local workers to do the job. The bureaucracy didn’t respond. So, without permission, they went to work on the building anyway. Their only assets were enthusiasm and energy.
RODRIGUEZ: Basically, a bank uses equity as a down payment that you would use towards something, and the down payment that we put here is sweat: our own sweat, our own labor, our own time, towards reconstructing of our apartments.
BILL MOYERS: George Rodriguez is chairman of the People’s Development Corporation.
MEN WORKING: “Excuse me!!! “We’ll get by you here.We gotta move the yard drain up in the back, because we don’t have a yard — ” indistinct — “There’s three yard drains. There’s a side —
BILL MOYERS: What are they doing there?
RODRIGUEZ: They’re digging out the trench for the floors.
BILL MOYERS: So you’re not just trying to build a building?
RODRIGUEZ: Well, why don’t we just come in here and ask Johnny?
BILL MOYERS: What do you personally think about the sweat equity project?
JOHNNY: The way I see it now, we are getting people from the neighborhood who’ve always “been told they couldn’t do things; they’re doing it; they’re working for something that belongs to them. And on top of that, they are learning a trade. So everything’s being kept within the neighborhood, sort of a concept — like peoples in France and England, where they have your business right in the neighborhood. The people who are working there live there. And I think, in this way, it will help maintain the neighborhoods, ’cause people have a piece of the action now.
BILL MOYERS: Can you tell the difference?
JOHNNY: Sure, sure! A lot of these people here, as you can see on the sign outside, they were ex-drug offenders, in trouble with
the law. And so far, since we started this program, no one has gone back to his old ways.
BILL MOYERS: You know, it’s just one building in — in a — in a large neighborhood.
JOHNNY: Well, as — what do you call it? — Chairman Mao said — what was it? — ten thousand miles — a journey of ten thousand miles starts with the first foot. You have to start somewhere. .
BILL MOYERS: Thank you.
BILL MOYERS:: It took months to cut through the red tape, but finally the city came through with enough money for materials and training. Some are working here for a modest wage and a chance to learn a craft.
Many of them will live in the building when it’s finished. They have a stake in the action. [Residents working — hammering sounds]
WOMAN: I wanted to move it back, really. It’s no good if they’re gonna leave a gap here. Then, when I put this, it’s gonna be an empty space. [Indistinct exchanges between workers]
MAN: Is this your apartment here?
WOMAN: Yeah. We — Me and my boyfriend are gonna live in here.
MAN: Is that why you’re taking special care with the floors?
WOMAN: Yes. [Laughing] Yes.
MAN: Is this the only floor you’re doing, or are you going to do them all?
MAN: No. I’ve — I do some of them, only some.
MAN: How do you like working on your own place?
WOMAN: Yeah, it feels great. I want it perfect.
RODRIGUEZ: We’re putting a solar energy station up on the roof to allow us to save money on the fuel costs towards the water heating and some of .the space heating in the building. Now, it’ll be nice because the solar energy collectors are very esthetic, you know. They’re nice; they’re — they’re copper and they have this big pane right in front of them.
This is Carlos, who’s in charge of the crew.
BILL MOYERS: What are you doing here?
CARLOS: Working! [Laughter]
BILL MOYERS: That’s obvious.
CARLOS: It’s a silly question, I think. [Laughter]
RODRIGUEZ: Maybe you can explain what’s’ happening on the roof… Carlos?
CARLOS: Well, I’m going to put in a new roof in here, on top of the old one, with my — my — what do you call ’em? — with my trainees, teach ’em how to do a roof a better way, how to make joints, how to spread and melt the tar. And so far, they are not bad. And I’m glad because I can put ’em up on the roof. They want to learn! And nobody come easy; everything comes the hard way. You see, though? You see that one is one that is speeding for me. [Laughter]
RODRIGUEZ: The Bronx might be the most run-down urban center, but it’s not the only one. And — and we, I think, we see the plight and the disregard towards the other centers of this country as a national disgrace. The Bronx is number one, you know. We — More than anything else, I guess, you can almost say that we’re like urban pioneers. And here we are! You have this vast wilderness of decaying housing, neglect, everything else, and we’ve actually come in and we decided to reclaim the land, rebuild our homes and it is very fitting that in this year of our nation Bicentennial, you know, maybe he can rekindle a small spark of sort of the things that made this country great: people coming in and deciding. This is where we’re gonna settle down; this is where we’re gonna make our home.
BILL MOYERS: These urban pioneers have started to work on other buildings in the area. Their enthusiasm is contagious; they’re beginning to turn the neighborhood around. There are other rehabilitation projects in the South Bronx. Some of the buildings are already occupied. But they are few in this vast sea of need, and the tide of devastation is rising. For every building reclaimed, hundreds are lost. The majority of people in the Bronx live in some of the best housing in America. For them, the urgent question: Can the devastation be stopped? Last year, 3,500 buildings went under.
