Historian Dylan Gottlieb featured in an article last fall in the Washington Post, “How gentrification caused America’s cities to burn” is scheduled to speak on the tragic impact in Hoboken at the Hoboken Historical Museum this Sunday at 4:00 pm.
Last month, Gottlieb did an interview with the Journal of American History discussing his research specific to Hoboken and its residents in the late ’70s and early ’80s, where 55 residents perished and thousands more were displaced during the period known as the Hoboken Fires.
Here’s an excerpt below from the interview, “Hoboken is Burning: A conversation on Gentrification, Arson, and Displacment.”
How did you initially come across this story?
A little over five years ago, I was struggling to get my dissertation off the ground. I had trouble zeroing in on my actors and finding archives that were germane to this very recent era in history. Then I got advice from Andrew Sandoval-Strausz, who was a visiting fellow at the Princeton-Mellon Initiative in Architecture, Urbanism, and the Humanities at the time. He told me to sit down with the U.S. Census—to really dig into where young professionals were living and working in the 1970s and 1980s. So I used a digital mapping tool to plot the concentration of financial and professional/managerial workers in the New York City metro area over time. Right away, I noticed a growing concentration of finance folks in one small area: Hoboken, New Jersey. What were all these bond traders doing in this small city of brownstones right across from Lower Manhattan? I knew there had to be a story there.
So I reached out to the Hoboken Public Library and Hoboken Historical Museum. Some very helpful archivists helped me dig up back issues of local newspapers—the Jersey Journal and Hudson Dispatch, especially. And nearly immediately, a story emerged: beginning in the late 1970s, there was a string of arson fires at the same time that all of these professionals were moving into the city. Digging more, I found material from tenants’ rights groups that argued that those fires were intentional, set by landlords to drive out rent-controlled tenants, convert buildings to condos, and charge rents five or six times what they’d received before. Later, I discovered that a similar process of arson-for-profit followed yuppies in other places, including in Boston’s Back Bay and on Chicago’s North Side. This was no isolated phenomenon.
The entire interview is available at the link below: