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The Fires: How a Computer Formula, Big Ideas, and the Best of Intentions Burned Down New York City-and Determined the Future of Cities

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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 bore all the 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.


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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 bore all the 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.

30 review for The Fires: How a Computer Formula, Big Ideas, and the Best of Intentions Burned Down New York City-and Determined the Future of Cities

  1. 5 out of 5

    ☘Misericordia☘ ⚡ϟ⚡⛈⚡☁ ❇️❤❣

    LOL. A book about Fires by someone named Flood. A must read.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Lex

    This is a really fascinating book for people interested in the Bronx (and Brooklyn and parts of lower Manhattan) during the 70s. I never quite understood why my parents were so terrified when I announced to them I'd be teaching in the South Bronx, but after reading this book, I realized what their memories were of the South Bronx during this time period. (My dad, who is prone to exaggeration, compared it to Apocalypse Now... a war zone... hell... etc... but I see now he wasn't joking.) It's frus This is a really fascinating book for people interested in the Bronx (and Brooklyn and parts of lower Manhattan) during the 70s. I never quite understood why my parents were so terrified when I announced to them I'd be teaching in the South Bronx, but after reading this book, I realized what their memories were of the South Bronx during this time period. (My dad, who is prone to exaggeration, compared it to Apocalypse Now... a war zone... hell... etc... but I see now he wasn't joking.) It's frustrating to read about the actions of city leaders who truly believed they were doing the right thing by purposely starving the city's poorest enclaves of resources (in this book, fire services) based on simplistic computer models, but it's also a lesson for future generations. Though the appeal of this book is probably pretty narrow, and parts for me were a bit dry, I thought the author gave a good overview of the circumstances surrounding the fires. I would have liked more perspective from people who lived through the events.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Sean O

    This story starts out as a "Let's champion rationality and progressivism in city government" with the story of the rise of power of Mayor John Lindsay, and the lateral rise of power of the Robert McNamara "Whiz-Kids" that helped JFK and LBJ run the Viet Nam war. And then the story shifts to the difference between "large root-cause fixers of problems," like the power broker Robert Moses and the "small branch-and-twig fixers of problems," like the Tammany/machine street politics found in most big c This story starts out as a "Let's champion rationality and progressivism in city government" with the story of the rise of power of Mayor John Lindsay, and the lateral rise of power of the Robert McNamara "Whiz-Kids" that helped JFK and LBJ run the Viet Nam war. And then the story shifts to the difference between "large root-cause fixers of problems," like the power broker Robert Moses and the "small branch-and-twig fixers of problems," like the Tammany/machine street politics found in most big cities. The hero of the story is, John O'Hagan, who is widely regarded as a giant in the modernization of the fire service in America. But like many great men, hubris and desire for power had unintended consequences. The victim of the story is New York City, a city whose industrial base hollowed out by zoning, thriving neighborhoods ruined by "urban renewal", and some serious systemic revenue problems. Thanks to a combination of "big ideas" gone bad, razor-thin budgets, and political disenfranchisement, the NYFD ended up in "The War Years" where fires raged in the Bronx and elsewhere. Despite having the "best and brightest minds" working with the most respected Fire Chief in America. And, according to the author, Because of them. This is primarily a story of good intentions gone wrong and how focusing on the problem from the wrong angle can make things much much worse. And as a person interested in cities, disasters, and how communities recover, it's a sad tale, well told. The conclusion offers a story about how cities can thrive _despite_ the mistakes humans make running them. And this makes me feel better. Cities don't suck. They aren't hopelessly flawed. They bounce back from the harm we inflict upon them. Because cities aren't things, they're people, and people are the most flawed, resilient, and tenacious things this world has ever come up with. Recommended to fans of cities, city politics, and especially fire fighting.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Ben Savage

    Very good intro to the problems of Data analysis and how it irrevocably changed one city. The author does a good job of balancing data, the peoples, and the story. Certain things, to me, lacked. We were introduced to major characters only to shift them to passive observers. He also bounces the story around between the three characters/ players. However he does an admirable job of capturing the firehouse, and those years that tore the city apart. Very interesting that he mentions issues that are Very good intro to the problems of Data analysis and how it irrevocably changed one city. The author does a good job of balancing data, the peoples, and the story. Certain things, to me, lacked. We were introduced to major characters only to shift them to passive observers. He also bounces the story around between the three characters/ players. However he does an admirable job of capturing the firehouse, and those years that tore the city apart. Very interesting that he mentions issues that are still surfacing -community policing, segregation, and how to build neighborhoods.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Graham

