On a recent November night, the old Bronx came back to life in a Manhattan College auditorium in the new Bronx. Projected on a 10-foot screen was a video of a huge fire engulfing an entire apartment building. Twelve storytellers sat on stage, and as the flames consumed the building, they repeated five words: “Smoke. Ashes. Broken glass. Confusion.”
The trial-by-fire that nearly destroyed the Bronx two decades ago is probably the country’s best-known urban horror story. But the narrators on stage, all members of the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, have grown to think of the fires as an almost biblical event, a cataclysm that made it possible to create a new world. This performance–celebrating the 25th anniversary of the community group–recognized the people who, refusing to abandon the borough, built it into the new Bronx.
The audience, mostly students born well after the coalition started up in 1974, looked nonplussed. But that didn’t dampen the spirits of the story-tellers. One of the coalition members recalled a flyer that a local Citibank branch slipped in to customers’ monthly bank statements back in the late 1970s. It was an ad for a “Get Moving Kit,” encouraging people to apply for mortgage loans in other counties–where they were easier to get. The branch soon closed up shop and, by 1980, some 300,000 residents followed it out of the borough.
But the coalition stayed, bringing in $100 million in loans to rehabilitate buildings like the one Dalma De La Rosa used to live in. At the performance, she recalled the freezing cold nights when she and her neighbors were forced to leave their ovens on for heat, and use garden hoses and nearby hydrants to pipe in water.
She also recalled city officials who didn’t believe her when she described her situation and remembered how quickly she set them straight. “The one thing I’m telling you,” she said, straight-faced on this stage in the new Bronx, “never tell a short Puerto Rican she’s a liar.”