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10 thoughts on “The Fires

  1. says:

    This is a really fascinating book for people interested in the Bronx and Brooklyn and parts of lower Manhattan during the 70s I never quite understood why my parents were so terrified when I announced to them I d be teaching in the South Bronx, but after reading this book, I realized what their memories were of the South Bronx during this time period My dad, who is prone to exaggeration, compared it to Apocalypse Now a war zone hell etc but I see now he wasn t joking It s frustrating to read about the actions of city leaders who truly believed they were doing the right thing by purposely starving the city s poorest enclaves of resources in this book, fire services based on simplistic computer models, but it s also a lesson for future generations Though the appeal of this book is probably pretty narrow, and parts for me were a bit dry, I thought the author gave a good overview of the circumstances surrounding the fires I would have liked perspective from people who lived through the events.


  2. says:

    This story starts out as a Let s champion rationality and progressivism in city government with the story of the rise of power of Mayor John Lindsay, and the lateral rise of power of the Robert McNamara Whiz Kids that helped JFK and LBJ run the Viet Nam war.And then the story shifts to the difference between large root cause fixers of problems, like the power broker Robert Moses and the small branch and twig fixers of problems, like the Tammany machine street politics found in most big cities.The hero of the story is, John O Hagan, who is widely regarded as a giant in the modernization of the fire service in America But like many great men, hubris and desire for power had unintended consequences The victim of the story is New York City, a city whose industrial base hollowed out by zoning, thriving neighborhoods ruined by urban renewal , and some serious systemic revenue problems Thanks to a combination of big ideas gone bad, razor thin budgets, and political disenfranchisement, the NYFD ended up in The War Years where fires raged in the Bronx and elsewhere Despite having the best and brightest minds working with the most respected Fire Chief in America And, according to the author, Because of them This is primarily a story of good intentions gone wrong and how focusing on the problem from the wrong angle can make things much much worse And as a person interested in cities, disasters, and how communities recover, it s a sad tale, well told The conclusion offers a story about how cities can thrive _despite_ the mistakes humans make running them And this makes me feel better Cities don t suck They aren t hopelessly flawed They bounce back from the harm we inflict upon them Because cities aren t things, they re people, and people are the most flawed, resilient, and tenacious things this world has ever come up with Recommended to fans of cities, city politics, and especially fire fighting.


  3. says:

    Joe Flood is perhaps the best possible name for the author of a book called The Fires Or, completely, The Fires How a Computer Formula, Big Ideas, and the Best of Intentions Burned Down New York City and Determined the Future of Cities That title is a mouthful, but accurately reflects the amazing and diverse subtopics that Flood effortlessly moves back and forth across in explaining the rash of fires in 1970s New York and the decline of the Bronx.Starting with the machine politics of Tammany Hall and the various city departments resistance to reform, Flood traces the ascent of Fire Chief John O Hagan, a unbelievably intelligent, young reformer in the FDNY with ideas of quantitative analysis in his head Flood explores the origins of systems analysis and operations research in World War II, and then follows the rise of the RAND Corporation through the early days of the Cold War, and the inexorable meetings between RAND, O Hagan, and Mayor John Lindsay that led to a radical new firefighting regime citywide.Sophisticated computer modeling directed the closure of many fire stations throughout the South Bronx, which unbeknown to me had been an upscale, classy developed area mostly inhabited by Italians and Jews escaping the slums and tenements of the Lower East Side As fire after fire engulfed the Bronx, and the fire department proved woefully inadequate at fighting them, a massive phase of white flight began to accelerate Coupled with Robert Moses Cross Bronx Expressway and Lindsay s repeal of a city law requiring municipal employees to reside within city limits, the number of whites in the outer boroughs dropped dramatically as they fled to suburban Westchester County and across the river to New Jersey.Of course, there s far than even that to the story Flood does an absolutely masterful job of weaving together all these disparate threads into a cohesive narrative There s Moses and his misguided plan for the Lower Manhattan Expressway LoMEX , an eight lane behemoth of an elevated highway that would have utterly destroyed Greenwich Village and much of the surrounding area The Ford Motor Company and Robert McNamara make an appearance as early benefactors of RAND s pioneering quantitative research Flood also gives the rezoning of Manhattan that banished most industry and manufacturing a brief, if absolutely intriguing treatment He excoriates the weak building codes that existed for much of the twentieth century, and the loophole of the World Trade Center s construction by the Port Authority that allowed it to skirt New York City building codes.It s hard to do The Fires justice It is so far reaching but never over reaching that to describe all the different components of its narrative would be impossible without actually writing the book again But in that sense, hopefully this represents a new trend in historical writing, a truly interdisciplinary effort that never seems to bog down From sociology to politics to urban planning to history to engineering, Joe Flood just bounces around without getting distracted, but while conveying the sheer complexity of a series of events like this There s no single explanation there are six or seven It s an impressive feat.While this book certainly is a commercial history i.e no footnotes , it has a wealth of information in the back anyways, using the page number quote fragment system on another note, does anyone know the actual term for this citation method Much of Flood s sourcing consists of personal interviews, giving him a truly first hand perspective of the events he s covering The obscure documents he unearths in some instances also speak to his devotion to the subject And I know that some of the random tangents he meanders down have given me ideas for a book of my own.If it s any kind of testament to the quality of The Fires, not only did I buy it for myself, but I got my father a copy for Christmas I would buy pretty much everyone a copy of this if they don t already have it The Fires is unequivocally recommended by me to anybody who can read.


