The Fires: How a Computer Formula, Big Ideas, and the Best of Intentions Burned Down New York City-and Determined the Future of Cities by Joe Flood
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
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).