Photo by: Giovanni Dall’Orto

This story is part of a reporting project conducted jointly by City Limits and a team of students at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism.

On June 14, 1974, an apartment building at 180 Central Avenue in Bushwick, Brooklyn, went up in flames and took the lives of Carmen Molina and two children who, with the rest of their family—the children’s father and another daughter—were preparing to move out of the building.

The Molinas lived on the building’s third and top floor. The fire escape was gated and locked. The father, Miguel, jumped from the third floor to get help, but on impact, broke multiple bones.

Sonia, 9, the middle daughter, was spending the night in her grandmother’s home not far away. At dawn, she and her grandmother woke to pounding on the door. It was Sonia’s aunt, come with news of the fire.

The nearest fire company, Engine 218, was just around the corner from the three-floor walk-up—the backs of the two buildings practically touched—but the crew was out on another call and didn’t arrive on the scene until rescue was impossible. Miguel was ambulanced to the hospital and the fire was put out, but nothing could be done to save Carmen Molina or her two children.

Fire marshals later reported that the fire was fueled by gasoline poured from the third floor down to the first, but their investigation never found the perpetrator. In 2009, when Sonia Molina shared her story on, a New York City history-preservation project funded by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Rockefeller Foundation, she had lived almost 35 years not knowing who lit the fire that stole more than half of her family.

Today, the lot at 180 Central Avenue sits empty.

Arson—defined by the FBI as “any willful or malicious burning or attempting to burn, with or without intent to defraud”—is a complicated crime. A property crime that can also be a violent offense, arson requires an investigation just to determine whether or not it happened. It stems from a variety of motives, including emotion, hatred or simple greed. And arson victims don’t always know they are victims: “If you’re robbed, you call the police. If your house is on fire, you don’t assume it was set on purpose,” says criminologist and author Franklin Zimring.

In 1970s New York, arson was a fact of life. Days without flames were few and far between, until the city and its remaining residents decided to take action. Those days are gone—from a high of 13,752 cases in 1976, arsons fell to around 2,000 in 2012.

The radical reduction of arson hasn’t received nearly as much attention as other parts of New York City’s renaissance. This may reflect questions about the accuracy of the data and the rigor of investigations behind it.

The problem

Vacant buildings, piles of trash because Sanitation had stopped making full rounds, homeless holing up and lighting fires to keep warm—all of these plus rampant crime and drug use, a sour economy and desperate landlords contributed to arson levels in the bad old days. Gasoline was the typical accelerant.

Vincent Dunn, unofficial FDNY historian who in the 70s and 80s served as division and field commander in the Bronx and Harlem, tells the story of an apartment building in the Bronx where a resident reported the scent of gasoline. One of his firefighters went to the top of the building and examined fan vents on the common roof space.

“He lifts up the vent, and he sees a gallon of gasoline with an open top in there,” Dunn says. At three other vents, he found the same thing. “And a wick that was charred, but went out.”

Finding gasoline on roofs, at the tops of stairways, near anything flammable was common, but investigating fires, tracking down the perpetrators was not.

“Arson was like a joke,” Dunn says. “You’d say, ‘We suspect an arson’ . . . and nobody would ever come. You’d leave the scene. Two hours later or a day later, an investigator would come up and maybe take a look, but by that time, all the evidence was not handled properly.”

Enter the Red Caps

Howard Cosell may have said the Bronx was burning, but really several parts of the city were in flames. According to one city report, Brooklyn led the way with 40.7 percent of the city’s 8,312 arson fires in 1980. The Bronx followed closely behind with 30.3 percent.

Arson Incidents Recorded by NYPD

It wasn’t until the late 70s, when a new chief fire marshal, John Regan, took charge of the Bureau of Fire Investigation that the FDNY began making successful attempts to stamp out the arson epidemic.

“He starts this program called the Red Caps,” Dunn says. “He makes all the marshals wear red baseball caps, and he makes them respond to any all-hands working fire, regardless of whether we declare it suspicious or not.”

The Red Caps assumed a presence in arson-rife neighborhoods, staying in trailers on a rotational basis in South Bronx, Harlem, the Lower East Side and other arson-heavy areas. As soon as a fire was reported, they went to the site, began investigating, interviewed onlookers and victims, and made arrests.

“They got to the scene at the time of the fire. Not two hours later or a day later,” Dunn says.

Video: Remembering the Happy Land tragedy

At the time, Dunn kept records of the fires, charted where and when they took place and whether or not the Red Caps were stationed in those areas. The trends, to him, were clear: “When the Red Caps come, fires would go down, false alarms would go down, emergencies would go down, and then when they leave, they would go up.”

Strike force gets credit

In 1978, not long after the Red Caps mobilized, New York City created the Arson Strike Force, a multi-agency program deploying 50 fire marshals and 50 policemen in high arson areas—specifically, according to the February 1978 Mayor Management Report, the South Bronx, East New York-Brownsville and Bushwick. It combined the Red Caps’ community presence with a focus on information gathering and analysis to combat arson by understanding why it was a problem in the first place.

Headquartered at 51 Chambers Street, the force published yearly reports on arson, worked with citizens’ groups to encourage people to share information about suspicious buildings; demolished and sealed up vacant structures (most vacant building fires were believed to be arson); and used its own research to develop a formula called the Arson Risk Prediction Index (ARPI) for assessing the arson risk of buildings.

The ARPI included a number of factors—building size, age, use and condition, tax arrears, corner location, and so on—to judge buildings against the structural arson profile.

Chasing Fires

Read the CUNY J-School team’s full report on arson in New York City, then and now.

