Oftentimes we get a little bored with the personal histories that the Times likes to run in the City section. Its the same problem we have with the Lives stories on the back page of the Magazine: We just can't get the necessary amount of upset every single week, so we just stop reading 'em. But then a piece like todays excellent The Fires Last Time by Ernesto Quiñonez show up and remind us why we still at check.
Quiñonez discusses the ordeals his immigrant family spent just trying to stay warm in Spanish Harlem as the neighborhood, along with so many others, was being purposely abandoned by the slumlords and by the city. Rather than fix up buildings to code landlords, hoping for a better real estate market in the future, would simply take away utility after utility from tenements until all that was left were shells perfect for the torch.
What makes the history Quiñonez is talking about even more interesting is how much of it has been forgotten, or purposely hidden, in our current age of urban revitalization:
My greatest romance has always been with the city's streets, but I have also witnessed and lived through its horrors. The burning of the ghettos is a chapter of New York history that has not been fully told. Those who are profiting in today's age of gentrification, renaming my neighborhood SpaHa, would like to forget the burning of the ghettos. And so the African proverb still holds true: "Until lions have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunters." But as a cub, I was there, saw it and lived it. And so I will fill the empty spaces with stories of a people who persevered through winters and snow during a time when the city was on fire.
Photograph of flames and hoops near on upper First Avenue in the 70s by Paul Hosefrios for the New York Times.