    Joe Flood is perhaps the best possible name for the author of a book called The Fires. Or, more completely, The Fires: How a Computer Formula, Big Ideas, and the Best of Intentions Burned Down New York City-and Determined the Future of Cities. That title is a mouthful, but accurately reflects the amazing and diverse subtopics that Flood effortlessly moves back and forth across in explaining the rash of fires in 1970s New York and the decline of the Bronx. Starting with the machine politics of Tam Joe Flood is perhaps the best possible name for the author of a book called The Fires. Or, more completely, The Fires: How a Computer Formula, Big Ideas, and the Best of Intentions Burned Down New York City-and Determined the Future of Cities. That title is a mouthful, but accurately reflects the amazing and diverse subtopics that Flood effortlessly moves back and forth across in explaining the rash of fires in 1970s New York and the decline of the Bronx. Starting with the machine politics of Tammany Hall and the various city departments’ resistance to reform, Flood traces the ascent of Fire Chief John O’Hagan, a unbelievably intelligent, young reformer in the FDNY with ideas of quantitative analysis in his head. Flood explores the origins of systems analysis and operations research in World War II, and then follows the rise of the RAND Corporation through the early days of the Cold War, and the inexorable meetings between RAND, O’Hagan, and Mayor John Lindsay that led to a radical new firefighting regime citywide. Sophisticated computer modeling directed the closure of many fire stations throughout the South Bronx, which (unbeknown to me) had been an upscale, classy developed area mostly inhabited by Italians and Jews escaping the slums and tenements of the Lower East Side. As fire after fire engulfed the Bronx, and the fire department proved woefully inadequate at fighting them, a massive phase of white flight began to accelerate. Coupled with Robert Moses’ Cross-Bronx Expressway and Lindsay’s repeal of a city law requiring municipal employees to reside within city limits, the number of whites in the outer boroughs dropped dramatically as they fled to suburban Westchester County and across the river to New Jersey. Of course, there’s far more than even that to the story. Flood does an absolutely masterful job of weaving together all these disparate threads into a cohesive narrative. There’s Moses and his misguided plan for the Lower Manhattan Expressway (LoMEX), an eight-lane behemoth of an elevated highway that would have utterly destroyed Greenwich Village and much of the surrounding area. The Ford Motor Company and Robert McNamara make an appearance as early benefactors of RAND’s pioneering quantitative research. Flood also gives the rezoning of Manhattan that banished most industry and manufacturing a brief, if absolutely intriguing treatment. He excoriates the weak building codes that existed for much of the twentieth century, and the loophole of the World Trade Center’s construction by the Port Authority that allowed it to skirt New York City building codes. It’s hard to do The Fires justice. It is so far-reaching – but never over-reaching – that to describe all the different components of its narrative would be impossible without actually writing the book again. But in that sense, hopefully this represents a new trend in historical writing, a truly interdisciplinary effort that never seems to bog down. From sociology to politics to urban planning to history to engineering, Joe Flood just bounces around without getting distracted, but while conveying the sheer complexity of a series of events like this. There’s no single explanation; there are six or seven. It’s an impressive feat. While this book certainly is a “commercial” history (i.e. no footnotes), it has a wealth of information in the back anyways, using the page-number/quote-fragment system (on another note, does anyone know the actual term for this citation method). Much of Flood’s sourcing consists of personal interviews, giving him a truly first-hand perspective of the events he’s covering. The obscure documents he unearths in some instances also speak to his devotion to the subject. And I know that some of the random tangents he meanders down have given me ideas for a book of my own. If it’s any kind of testament to the quality of The Fires, not only did I buy it for myself, but I got my father a copy for Christmas. I would buy pretty much everyone a copy of this if they don’t already have it. The Fires is unequivocally recommended by me to anybody who can read.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Rob Kitchin

