Residents of the South Bronx during its promising postwar decades tell their stories in their own words.
In the 1930s, word spread in Harlem that there were spacious apartments for rent in the Morrisania section of the Bronx. Landlords, desperate to avoid foreclosure, began putting signs in windows and placing ads in New York’s black newspapers that said “We rent to select colored families”—by which they meant those with a securely employed wage earner and light complexions. Black families moved in by the score, beginning a period in which the Bronx served as a borough of hope and upward mobility.
Chronicling a time when African Americans were suspended between the best and worst possibilities of New York City, Before the Fires tells the personal stories of men and women who lived in the South Bronx before the social and economic decline of the late 1960s. Located on a hill overlooking a large industrial district, Morrisania offered migrants from Harlem, the South, and the Caribbean an opportunity to raise children in a neighborhood with better schools, strong churches, more shopping, less crime, and clean air. It also boasted vibrant music venues, giving rise to such titans as Herbie Hancock, Eddie Palmieri, Valerie Simpson, the Chantels, and Jimmy Owens.
Rich in detail, these interviews describe growing up and living in communities rarely mentioned in other histories. Before the Fires captures the optimism of the period—as well as the heartache of what was lost in the urban crisis and the burning of the Bronx.
“Excellent . . . profound, moving.” —Robert W. Snyder, Rutgers University, Newark