Though no one yet knows if it’s arson or accident, the Greenpoint Terminal Market fire is but the latest in a long line of enormous fires that have changed the face of New York City over the last three centuries. From the burning of the South Bronx in the 1970s to the citywide conflagrations of the Draft Riots, Gothamites have always had a peculiar predilection for setting things alight — more often than not, just to see them burn.
Arson, however, wasn’t a major concern in 17th-century New Amsterdam, largely because one small fire had the potential to destroy the entire settlement. Entrusted then, with the duty of guarding against village-wide disaster, was a group called the Rattle Watch — volunteers assigned to keep a nighttime watch on the streets and houses. Upon first smoke, these men would start swinging their rattles, waking up the neighbors so that all available hands could join in hauling buckets of water to put out the flames. As the town grew in size, though, so too did its malign element, and some urban historians believe that New York’s early fires — the Great Fire of 1776, during which a full third of the city burned down, and the Great Conflagration of 1835, where 675 buildings got torched — were arson jobs that quickly got way out of hand.
Tracing the destructionist paths of arson is an easy job, but trying to match fingerprints to the inferno is damn near impossible. After the Revolutionary War, New York’s buildings were mainly built out of brick and mortar, reducing the likelihood of large-scale fires. But with the influx of immigrants from the 1830s onwards, came the necessity for housing, most of which was constructed from cheap, available wood. Beyond these tinderbox tenements, the 19th century itself was an inflammatory era, as immigrant gangs battled in the streets at the behest of behind-the-scenes strongmen looking for political power and the financial advantage that came with it.
By the time the Civil War exploded into full force, Tammany Hall had semi-financed a plethora of volunteer firefighting companies, gangs of rowdy young Irish immigrants who were much better at drinking and stealing than fighting fires. William “Boss” Tweed was the most infamous foreman of this era. As chief of the Americus Engine Company No. 33 he had an immediate hand in the day-to-day political manipulation of the immigrant poor. Herbert Asbury’s hyper-dramatic but essential urban study Gangs of New York captures a telling scene in which two competing companies arrive on the site of a blaze only to battle each other, and not the fire. Most of these companies were a combustible part of the Draft Riots of 1863, setting as many fires as fighting them: during that tumultuous July, the Black Joke Engine Company no. 33 set fire to the office of the Head Marshall of the 9th District, and prevented any other company from extinguishing the blaze. These obvious acts of arson seem to have been overlooked by the major presses of the day as simple street theatrics and gang posturing. Meanwhile, the city was burning down.
The next boom time for arson came a full 150 years later. Of course, various major fires occurred during this lengthy break in history, but for a full-fledged study on arson and its effects, no period in New York rivals that of the late 1970s. Great White Flight and its shockwaves reverberated through all five boroughs, primarily in inner-city Brooklyn and the South Bronx. These neighborhoods were rife with crime, drugs, empty schools and faced a collapsing social and economic infrastructure. Slumlords quickly realized they could make more money and avoid the unfortunate hassle of tenants by heavily insuring any rotting, empty (or, in some cases, semi-occupied) building, setting the thing on fire and collecting the insurance. Savvy Corruptocrats, inner-city politicians who realized the potential power of burning neighborhoods, capitalized on landlord greed and assisted in the sale and resale of buildings to drive up their post-blaze worth. Engine companies in these neighborhoods would be on constant call, sometimes heading out 20 to 30 times a day, investigating fires, most of which were clearly arson jobs. Wally Malone, a NYC firefighter from 1960 to 1994, and now a volunteer at the city’s Fire Museum in Soho, pointed out that it was the FDNY’s job to extinguish the fires, not to figure out who started them. “The only way to prove [arson] is to see someone lighting a match.”
These days in the firefighting business, expert investigators can ascertain which types of accelerators were used to start a fire, (flammable liquids leave deep burn marks in the flooring). Another telltale sign is blue flames instead of red and orange, which means gasoline was sloshed through the floors and stairwells of the arsonist’s target.
Which brings us to the present. The blazing fire that burned for just under two days in the historic Greenpoint Terminal Market three weeks back is, if not yet a declared arson job, certainly a tragedy: The Preservation League of New York State had only just placed the 15-building industrial mega-site on its list of Seven Sites to Save this past February. Built in the 1890s, the area was originally occupied by the American Manufacturing Company, which, during its heyday, was the largest rope and cordage concern in the world.
The building was sold in 1954, although AMC continued to operate in the space until the production lines ceased in the 60s. Since then, the complex has been one of the largest, most magnificently decomposing industrial hulks open to any guerilla urbanist, squatter, skater, adventurer and photographer with an ability to climb and a desire to wander. Not anymore. The coils and stacks of rope, along with the tons of used and discarded clothing made the area one enormous tinderbox. But was it arson? The FDNY and lawyers scrambling to cover the case have mixed answers to this one, and might never reach a conclusion. Although arson suspicion makes for great headlines, lawyers representing those with a financial interest in the property have pointed out that torching a complex this big doesn’t really make things any easier. What’s more, the difficulty of making the land safe for residential and commercial development is only exacerbated by the fire. Was the fire caused maliciously? Was it a squatter who left a burning oil drum unattended? The answer to this one is still floating in the air, like the smoke and burnt stench that could be seen and smelt for miles in the days following the fire. One more conflagration in a city that always seems to be burning.