    In The Fires Joe Flood seeks to explain what led to what the NYFD called ‘The War Years’-- 1968-1977 when large swathes of The Bronx and other areas were devastated by extensive fires. This is no easy task given the complex web of factors at play including the battles between Tammany political culture and reform agendas, the long run consequences of city planning policy, changes to the city’s economic fortunes, social change and upheaval, and tussles within the fire service as it sought to moder In The Fires Joe Flood seeks to explain what led to what the NYFD called ‘The War Years’-- 1968-1977 when large swathes of The Bronx and other areas were devastated by extensive fires. This is no easy task given the complex web of factors at play including the battles between Tammany political culture and reform agendas, the long run consequences of city planning policy, changes to the city’s economic fortunes, social change and upheaval, and tussles within the fire service as it sought to modernize and change organisational structures and working practices, drawing extensively on the systems op analysis of RAND. Flood, however, does an admirable job of untangling the various forces at play and how they interacted to create a deadly maelstrom. This is achieved by focusing on the intentions, decisions and actions of a handful of key actors, especially Mayor John Lindsay, Fire Chief John O’Hagan, and the RAND Corporation, contextualising these with respect to particular events and wider economic and political factors. This analysis draws on extensive archival research and many interviews with key actors, including politicians, public servants, serving firemen, and families. The result is a nuanced and layered story that demonstrates that there is no, and can never be, a magic formula to running a city; that despite good intentions, reams of facts and statistics, and clever models made by very bright people, cities are messy, complex, multi-scalar, open entities that are social, cultural, political and economic in nature, acting and reacting in diverse ways to myriads of factors and competing and conflicting interests. The book is an excellent read -- well written, engaging, and insightful -- and provides a fascinating story to anyone interested in contemporary urban history. In my view it’s a must read book for all those presently involved in conceiving and building smart city initiatives.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Erhardt Graeff

    Joe Flood writes a solid history of the twentieth century city planning through the lens of The War Years fires that burned out large swathes of the poorest parts of New York City. It's well-researched and hangs together nicely. He cribs a good bit from Robert Caro's massive biography of planner Robert Moses, and some of his points get repetitive—disrupting the otherwise nicely narrativized of history and analysis that Flood puts to paper. Students of cities and planning and of power politics wi Joe Flood writes a solid history of the twentieth century city planning through the lens of The War Years fires that burned out large swathes of the poorest parts of New York City. It's well-researched and hangs together nicely. He cribs a good bit from Robert Caro's massive biography of planner Robert Moses, and some of his points get repetitive—disrupting the otherwise nicely narrativized of history and analysis that Flood puts to paper. Students of cities and planning and of power politics will find this an interesting read touching on the complexity of decision-making and the way that politics and management are bound to the times and trends in which they occur. And of course, the indictment of RAND's systems analysis is an important reminder that we can't play god even when we are good with all the numbers. The Fires is as a political biography of the men of New York City that did this work and why they did it. As such it offers a companion of different style and scale to James C. Scott's masterful Seeing Like a State, which makes a similar point about reductionist system analytical planning but over a longer historical and geographical arc. It's a quick, fun read. New Yorkers especially should pick up to learn how their city evolved into what it is today and the long development of the city's racial and economic politic (which were unfortunately replicated around the country).