  4. says:

    In The Fires Joe Flood seeks to explain what led to what the NYFD called The War Years 1968 1977 when large swathes of The Bronx and other areas were devastated by extensive fires This is no easy task given the complex web of factors at play including the battles between Tammany political culture and reform agendas, the long run consequences of city planning policy, changes to the city s economic fortunes, social change and upheaval, and tussles within the fire service as it sought to modernize and change organisational structures and working practices, drawing extensively on the systems op analysis of RAND Flood, however, does an admirable job of untangling the various forces at play and how they interacted to create a deadly maelstrom This is achieved by focusing on the intentions, decisions and actions of a handful of key actors, especially Mayor John Lindsay, Fire Chief John O Hagan, and the RAND Corporation, contextualising these with respect to particular events and wider economic and political factors This analysis draws on extensive archival research and many interviews with key actors, including politicians, public servants, serving firemen, and families The result is a nuanced and layered story that demonstrates that there is no, and can never be, a magic formula to running a city that despite good intentions, reams of facts and statistics, and clever models made by very bright people, cities are messy, complex, multi scalar, open entities that are social, cultural, political and economic in nature, acting and reacting in diverse ways to myriads of factors and competing and conflicting interests The book is an excellent read well written, engaging, and insightful and provides a fascinating story to anyone interested in contemporary urban history In my view it s a must read book for all those presently involved in conceiving and building smart city initiatives.


  5. says:

    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.


  6. says:

    This story of how a bunch of know it all nerds juggled some numbers and burned down the best parts of NYC filled me with rage Flood a Bronx native tries for an evenhanded, no bad guys approach, but when there are overtly racist motivations at work he doesn t shy away from describing them Although he is trying to simply be critical of certain approaches to governance and avoid conspiracy theory weirdness, I was left thinking that a bunch of bad people orchestrated a decades long ethnic cleansing program in my grandparents neighborhood Flood uses the oxymoron free market a little too often for me, but his general point feels right that systems that gather knowledge and solutions from the bottom up and with an entrepreneurial spirit are less capable of large scale destruction than top down grand planner hierarchies, and that both are prone to corruption There is a warning here for all the people currently enad with big data and data mining these mostly white boy tech heads are just going to justify their racist and sexist garbage with a bunch of crap numbers they pulled out of their butts, claiming, I am not racist, the computer says this is the right thing to do and if it harms people of color all the better well, sorry, but that s basically what happened when they let the Bronx burn and the same kinds of jerks are working on the same kind of evil today But that s me, Flood is much chilled out about the whole thing I wanted to read this book because the fires and the fiscal crisis of 70s NYC are the context for true school hip hop and Fania salsa But this is mostly about the planners and the jerks at RAND and the firefighters and not so much about the people of the Bronx although the founders of hip hop get a mention in the conclusion.


  7. says:

    Reminiscent of Seeing Like a State.


  8. says:

    Another book about the Mayor Lindsay administration with a reference to Good Intentions in its title In my review of Morris Cohen s book, The Cost of Good Intentions, I mentioned that one of the few successes Cohen attributed to the Lindsay administration was its revamping of the fire department under the influence of RAND studies Considering that significant parts of New York burned to the ground in the 1970s, Cohen probably should have been careful to play up even that claim In this book Joe Flood investigates the RAND influenced fire station closing policy implemented under Fire Chief and Commissioner John O Hagen that clearly exacerbated the fires of that decade Flood begins with a largely complimentary picture of O Hagen, pointing to him as the origin of much contemporary fire fighting technology under his leadership, the NYFD was the first to use telescoping tower ladders that extended both up and over burning buildings, the first to use early jaws of life steel cutters to save trapped victims, and it used some of the first practical air masks for fire fighters O Hagen also conducted a study to prove that accelerants in cigarettes were the largest cause of preventable death in NYC, and he helped pass the pioneering Local Law 5 in 1972, which became the standard for building code safety ever after Yet Flood goes on to note that the RAND NYC study of fire response times, when used to condone cuts demanded by the city s fiscal situation, led to disproportionate closing of stations in the neediest areas especially the Bronx and Bushwick that led to fires getting out of control in what firefighters still call the War Decade Of course, as is typical in much contemporary journalism, Flood goes on to indict statistical models in general, and even veers further off tangent to discuss the shortcomings of President Bush and the War in Iraq His facts, however, actually point to the problems with simple political applications of statistical models For instance, the stopwatches used by the RAND researchers to measure response time were sabotaged by firefighters unions worried about budget cuts Likewise, in order to give the wealthy areas of the cities better response times, RAND divided the city into seven completely arbitrary hazard categories, with the wealthiest getting hypothetical stations Commissioner O Hagen also pushed the RAND researchers to find cuts for second stations in dangerous areas where his union opponents were most powerful In the end, the RAND NYC study which was later purchased by HUD and became the basis of many fire insurance maps seems to be the product of what Hayek called scientism, a false scientific sheen laid upon fairly arbitrary assumptions.A lot of the book trods over familiar and often inaccurate territory HOLC maps, urban renewal, Robert Moses , and does it in a pretty bland way One cool takeaway though arson probably never accounted for than about 7% of all NYC fires in the 1970s, and those were often in buildings already abandoned because of other fires.


  9. says:

    This was a pretty interesting book I didn t realize that New York City had a huge fire problem in the 70 s, and at first the book provided a lot of background about the mayor, the fire chief, etc to the point where it got to be a bit much But then the author did a great job of laying out how the problem started and got worse through a series of bad decisions The main theme is that it was mostly the fault of a technocratic City Hall, for example Robert Moses the city planner had a lot of power to impose a top down vision for what the city should be like, and used it to destroy a bunch of housing and industrial buildings to build highways, parks, and office towers This included slum clearance which people thought would get rid of the slums, but instead just made the lower income people move elsewhere in the city, including the South Bronx The deindustrialization caused even poverty This caused fires as a result of crowded living conditions, etc John O Hagan the fire chief was a technocratic type as was the mayor and hired the RAND Corporation to try to make the fire department efficient RAND did a study about which firehouses were busiest, but they didn t gather very much data, and what they did gather was not very reliable because firemen didn t care about them and would often make up their response times, etc Then the way RAND analyzed the data was laughably simplistic they concluded that adding two firehouses in the same district was causing false alarms and therefore was a waste of resources But all they measured was the number of runs a firehouse went on, which includes false alarms but false alarms are very quick to deal with, since the fire engine would just drive by, see no smoke, and return back to the firehouse If you look at the fires that they actually had to fight, the second firehouse made a noticeable difference There s also some evidence that the O Hagan didn t care about what he called ghetto fires and was concerned interested in high rise fires To be fair, he literally wrote the book on new techniques for fighting them that are still being used today So when the models came back saying to close firehouses in poorer neighborhoods he didn t push back New York City was on the verge of going bankrupt in the 70 s, which led to cuts from the fire department The author also points out that while Tammany Hall was certainly corrupt, they were corrupt in the you have to keep constituents happy by giving them jobs, but take some off the top for yourself way, which while not optimal at least meant they were responsive to the citizens There were literally riots in the streets because of the fires poor conditions, but the mayor was convinced he was doing the right thing and stayed the course.So, yeah Pretty interesting book.


  10. says:

    U.S government research and development computer modeling spun off as the RAND Corporation think tank drives military prowess and Robert McNamara s Vietnam War, then intervenes at Ford Motor Co., and on those successes ends up promulgating changes in the city government of New York with the fire department as a test case.Except the changes rammed through city hall subverted the common sense intelligence of those on the front lines specifically, the firemen and NYC s most progressive commissioner chief, John O Hagan and helped devolve the arguably greatest city in the world into a disintegrating, dangerous, fire ravaged, feared city in crisis that was nearly lost to myopic bureaucracy.In this well researched, rich in details book by the young and wonderfully talented Joe Flood , a post war history is revealed of a city struggling through financial bungles, political gamesmanship and racial rifts in the 60s and 70s.Of all the books I ve read in the past several months, this is a standout It is not only about the fires of the South Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan s Lower East Side and Harlem, and how poor neighborhoods were allowed to burn down through practically purposeful neglect, but also about the history of the city s dysfunction beginning with the corrupt Tammany Hall and political clubhouses, and through to the political subversion of fire codes that allowed deathtraps such as the World Trade Center towers to exist and how an experiment in social and civil engineering based on flawed assumptions and bad mathematical models was exported to cities across the country.If you thought NYC was being torched by arsonists at every turn during those years, this book will give you perspective on what was really behind the city that burned.Includes a serviceable history of the tenures of Mayors La Guardia, Lindsey and Beame.