FIREMAN: Hey, Jack! Up here! Get that saw up here. rle’ re gonna have to cut the roof. Send it up with somebody right away. We’ve gotta get the roof cut… ”
[General commotion — “All right, second line I want — floor — burning… a floor below”]
BILL MOYERS: The fire goes on. The Bronx burns. Like Bucharest after the earthquake, it is a disaster area. But there will be no international disaster relief. No army of volunteers will come here — only firemen of the 19th Battalion.
[Scene of fire]
BILL MOYERS: These fellows didn’t wait. They went right in. I was with them.
FIREMAN: Well, we have to cut it off or we’ll lose the whole roof.
BILL MOYERS: Does it look as if it was started?
FIREMAN: Oh, definitely. Yeah, it’s a rubbish fire in a closet in a vacant apartment — no way it could have started by itself.
BILL MOYERS: You live here?
FATHER FLYNN: No, I’m the local parish priest. Yeah, right. And I belong to the parish down here, and we belong to a Community Corporation and the Neighborhood Improvement Association, and we’re trying to do everything we can to organize tenants and — and to help them.
BILL MOYERS: Are you making any progress?
FATHER FLYNN: We are making progress, and this building was really getting some place. There was a good tenants’ organization in here; we had worked up some kind of a relationship with the landlord. And then, you know, it see-sawed back and forth, and then you don’t know if it’s because of this relationship breaking down, or if it was a problem with other tenants in the building. I have a Bible group here every Thursday night. I was downstairs with the Bible group. And they talked about life things, and they talked about, you know, taking care of their kids and taking care of other people’s kids. I mean, they’re really trying. The forces of evil in the street and the forces of evil in people who are greedy and want money and want to burn buildings for greed, you know, or for whatever —
BILL MOYERS: Evil is a — is an unusual word to hear —
FATHER FLYNN: Yeah, I know.
BILL MOYERS: — in a situation like this.
FATHER FLYNN: But it’s in people, you know. And it’s in — not in just one kind of people. You know, it’s in people who own things; it’s in people who want to make money because they want to move. It’s in all kinds of things. Or it’s in delinquents, or it’s in people who want to strip. We don’t know, you know, but it’s — it’s just that — it’s that evil that — it seems to be like a big —steamroller, and this neighborhood is getting crushed fast.
BILL MOYERS: Crushed?
FATHER FLYNN: Crushed.
ANTHONY BOUZA: Well, I would say — I would like to rub America’s nose in this, and say: “Take a look at it! If you want to reject it, go ahead!” I — I just don’t happen to think that that’s the kind of a society that we live in. I thin~ our society responds to — responds to this kind of thing. I think what we — what we need to do, our inescapable responsibility, is to-~ to bring society’s attention to it. I think America’s too decent a place to — to really let this thing go on for very long. I really do.
BILL MOYERS: It’s easier to report the destruction of the Bronx than to stop it. For every problem, there’s a score of experts, each with a cure to contradict the others. I’m sure that’s one reason we throw up our hands in despair and try to put places like this out of sight and out of mind. Past efforts to do something, including millions of dollars spent here in the sixties, haven’t succeeded. Somehow, our failures at home paralyze our will, and we don’t approach a disaster like the death of the Bronx with” the same urgency and commitment we carry to problems abroad.
Americans don’t accept unresolved conflicts with foreign powers as permanent and immutable. Past mistakes or failures don’t keep us from trying again. So the Vice President travels to Europe and Japan, the Secretary of State to the Middle East and Russia, the U.N. Ambassador to Africa. No one of comparable stature comes here. We seem to accept this as the natural order of things.
You can come here and be depressed by the slums, fires, drugs, crime and poverty. Or you can be impressed with the discovery that even in awful conditions, some people cherish common human values and try to build a decent life among the debris. You realize that they’re the best experts on the Bronx. If we’re going to save our cities, we will start with them. The economy has failed them: there are too few jobs, too little capital, too much red tape and too little effort to understand how best to help them. All that money we spread around in the sixties never got to the root need of human beings to make their own way.
[Indistinct street shouts in background]
BILL MOYERS: They want order, safety, and some degree of autonomy, just like everyone else. It’s time to bet on them. With capital, jobs and enough time, they might collectively create from these ruins good neighborhoods to live and grow in. After all, they have nowhere to go; their lives are at stake.
For the rest of us, it’s a test of whether democratic capitalism will be made to work for the poorest among us — that — and the knowledge that, unless we do act, the fires will no longer stop next door.
For CBS Reports, I’m Bill Moyers.
This transcript was entered on June 29, 2015.