Bench Ansfield is completing their Ph.D. in American studies at Yale University, after which they will be an American Democracy Fellow at Harvard University’s Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History. In addition to being a Jefferson Scholars National Fellow for the 2020-2021 academic year, Bench is a Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellow. Their dissertation, Born in Flames: Arson, Racial Capitalism, and the Reinsuring of the Bronx in the Late Twentieth Century, examines the wave of arson-for-profit that coursed through the Bronx and many other US cities in the 1970s. The dissertation’s first chapter won the Organization of American Historians’ Pelzer Prize for the best essay in American history by a graduate student, and it was recently published in the Journal of American History. Their peer-edited articles have also appeared in American Quarterly, Antipode, as well as the collection, Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human as Praxis (2015), edited by Katherine McKittrick. Committed to public humanities, Bench worked as a researcher on the PBS-aired documentary Decade of Fire (2019), and they’ve written for the Washington Post, Tikkun, and other popular publications. Their research has benefited from additional support from the Council on Library and Information Resources and the Social Science Research Council, among others.
Born in Flames: Arson, Racial Capitalism, and the Reinsuring of the Bronx in the Late 20th Century
During the 1970s, a wave of arson coursed through cities across the United States, destroying large portions of neighborhoods home to poor communities of color. Popular memory confuses the arson wave with the 1960s uprisings, yet these fires were lit not for protest, but for profit, most of which flowed into the ironically named FIRE industries—finance, insurance, and real estate. By asking why cities went up in flames in these years, how their fires were extinguished, and what arose in their ashes, this project casts new light on the restructuring of US cities since 1968. Through a case study of the Bronx, I explore how the rise of the FIRE industries, which eclipsed manufacturing as the engines of urban economies in the 1970s, reshaped neighborhoods of color in the direct aftermath of the civil rights movement. The hand that torched the Bronx and many other cities in the 1970s was guided by the market and firmly attached to the arms of the state. Although physical science would have it that fire requires only oxygen, heat, and fuel to ignite, the crucial ingredient during the 1970s was state-sponsored fire insurance, initiated by federal fiat in the aftermath of the 1960s uprisings. The most destructive arsons in these years were performed for profit, which flowed into the bank accounts of absentee landlords in the form of insurance payouts. In the Bronx and elsewhere, the arson wave sparked a groundswell of community organizing that ultimately stemmed the tide of the burnings. From the embers of the fires arose a host of new organizational models—community development corporations (CDCs), sweat equity initiatives, and urban environmental organizations—all of which would transfigure the landscape of urban politics throughout subsequent decades.