  8. 4 out of 5

    Benjamin Fasching-Gray

    This story of how a bunch of know-it-all nerds juggled some numbers and burned down the best parts of NYC filled me with rage. Flood -- a Bronx native -- tries for an evenhanded, no bad guys approach, but when there are overtly racist motivations at work he doesn't shy away from describing them. Although he is trying to simply be critical of certain approaches to governance and avoid conspiracy theory weirdness, I was left thinking that a bunch of bad people orchestrated a decades long ethnic cl This story of how a bunch of know-it-all nerds juggled some numbers and burned down the best parts of NYC filled me with rage. Flood -- a Bronx native -- tries for an evenhanded, no bad guys approach, but when there are overtly racist motivations at work he doesn't shy away from describing them. Although he is trying to simply be critical of certain approaches to governance and avoid conspiracy theory weirdness, I was left thinking that a bunch of bad people orchestrated a decades long ethnic cleansing program in my grandparents' neighborhood. Flood uses the oxymoron "free market" a little too often for me, but his general point feels right: that systems that gather knowledge and solutions from the bottom up and with an "entrepreneurial spirit" are less capable of large scale destruction than top-down grand planner hierarchies, and that both are prone to corruption. There is a warning here for all the people currently enamored with "big data" and "data mining" ... these mostly white boy tech-heads are just going to justify their racist and sexist garbage with a bunch of crap numbers they pulled out of their butts, claiming, "I am not racist, the computer says this is the right thing to do... and if it harms people of color... all the better..." well, sorry, but that's basically what happened when they let the Bronx burn and the same kinds of jerks are working on the same kind of evil today. But that's me, Flood is much more chilled out about the whole thing. I wanted to read this book because the fires and the fiscal crisis of 70s NYC are the context for true school hip hop and Fania salsa. But this is mostly about the planners and the jerks at RAND and the firefighters and not so much about the people of the Bronx... although the founders of hip hop get a mention in the conclusion.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Mauri

    Alarming to think that the computer algorithms everyone is rightfully yelling about now were being used (with the same lack of nuance) as early as the 70s. Computers and statistics can only tell you what you’ve told them, and if the input is biased and racist, it follows that the results will be too. This book has a personal connection for me, describing as it does the burning of the Bronx and central Brooklyn. My dad’s family was composed of German immigrants who settled in Bushwick in the late Alarming to think that the computer algorithms everyone is rightfully yelling about now were being used (with the same lack of nuance) as early as the 70s. Computers and statistics can only tell you what you’ve told them, and if the input is biased and racist, it follows that the results will be too. This book has a personal connection for me, describing as it does the burning of the Bronx and central Brooklyn. My dad’s family was composed of German immigrants who settled in Bushwick in the late 1800s and my great-grandmother was born at home there. She and her daughter (my dad’s aunt) were the last to leave, in 1978, as block after block was being literally decimated by fire. She died two months later. My great-grandfather, her husband, was a firefighter who died in the line of duty. At the 100th anniversary of his firehouse awhile back, we each received a booklet prepared for the occasion, full of pictures and statistics. You can see the number of fires that the company took on double between 1966 and 1967.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Nichola

    Recently covered this topic on a PBS show which had me intrigued. This comprehensive book uses each chapter to explore a different facet f how this awful neglect and razing of a huge section of a major city could come to pass. Topics are the leadership in the fire department, the financial fashions governments were led to, the racism and racist policies, city planning ideas, and of course the new idea of using computer analysis that was supposed to make every thing more efficient. I was hoping f Recently covered this topic on a PBS show which had me intrigued. This comprehensive book uses each chapter to explore a different facet f how this awful neglect and razing of a huge section of a major city could come to pass. Topics are the leadership in the fire department, the financial fashions governments were led to, the racism and racist policies, city planning ideas, and of course the new idea of using computer analysis that was supposed to make every thing more efficient. I was hoping for more of the latter form the title, but the one chapter that covered it was pretty good. There seems to be little talk of taking responsibility for fixing problems caused by governments' poorly executed ideas, or being certain to check on a safety net for the peoples affected,just the idea of voting officials out and continuing on with newer untried ideas.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Ilya Gerner

    Reminiscent of Seeing Like a State.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Frank Stein

