How Detroit kicked "Devil's Night" to the curb

Oct 31, 2013

Hundreds of volunteers patrolled the streets of Detroit last night and will do so again tonight.

With flashing lights on their car roofs and maps pointing out abandoned buildings, they drove slowly, looking for arsonists.

Halloween in Detroit used to mean lots of fires: some 800 buildings blazed in the mid 1990's, when Devil's Night was at its peak. 

The city became infamous for these arson sprees, with reporters flying in from as far away as Japan and Australia to cover the chaos. 

That’s when the city rallied, pushing a name change (it’s “Angel’s Night" now) and a massive citizen patrol corps.

In the last few years, the decades of effort seem to be paying off.

Now Halloween and the days leading up to it actually see fewer fires than the rest of the year.

Frankly, it's downright quiet out there. 

Yet plenty of volunteers still sign up for the 6pm-midnight shift or the midnight to 3 am haul.

They flow in and out of deployment centers, volunteer hubs and local churches like Spirit of Love Baptist Church in Morningside.

Even at 10 pm it's warm and bustling inside the chapel. 

Flyers and posters clutter tables already stacked with pizza boxes brought in for the paramedics and patrollers. Kids play tag in the halls. A baby sleeps beside her grandmother in the pews.

People seem peppy, almost festive.

“This is more like a city holiday now,” says Pastor Darrell Reed. “Neighbors next door and around the block get together here, they meet each other for the first time and become lifelong friends [on Angel’s Night.]"

So far, 68 volunteers have signed up at Spirit of Love for the night's patrol.

Eric Dueweke is one of them. He lives in the Morningside neighborhood and commutes to work in Ann Arbor, where he lectures at the University of Michigan.

"I'm old enough to remember back in the 80's when it really was Devil's Night, and that was pretty freaky,” he says.

“But now, we've turned it into more of a...not celebration, but demonstration of: we're fighting back. It’d be nice if we could do it more than one week a year, but still."

Last year, just 93 fires were reported for this 3-day period, according to the city’s official count.

Mayor Bing’s office will release a count for 2013 on Friday.