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Angels' Night volunteer campaign leads to second-fewest fires

Nov 1, 2016

It seems like the city of Detroit has Halloween arsons under control. The Detroit Fire Department responded to 59 fires over this year's three-day Angels' Night campaign, the second lowest total on record.  

It's the second consecutive year there were fewer than sixty fires. There were 52 fires reported on Angels' Night in 2015. For decades, volunteers have struggled against a notorious tradition of fires in the city on the nights surrounding Halloween. Prior to 2014, the annual Angels' Night count had hovered around 100 fires. 

More than six thousand people volunteered to don the bright orange “Angels' Night” T-shirt, put a flashing yellow caution light on their car, and patrol neighborhood streets.

And with so few fires, some volunteers found little to report.

It was a welcome change for Sheila Johnson, a retired Detroit building inspector. After patrolling on Saturday and Sunday, she’d seen little else besides stray dogs and other volunteers.

Johnson started making patrols each Halloween in the years when Angels' Night was known by a more ominous name. She remembers volunteering in the 1980’s, when there would be hundreds of fires set in the city on then-called Devil's night.

At it’s peak in 1984, 810 fires were reported over the three-day span.

The way Johnson remembers it; the fires were always unofficially blamed on mischievous children.

“That’s what we said, it was little devils being devils.” Johnson said. “But personally I don’t believe it was just children. It was just too much.”

Johnson suspects insurance fraud may have motivated some people to burn their houses over the years. But regardless of the root-cause for such rampant arson, the city responded with a massive volunteer effort by its citizens. The annual event of neighbors patrolling their streets began, and the number of fires started to decline.

According to the city’s count, by 1994 there were 354 fires during Angels' Night. By 2010, down to 169 fires. But then, even as community support for the Angel’s Night campaign continued to grow, progress leveled off.

From 2011 to 2014 there were 90-odd fires each year. And then in 2015, a record low 52 fires. Angels' Night coordinator Raymond Solomon credits blight eradication with helping drive down numbers even further than volunteers had managed.

“The culture’s changing,” Solomon said. “And big credit to the demolition program. We’re at ten thousand (buildings) down, I think that plays a big part.”

“There’s a lot of positivity going around (if) you go into the neighborhoods,” Solomon said. “We’ve come a long way, we have a long way to go… but the feeling is totally different than ten years ago.”

The city has funded the demolition of more than 10 thousand blighted properties since January 2, 2014. With fewer blighted properties, there’s fewer obvious targets for arson.

​(see a map of demolitions sites here.)

And although there are fewer blighted structures that might beckon troublemakers, Angels' Night volunteer and Wayne State University senior Alex Hubbard says there’s a strong spirit of community action in the neighborhoods that’s helping too.

 “These are some of the most organized people I’ve seen in my entire life,” Hubbard said. “People are really adamant about getting (blighted buildings) boarded up, there are people that mow vacant lots that aren’t theirs. Everybody can only do so much, but they definitely do as much as they can.”

Hubbard is an urban studies major who grew up in metro Detroit, in Macomb County. As an intern at Solomon’s district seven manager’s office, she says she’s watched the growth of so-called block clubs as people in Detroit’s neighborhoods have started joining together to build stronger communities.

Solomon agrees there’s been an uptick in the number of registered block clubs in the past two years. Neighbors can register with the city and start organizing initiatives like boarding up run-down houses or starting an urban garden.  

Hubbard was out patrolling for Angels' Night with her boyfriend Nick Alexander, a UAW skilled tradesmen. Both in their 20’s, they remember Devil’s Night mainly from stories they heard growing up in Metro Detroit.

As the first-time Angels' Night volunteers make their initial round of the night, they see little else besides neighborhoods where there are still many blighted homes. To them it doesn’t seem to match up with those childhood stories.

Johnson agrees that Angels' Night in 2016 is very different from the earlier campaigns when she volunteered, and that growing support from volunteers and city officials has helped make a difference.

“It has not only quelled fires,” Johnson said. “But made communities come together a little bit more.”

Johnson maintains a community garden with her neighbors. But she says as they all grew older it became too much work. She remains involved in the city. She said after her retirement under Mayor Dave Bing in 2011, she tried moving away from the city and relocated to Belleville. But she found herself returning too often to the city to volunteer or participate in community events like the Slow Roll bike ride, and soon moved back.

Johnson says her love for the city grew from her time as the city’s first female building inspector. She says her love for the city started to grow in the years she spent driving up to seven hours a day through city neighborhoods on the way to make inspections.

“Give me an address right now and I can take you to it like I’m a cab driver,” Johnson said. “This city is so huge, and what I found to be the most astonishing is the east side looks just like the west side. It’s got the same pockets of affluence and challenge.”

Johnson says she worked for five different Detroit mayors dating back to Coleman Young. She says much like there were multiple causes of trouble that led to the city’s arson problem and Angel’s night, she’s watched each new mayor realize Detroit’s problems aren’t simple cases of poor leadership like some people believe.

It’s kind of amusing to me,” Johnson said. “(For) every new mayor, it’s such an eye-opener to them as to why things are the way they are.”

“And if it was really simple, all the problems would have been solved a long time ago,” Johnson said. “There’s enough talent in this city to solve any problem. But it’s not just one problem, it’s a whole lot of problems. And It’s not just city of Detroit problems, It’s regional problems, statewide problems and national problems.”

While the demolition of more than 10 thousand blighted properties hasn’t resolved the challenges in all of Detroit’s neighborhoods, there are signs of progress.

In one neighborhood on the southwest side, Johnson was shaking her head at a block that was entirely vacant lots, and another block where every home stood dark, with no signs of occupation.

Then, a turn down Appoline Drive revealed a row of about a dozen newly built homes, nearly all with porch lights on. In that Johnson saw possibility, an idea she says she’s been thinking about a lot, even though it’s “pie-in-the-sky”.

“This is progress, how come I don’t see this on the news?” Johnson asked. “This is exactly what I was talking about, have a contest, see who can bring up a neighborhood the fastest. Only have people that really need a house. Have them put sweat equity into it and then let them have the house.”

Johnson believes the people of Detroit have what it takes to solve the city’s complex problems, much as they seem to have done by driving down arson with the volunteer-driven Angels' Night campaign.