Emily Badger: The Uncomfortable Politics Behind the History of Urban Fires

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Emily Badger is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities. She also writes for Pacific Standard, and her work has appeared in GOOD, The Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area

...One of the most fascinating essays in the book is one by historian Daniel Kerr about much more recent history in Cleveland. The city experienced a spate of riots in the 1960s by blacks who sought more control over their own communities. Less well remembered is what happened next: In the '70s, some 24,000 housing units in some of these same neighborhoods were set on fire by arsonists – usually the property owners themselves – with the tacit approval of the city government. In all, more than 15,000 fires were intentionally set that decade, wiping out as much as 40 percent of the housing stock in some neighborhoods that the city hoped to redevelop.

These neighborhoods had begun to deteriorate as manufacturers and the middle class abandoned the city. Landlords no longer found it profitable to keep up basic maintenance and repair. Many simply abandoned their properties, pushing the final costs associated with them – their demolition – onto taxpayers. In the '70s, Kerr writes, demolition was one of the fastest growing municipal expenses in Cleveland. And so the city began to allow owners to simply burn down these buildings themselves (often taking insurance claims with them), as the city shut down fire departments in the neighborhoods where this practice was most common.

In the end, whole tracts of land were cleared by fire to rebuild the types of housing that officials had long hoped would lure middle- and upper-class families back into the city. But today, few people in Cleveland remember the history of these neighborhoods this way. Rather, public memory has coalesced around the story that these communities were once destroyed by riots in the 1960s. Those thousands of cases of arson, Kerr writes, are Cleveland's "forgotten fires."...

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