“The most typical arson happens just after midnight on a Sunday morning in May,” the force reported in its September 1980 study. “It occurs in a small walk-up tenement or brownstone apartment building with a ground-floor store, located on a street corner in Brooklyn.”

In the force’s first year of existence, arson numbers dropped by about 3,000. In its second year, there was an almost 2,700 decrease. When it published its last annual report in 1993 before Mayor Giuliani took office and shifted focus onto law enforcement, the force reported 3,833 arsons for that year—down 7.5 percent from the previous year and 71.3 percent from before the force’s institution.

Victims no more

Government forces weren’t the only ones working against arson. Long-time New York residents—loyal to their city and not about to let thugs or miscreants push them out—banded together in community, homeowner, and tenant organizations to fight deterioration.

Most community organizations focused on building restoration—buying abandoned, deteriorating buildings, restoring and selling them—which may have indirectly impacted arson numbers by making properties more valuable than insurance payouts. Some of these organizations also made a conscious effort to fight other landlord-driven arson, where landlords smoked tenants out of their rent-controlled apartments in order to vacate buildings and rent them closer to market rates.

The Flatbush Development Corporation (FDC) was one such community organization. In 1975, Mike Weiss co-founded FDC with the goal of preventing his Brooklyn neighborhood from declining the way others were. At the time, many Flatbush buildings were rent-controlled, so arson-for-profit was a major concern. Through a grant-funded research project, FDC looked at ownership of vacant buildings in other Brooklyn neighborhoods, traced fire and financing history of the owners, and tracked those owners in Flatbush.

“Through that, we actually were able to pinpoint some properties that were either owned by the same [troubled owners]. . . or they were starting to buy buildings in the neighborhood, figuring they would do the same thing in our neighborhood,” Weiss said in a recent interview with City Limits.

FDC combated suspicious owners in several ways: It confronted owners directly, telling them the community knew their history and was watching them. It organized tenants, mobilizing renters to demand services like working locks, functional buzzer systems, and clean halls and stairways. It also contacted lenders, telling banks and financial institutions the community would hold them responsible for ignoring proper screening procedures. FDC also worked closely with the FDNY to keep marshals informed and make sure buildings were inspected.

Arson Arrests in New York City

The efforts, to Weiss, were successful:

“It never got to the point in Flatbush where there was large-scale abandonment of buildings because of arson,” he said.

Immigration may also have played a role. In 1965, the Hart-Cellar Immigration Act opened the nation’s—and New York City’s—doors to a new population of hopefuls. In the next 15 years, as the city population dropped from 7.9 million in 1970 to 7.1 million in 1980, the immigrant population grew, preventing further depopulation and filling residences that would otherwise have stood vacant. Immigrant populations are linked to reductions in crime: A recent study by the Americas Society and Council of the Americas reported that “[f]or every 1 percent increase in a [New York City police] precinct’s immigrant population, an average of 966 fewer crimes are committed each year.”

Rising property values were undoubtedly another factor, upending the motivation behind arson-for-profit. Waves of development and gentrification made properties too valuable to burn: According to city real tax documents, even the market value of the empty lot at 180 Central Avenue has increased by 64 percent over the past four years.

Arson today

There’s no way to know the exact number of New York City arson cases for any particular year. Reporting methods—who reports arson numbers and to whom they report—have changed multiple times over the past several decades. Where data from varying government sources overlap, there’s only approximate agreement some of the time.

But the statistics coincide on trends: a dramatic rise in arson in the mid-60s, from 3,000 or so cases a year to more than 8,000; a peak in 1976 at more than 13,000 cases (13,752, according to a study by the former Arson Task Force); and a dramatic reduction that began in 1978, wavered in the first half of the 80s, and continued strongly into the early 90s, before slowly tapering to around 2,000, where it’s hovered for the past five years.

Bushwick—a neighborhood once known for its flames—reported only 15 arsons last year, according to NYPD crime data. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) recently reported that the number of intentional fires in the U.S. decreased by 69 percent from 1980 to 2011.

But these numbers may not capture every arson that occurred: NYPD’s 2013 citywide arson total of 1,184 doesn’t match the 1,831 from the FDNY reported in the Mayor’s Management Report, perhaps because NYPD data is from the calendar year, while that in the MMR is from the fiscal year. Compared to FDNY calendar year data listing the number of incendiary fires, NYPD’s numbers fall short: In 2012, the NYPD recorded 1,253 arsons, while FDNY reported 1,943 incendiary fires. In both 2011 and 2010, the difference between the two departments’ figures was more than 700.

Meanwhile, the NFPA’s data only included numbers self-reported by participating fire departments, and in 1999, the NFPA removed “suspicious” as a classification option for reported fires—removing an unknown number of unsolved cases from the overall statistics. FBI crime statistics contain a similar problem: reporting arson numbers is optional and not every locale reports them (New York City is one that does not).

Fire investigation procedure has changed too: Over the past 20 years, the cutting edge of investigations has become increasingly science-driven, but some investigators continue relying on an outdated set of “old wive’s tale” inferences: collapsed bedsprings, charred wood resembling alligator skin, “crazed” or cracked glass, etc. Any investigation gone wrong—bad science leading to a declaration or oversight of arson—impacts the numbers.

The numbers New York City does have, when lined up with 15 of America’s other big cities (Los Angeles, Houston, Jacksonville, El Paso, etc.), don’t stand out. Compared to rates like Detroit’s of 80 arsons per 100,000 residents, New York City’s 22 per 100,000 is merely average.