    Another book about the Mayor Lindsay administration with a reference to "Good Intentions" in its title. In my review of Morris Cohen's book, "The Cost of Good Intentions," I mentioned that one of the few successes Cohen attributed to the Lindsay administration was its revamping of the fire department under the influence of RAND studies. Considering that significant parts of New York burned to the ground in the 1970s, Cohen probably should have been careful to play up even that claim. In this boo Another book about the Mayor Lindsay administration with a reference to "Good Intentions" in its title. In my review of Morris Cohen's book, "The Cost of Good Intentions," I mentioned that one of the few successes Cohen attributed to the Lindsay administration was its revamping of the fire department under the influence of RAND studies. Considering that significant parts of New York burned to the ground in the 1970s, Cohen probably should have been careful to play up even that claim. In this book Joe Flood investigates the RAND-influenced fire station closing policy implemented under Fire Chief and Commissioner John O'Hagen that clearly exacerbated the fires of that decade. Flood begins with a largely complimentary picture of O'Hagen, pointing to him as the origin of much contemporary fire-fighting technology (under his leadership, the NYFD was the first to use telescoping tower ladders that extended both up and over burning buildings, the first to use early "jaws of life" steel cutters to save trapped victims, and it used some of the first practical air-masks for fire-fighters. O'Hagen also conducted a study to prove that accelerants in cigarettes were the largest cause of preventable death in NYC, and he helped pass the pioneering Local Law 5 in 1972, which became the standard for building code safety ever-after). Yet Flood goes on to note that the RAND-NYC study of fire-response times, when used to condone cuts demanded by the city's fiscal situation, led to disproportionate closing of stations in the neediest areas (especially the Bronx and Bushwick) that led to fires getting out of control in what firefighters still call "the War Decade." Of course, as is typical in much contemporary journalism, Flood goes on to indict statistical models in general, and even veers further off tangent to discuss the shortcomings of President Bush and the War in Iraq. His facts, however, actually point to the problems with simple political applications of statistical models. For instance, the stopwatches used by the RAND researchers to measure response time were sabotaged by firefighters' unions worried about budget cuts. Likewise, in order to give the wealthy areas of the cities better response times, RAND divided the city into seven completely arbitrary "hazard categories," with the wealthiest getting more hypothetical stations. Commissioner O'Hagen also pushed the RAND researchers to find more cuts for "second stations" in dangerous areas where his union opponents were most powerful. In the end, the RAND-NYC study (which was later purchased by HUD and became the basis of many fire insurance maps) seems to be more the product of what Hayek called "scientism," a false scientific sheen laid upon fairly arbitrary assumptions. A lot of the book trods over familiar and often inaccurate territory (HOLC maps, urban renewal, Robert Moses), and does it in a pretty bland way. One cool takeaway though: arson probably never accounted for more than about 7% of all NYC fires in the 1970s, and those were often in buildings already abandoned because of other fires.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Greg Stoll

    This was a pretty interesting book! I didn't realize that New York City had a huge fire problem in the 70's, and at first the book provided a lot of background about the mayor, the fire chief, etc. to the point where it got to be a bit much. But then the author did a great job of laying out how the problem started and got worse through a series of bad decisions. The main theme is that it was mostly the fault of a technocratic City Hall, for example: - Robert Moses (the city planner) had a lot of This was a pretty interesting book! I didn't realize that New York City had a huge fire problem in the 70's, and at first the book provided a lot of background about the mayor, the fire chief, etc. to the point where it got to be a bit much. But then the author did a great job of laying out how the problem started and got worse through a series of bad decisions. The main theme is that it was mostly the fault of a technocratic City Hall, for example: - Robert Moses (the city planner) had a lot of power to impose a top-down vision for what the city should be like, and used it to destroy a bunch of housing and industrial buildings to build highways, parks, and office towers. This included "slum clearance" which people thought would get rid of the slums, but instead just made the lower-income people move elsewhere in the city, including the South Bronx. The deindustrialization caused even more poverty. - This caused more fires as a result of crowded living conditions, etc. John O'Hagan (the fire chief) was a technocratic type (as was the mayor) and hired the RAND Corporation to try to make the fire department more efficient. - RAND did a study about which firehouses were busiest, but they didn't gather very much data, and what they did gather was not very reliable because firemen didn't care about them and would often make up their response times, etc. Then the way RAND analyzed the data was laughably simplistic - they concluded that adding two firehouses in the same district was causing more false alarms and therefore was a waste of resources. But all they measured was the number of runs a firehouse went on, which includes false alarms - but false alarms are very quick to deal with, since the fire engine would just drive by, see no smoke, and return back to the firehouse. If you look at the fires that they actually had to fight, the second firehouse made a noticeable difference. - There's also some evidence that the O'Hagan didn't care about what he called "ghetto fires" and was more concerned/interested in high-rise fires. To be fair, he literally wrote the book on new techniques for fighting them that are still being used today. So when the models came back saying to close firehouses in poorer neighborhoods he didn't push back. - New York City was on the verge of going bankrupt in the 70's, which led to more cuts from the fire department. - The author also points out that while Tammany Hall was certainly corrupt, they were corrupt in the "you have to keep constituents happy by giving them jobs, but take some off the top for yourself" way, which while not optimal at least meant they were responsive to the citizens. There were literally riots in the streets because of the fires/poor conditions, but the mayor was convinced he was doing the right thing and stayed the course. So, yeah! Pretty interesting book.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Tony

