The Uncomfortable Politics Behind the History of Urban Fires

A new book offers a sweeping look at how fire – and the way we’ve responded to and manipulated it – has shaped cities in every part of the world.

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As a historian of Japan, Georgetown University professor Jordan Sand had long been intrigued by one odd quirk of its historic capital, Edo (better known today as Tokyo). It burned a lot. Like, constantly. In the 1700s, people there lived with the expectation that their homes might catch fire with about the same frequency that today we batten down the hatches for a summer storm. Eighteenth Century Edo wasn’t particularly good at fighting fires. But people there grew adept at dismantling buildings in the path of one, only to put them back together again.

"This is this enormous city for pre-modern times of a million people, and dozens of blocks would burn every three or four years," Sand says. "It was not at all unusual to see a fire in which two or three-thousand houses were destroyed any given winter."

Winter spanned the dry, cold months. "It can’t be completely unique," Sand recalls thinking of this fiery phenomenon. "And yet, it does seem like an unusually flammable place. I thought, well, how rare is that?"

Collaborating with Greg Bankoff and Uwe Lübken, Sand eventually put together a conference and then a book on this question, out this year, called Flammable Cities: Urban Conflagration and the Making of the Modern World. Edo's story still looks impressive by comparison, but what emerges from the collection is a sweeping look at how fire – and the way we’ve responded to and manipulated it – has shaped cities in every part of the world.

Once you step back and start viewing cities through this lens, they come to look, for much of their history, like dense stacks of combustible tinder (in fact, in earlier times, the more densely walkable your city, the more likely it was that a fire could stroll down the street as well). Flammable Cities, which corrals 18 essays by various academics, sets aside some of the most famous fires in urban history, including London in 1666, and Chicago in 1871. But the roll call is still exhausting: There was Ancient Rome in AD 64, Cairo in 1321, Istanbul in 1660, Lisbon in 1755, Hamburg in 1842, San Francisco in 1906, Tokyo again in 1923 …

In the developed world, we’ve pretty much put these citywide conflagrations behind us since the 1940s (outside of war, that is). But urban fire in its other forms, both in the developed and developing worlds, continues to this day to reflect one of the early themes on the streets of Edo 300 years ago.

"If there’s a sort of a take-home message from the whole book, something that seemed to be really important in understanding the differences among these cities," Sand says, "it’s that urban fire is an intensely political thing."

In the United States, we’ve come to think of forest fires this way, as we spar over the rights of wealthy people to build their vacation homes in flammable places like Malibu. But the history of urban fires is similarly political, in large part because it reflects the story of how governments came to view and value property.

"Fire is, of course, this threat to human life, but conspicuously it’s about the destruction of property," Sand says. "Is it the obligation of the city fathers or [government] to prevent peoples' private property from being destroyed?"

Today, in the West, we take this idea for granted. Fighting fires is a basic responsibility of local government (one that has had a bit of a cameo in this presidential election). But self-organized citizens of Edo, and just about everywhere else at the time, were responsible for putting out flames themselves, just as today you’re responsible for shoveling your own sidewalk. In Edo, Sand writes, the Tokugawa regime treated this problem of urban management more like a disciplinary one. Suspected arsonists were given the overly poetic punishment of burning at the stake.

Modern firefighting tools – and the idea that cities should invest in them – emerged, not coincidentally, in wealthy 17th century Amsterdam.

"Government there is about protecting the wealth of the merchants, the men of business who are really looking after their own affairs," Sand says. "Some of the most interesting technological innovations in fire fighting have been as a result of that."

The fire hose and the fire truck would spread from there. But this would happen unevenly even within cities. When the 1906 San Francisco earthquake caused a three-day fire (one that would burn 98 percent of the city's 521 most heavily populated blocks), great efforts went into defending Nob Hill. Hardly any went into Chinatown.

There have also been the more obvious political faces of fire: in its use as a tool of war (Allied forces firebombed 41 square kilometers of Tokyo in 1945), or protest (in U.S. urban riots of the 1960s), or for clearing the way for the wholesale remaking of cities. Portugal’s Marques de Pombal used the clean slate created by an earthquake, tsunami and fire in 1755 in Lisbon to remake the capital city as he was coming to power (and trying to sideline the nobility and the church).

"There are cases where a political party, or the governing regime, they may not set the fires," Sand says. "But they find it useful to be the one who comes in and saves the day."

One of the most fascinating essays in the book is one by historian Daniel Kerr about much more recent history in Cleveland. The city experienced a spate of riots in the 1960s by blacks who sought more control over their own communities. Less well remembered is what happened next: In the '70s, some 24,000 housing units in some of these same neighborhoods were set on fire by arsonists – usually the property owners themselves – with the tacit approval of the city government. In all, more than 15,000 fires were intentionally set that decade, wiping out as much as 40 percent of the housing stock in some neighborhoods that the city hoped to redevelop.

These neighborhoods had begun to deteriorate as manufacturers and the middle class abandoned the city. Landlords no longer found it profitable to keep up basic maintenance and repair. Many simply abandoned their properties, pushing the final costs associated with them – their demolition – onto taxpayers. In the '70s, Kerr writes, demolition was one of the fastest growing municipal expenses in Cleveland. And so the city began to allow owners to simply burn down these buildings themselves (often taking insurance claims with them), as the city shut down fire departments in the neighborhoods where this practice was most common.

In the end, whole tracts of land were cleared by fire to rebuild the types of housing that officials had long hoped would lure middle- and upper-class families back into the city. But today, few people in Cleveland remember the history of these neighborhoods this way. Rather, public memory has coalesced around the story that these communities were once destroyed by riots in the 1960s. Those thousands of cases of arson, Kerr writes, are Cleveland's "forgotten fires."

The story in Cleveland speaks to the other side of the political nature of urban fires: throughout history, they have been blamed on social scapegoats, on Jews and Gypsies, the poor and minorities. This is the human dimension of a phenomenon we more often talk about in the context of nature. But as Sand and the other editors write in their introduction: "Nature alone never determines the way a city is built or when and how it burns."

Top image: Dariush M. /Shutterstock.com

About the Author

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.