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A Plague on Your Houses: How New York was Burned Down and National Public Health Crumbled

A frightening study of the way misguided and malevolent social policy can spark a chain reaction of enormous and unforeseen urban collapse.
A Plague on Your Houses is a scorching indictment of the decision to close fire companies in New York in the 1970s and a frightening study of the way misguided and malevolent social policy can spark a chain reaction of enormous and unforeseen urban collapse.


  • A Plague on Your Houses breaks new ground for a political ecology of urban decay. It is also a provocative foretale of what 'radical urban science' might be.”
  • “This is a book which transcends the boundaries between politics, theory, empirical research and political activism. When was the last time you read something that really describes how the connections between policy, community and individual characteristics actually work? Wallace and Wallace have woven 20 years’ worth of research, passion and action from the front line into an astonishing narrative.”
  • A Plague on Your Houses deserves attention for its insights into the connections among urban communities and the ease with which diseases and social problems of the poor and vulnerable can spread into the mainstream and the suburbs. It asks new questions about the determinants of urban decay and public health, and challenges the dominant paradigm of disease causation mostly related to individual choices and lifestyles.”


  • Benign Neglect and Planned Shrinkage

    The frequency and scale of the spectacular fires that consumed much of the South Bronx and other areas of New York City throughout the 1970s can in large part be blamed on the recommendations for fire service reduction made by the New York City-RAND Institute and HUD between 1969 and 1976. In 1973, urban epidemiologists Deborah Wallace and Rodrick Wallace got access to Rand's fire service reports. Immediately recognizing the flimsy pseudoscience that undergirded their claims, they began to write and campaign against the station closures and the other policies based on Rand recommendations.

    "By 1978," the Wallaces write in their introduction to
     A Plague on Your Houses: How New York Was Burned Down and National Public Health Crumbled (published by Verso in 1998), "we discovered that the Rand-recommended fire service cuts had triggered an epidemic of building fires and heated up a related epidemic of building abandonment. We submitted a grant proposal to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to assess public health outcomes of this massive destruction of housing in New York's poor neighborhoods. The NIH did not even review our proposal. That research plan, carried out over a period of fifteen years without federal funding, resulted in this book."

    In the excerpt below, Wallace and Wallace situate the development of Rand's recommendations in the context of the deliberate de-industrialization of New York undertaken by federal and state officials.  

    John Fekner, Charlotte Street Stencils, South Bronx, NY 1980. via Wikimedia Commons.

    Daniel P. Moynihan and Benign Neglect

    Not an arsonist at first glance, Daniel Patrick Moynihan burned down poor neighborhoods in cities across the country as surely as if he had doused them in kerosene and put a match to them.

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  • “The complete subjugation of urban policy”: An interview with Raquel Rolnik

    The housing market has in recent years become one of the central pillars of global financial capitalism. That has happened over the entire world — in a variety of ways. By abolishing all prospects of social housing, countries have propelled these processes. Thus the purchase of property on credit has prevailed as the only means of gaining access to housing.


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