    U.S. government research and development computer modeling -- spun off as the RAND Corporation think tank -- drives military prowess and Robert McNamara's Vietnam War, then intervenes at Ford Motor Co., and on those "successes" ends up promulgating changes in the city government of New York with the fire department as a test case. Except the changes rammed through city hall subverted the common sense intelligence of those on the front-lines -- specifically, the firemen and NYC's most progressive U.S. government research and development computer modeling -- spun off as the RAND Corporation think tank -- drives military prowess and Robert McNamara's Vietnam War, then intervenes at Ford Motor Co., and on those "successes" ends up promulgating changes in the city government of New York with the fire department as a test case. Except the changes rammed through city hall subverted the common sense intelligence of those on the front-lines -- specifically, the firemen and NYC's most progressive commissioner/chief, John O'Hagan -- and helped devolve the (arguably) greatest city in the world into a disintegrating, dangerous, fire-ravaged, feared "city in crisis" that was nearly lost to myopic bureaucracy. In this well-researched, rich-in-details book by the young and wonderfully talented Joe Flood ((http://joe-flood.com/reviewsandmedia)), a post-war history is revealed of a city struggling through financial bungles, political gamesmanship and racial rifts in the '60s and '70s. Of all the books I've read in the past several months, this is a standout. It is not only about the fires of the South Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan's Lower East Side and Harlem, and how poor neighborhoods were allowed to burn down through practically purposeful neglect, but also about the history of the city's dysfunction -- beginning with the corrupt Tammany Hall and political "clubhouses," and through to the political subversion of fire codes that allowed deathtraps such as the World Trade Center towers to exist -- and how an experiment in social and civil engineering based on flawed assumptions and bad mathematical models was exported to cities across the country. If you thought NYC was being torched by arsonists at every turn during those years, this book will give you perspective on what was really behind the city that burned. Includes a serviceable history of the tenures of Mayors La Guardia, Lindsey and Beame.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Michael

    It turns out the key word in the title is "How." What I thought might be a book about the fires themselves ended up an amazing explication of the political and policy machinations that led to the burning of the Bronx, Brooklyn and Manhattan in the late '60s and '70s. Flood does a more than admirable job making the point that "root approach" governance (in brief, making systematic changes based on statistical analysis to help government become more efficient) was a failure in New York, along the It turns out the key word in the title is "How." What I thought might be a book about the fires themselves ended up an amazing explication of the political and policy machinations that led to the burning of the Bronx, Brooklyn and Manhattan in the late '60s and '70s. Flood does a more than admirable job making the point that "root approach" governance (in brief, making systematic changes based on statistical analysis to help government become more efficient) was a failure in New York, along the way exposing more general flaws in the approach. While Flood isn't advocating a return to the corruption and inequality of Tammany Hall-style city governance, he does believe strongly that a more responsive, more adaptable "branch approach" is less prone to the systematic failures that caused the fires of "The War Years," as NYFD men have come to call them. Though Flood takes a bit of a moralizing tone at times, this first book is a fantastic accomplishment. It's a sobering parable for civic-minded citizens and civil servants everywhere.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Jorge

    this is set in New york city in the 1960's where a computer model called RANDS is set up by a corperation. RANDS was used by the military and new tork officials thought that it was a good idea to set up RANDS computers in public service areas for the cittizens to use in houses and in public areas where help could be needed from a computer. after a few months of using them fires started blazing around all of New York city from lower manhattan to the hieghts of Queens. the fire fighters called it this is set in New york city in the 1960's where a computer model called RANDS is set up by a corperation. RANDS was used by the military and new tork officials thought that it was a good idea to set up RANDS computers in public service areas for the cittizens to use in houses and in public areas where help could be needed from a computer. after a few months of using them fires started blazing around all of New York city from lower manhattan to the hieghts of Queens. the fire fighters called it the war of fires because there were so many of them. it was figured that it was the RANDS models that were starting them and thats where the conflict kick starts. it a good easy read with a unique story and nothing cliche about it so thats why i enjoyed it. i recommend this to anyone who wants something different to read.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Liam

    "During the 1950s, city fire marshals attributed less than 1 percent of fires to arson. Until 1975, that ratio never rose above 1.1 percent. At its peak in the late 1970s, arson made up less than 7 percent of fires. What's more, arson occurred primarily in already burned-out, abandoned buildings -- after all, it made more sense to torch a building without rent-paying tenants than one that had at least some revenue coming in." (18) "If people do not believe that mathematics is simple, it is only b "During the 1950s, city fire marshals attributed less than 1 percent of fires to arson. Until 1975, that ratio never rose above 1.1 percent. At its peak in the late 1970s, arson made up less than 7 percent of fires. What's more, arson occurred primarily in already burned-out, abandoned buildings -- after all, it made more sense to torch a building without rent-paying tenants than one that had at least some revenue coming in." (18) "If people do not believe that mathematics is simple, it is only because they do not realize how complicated life is." (quoting John Von Neumann, 73) "To figure out how much money the company [Ford] owed, they [the Whiz Kids] stacked up all the bills, measured them with a ruler, and through a formula of unknown provenance turned feet into dollars." (78) "[B]y 1977, debt service made up a third of all city expenses." (237)

  18. 5 out of 5

    Joe Rasmussen

    Very interesting book. Flood tells a really good story and does a good job of connecting some dots and illustrating how something like this could happen. His analysis of the bigger picture trends it illustrates and the "what does it mean now?" section feel tacked on and the 12 page conclusion really isn't enough space for him to flesh things out. Still, Flood does a good job showing up the misguided-ness of attempts to solve problems with forced application of statistical modeling and analysis, Very interesting book. Flood tells a really good story and does a good job of connecting some dots and illustrating how something like this could happen. His analysis of the bigger picture trends it illustrates and the "what does it mean now?" section feel tacked on and the 12 page conclusion really isn't enough space for him to flesh things out. Still, Flood does a good job showing up the misguided-ness of attempts to solve problems with forced application of statistical modeling and analysis, a dream that policy makers and planners seem to still hold onto.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Stephen

    Thoroughly satisfying as a nerd-lite descent into the perils of trying to use statistical analysis to to turn societal ills into algebra. Veers into repetitiveness a few too many times in the middle, but what I liked most was the picture it painted of a moment in time when a small group of people's individual blind spots all happened to align, for different reasons, on the same spot (the Bronx) with catastrophic consequences. Thoroughly satisfying as a nerd-lite descent into the perils of trying to use statistical analysis to to turn societal ills into algebra. Veers into repetitiveness a few too many times in the middle, but what I liked most was the picture it painted of a moment in time when a small group of people's individual blind spots all happened to align, for different reasons, on the same spot (the Bronx) with catastrophic consequences.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Theresa Conte

    This was an amazing book on several levels, including its readability. It chronicles how the City drove its industry out of the area in favor of real estate developers and Wall Street and allowed Robert Moses to plow through once stable areas in the Bronx and Brooklyn and created the ghettos that burned in the seventies. It all sounds eerily like City governance Under our current mayor, and the author connects all the dots in the last chapter.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Colin Anton

    Start with a dash of "The Bronx is Burning". Add equal spoonfuls of the mayoralties of Lindsay, Beame, and Bloomberg. A sprinkle of DJ Kool Herc, a dollop of stop-and-frisk, and one large helping of statistical modeling idiocy. Add some Robert Moses and Jacob Riis to taste, and mix it all up in a large Tammany Hall bowl. An insanely interesting book about the bleak New York of the seventies, as seen through the lens of the Fire Department. If I could give this book six stars, I would. Start with a dash of "The Bronx is Burning". Add equal spoonfuls of the mayoralties of Lindsay, Beame, and Bloomberg. A sprinkle of DJ Kool Herc, a dollop of stop-and-frisk, and one large helping of statistical modeling idiocy. Add some Robert Moses and Jacob Riis to taste, and mix it all up in a large Tammany Hall bowl. An insanely interesting book about the bleak New York of the seventies, as seen through the lens of the Fire Department. If I could give this book six stars, I would.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Zara

    This is probably not a book I would ever have heard of otherwise, so I'm so glad I had to read it for my class on the public policy process. While I would have appreciated inclusion of the accounts of people who were living in the South Bronx during the fires, this book is nonetheless an excellent account of how well-intentioned, rationally based policy can go horribly wrong. Very gripping - I wish I could make every policymaker in the world go read it now. This is probably not a book I would ever have heard of otherwise, so I'm so glad I had to read it for my class on the public policy process. While I would have appreciated inclusion of the accounts of people who were living in the South Bronx during the fires, this book is nonetheless an excellent account of how well-intentioned, rationally based policy can go horribly wrong. Very gripping - I wish I could make every policymaker in the world go read it now.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Greg

    I thought this was going to about computers taking over society. It h some calculatadions and told the history of how math and theory helped organize to win WWII, but this book was mostly about the politics of NYC from the 50's to 60's. It was good though, I learned a lot about Tamnany Hall and Robert Moses. And I'm more skeptical than ever of Democrats' social programs than ever before. I thought this was going to about computers taking over society. It h some calculatadions and told the history of how math and theory helped organize to win WWII, but this book was mostly about the politics of NYC from the 50's to 60's. It was good though, I learned a lot about Tamnany Hall and Robert Moses. And I'm more skeptical than ever of Democrats' social programs than ever before.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Denali

    This is a fantastic book. It's a great idea and very well executed. Strongly recommended to all planner friends, especially since a lot of this stuff is still happening. It's exciting to see a new young author working on this stuff. Flood has a few things to straighten out writing/organization-wise but I'm looking forward to reading whatever he's working on next. This is a fantastic book. It's a great idea and very well executed. Strongly recommended to all planner friends, especially since a lot of this stuff is still happening. It's exciting to see a new young author working on this stuff. Flood has a few things to straighten out writing/organization-wise but I'm looking forward to reading whatever he's working on next.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Bonnie

    This book was probably made for me, since I've worked at RAND and am pretty interested in quantitative modeling but also how modeling compares to real life, but I think other people would really enjoy it too. Engagingly written history of a certain time period in New York City and its continuing legacy. This book was probably made for me, since I've worked at RAND and am pretty interested in quantitative modeling but also how modeling compares to real life, but I think other people would really enjoy it too. Engagingly written history of a certain time period in New York City and its continuing legacy.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Bruce

    Basically, I liked the story, but it is not so much about the fires as it is NYC politics centered around Mayor Lindsey and Fire Chief O'Hagan. Learning more about RAND corp. was a plus and provided good reason to question their fire service study methodology. Basically, I liked the story, but it is not so much about the fires as it is NYC politics centered around Mayor Lindsey and Fire Chief O'Hagan. Learning more about RAND corp. was a plus and provided good reason to question their fire service study methodology.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Flynt

    An abundance of odd, difficult-to-read sentences, but they are forgiven when weighed against the exhaustive research & thotful presentation of Rand's far-reaching cultural engineering. A must-read if you want to understand how our modern society developed. An abundance of odd, difficult-to-read sentences, but they are forgiven when weighed against the exhaustive research & thotful presentation of Rand's far-reaching cultural engineering. A must-read if you want to understand how our modern society developed.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Thomas

    The writing plods, but the core is gold. Flood argues that bad analysis accelerated the Bronx fires in the 70s and painstakingly tells the story of Rand corporation's work for the Lindsay Administration. I like best the argument that Tammany Hall never would have made the same mistakes. The writing plods, but the core is gold. Flood argues that bad analysis accelerated the Bronx fires in the 70s and painstakingly tells the story of Rand corporation's work for the Lindsay Administration. I like best the argument that Tammany Hall never would have made the same mistakes.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Bill

    Great book that largely explains the socio-economic causes for the high fire load of the war years. Along with good bios of some historic FDNY figures that played major roles in the response to this anomaly of fire.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Kendra

    Parts of this book were super interesting, parts were very in the weeds. I also thought that sometimes the storytelling got in the way of nuance and critique. But all in all, I would recommend it to people who are interested in urban policy.

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