In need of a house? Affordable housing? Detroit has an abundance of housing with prices unimaginable to most Americans. You can purchase a large spacious home for as low as $100 or less in the underprivileged areas that span for many square miles throughout the city. You might lack public services ordinarily taken for granted in most places, such as police services and street lights. There has been such a surplus of vacant properties that Detroit’s been burning them down. In 2010 there was an estimate of 70,000 burned houses which does not include vacant buildings and those numbers continue to rise with each passing year. Where else in the world would homes that might be considered the picturesque of “the American Dream” be regularly set on fire despite the fact that this nation has its fair share of people who are homeless and/or in dire need of housing?
Devil’s Night in Detroit is when the most fires are set and typically begins on October 30th and runs through the 31st. People from other communities and states travel into the city to join forces with the local residents to help with their local adopt home and other property efforts against arson, as well as bolster local medical, safety, and first response services. In this light, the evening has been redefined as, “Angel’s Night.”
During the early 20th century, Detroit, “The Motor City,” was a growing industrialized city and predominately white prior to the 1920’s. In fleeing the Jim Crow of the south, Blacks began to migrate into the Detroit area during the late 1920’s on through the 70’s only to find they were equally unwelcome. Often met with violent racial hostility by the existing residents and police brutality, social exclusion from employment coupled with housing segregation, Blacks were blocked from equally participating in white society. With the deep seated feelings of entitlement, the settled whites who were already competing with each other for existing opportunities and resources in the Detroit area channeled much of their venomous fears and frustrations onto the Black communities who, like they, were seeking better lives.
The systemic racial issues bottled up coupled with rise of the Civil Rights Movements gave rise to race riots of the 60’s throughout the nation bringing down the racial apartheid. Detroit had the largest riots in the nation resulting in the enactment of Marshall Law on three different occasions. As the apartheid was being dismantled a Black middle class began to emerge where shortly after, the city fell into rapid economic decline. In direct response to desegregation, white flight took hold resulting in resegregation with the nation’s wealth and privileges being concentrated into the predominately white suburbs and higher social classes throughout the nation. In 1950 Detroit’s population peaked with 1,849,568 and declined to 713,777 in 2010. Rather than integrate, much of white society chose to abandon their business and residential property.
Nothing exemplifies white privilege more than with the abandoned properties throughout Detroit. Most of us are required to properly dispose of our unwanted belongings. Black Detroit residents are the primary beneficiaries of these major social problems and toxic environmental issues. In 2010, the population of Detroit was 82.7% Black and 10.6% white with the State of Michigan having 14.2% Black and 78.9% white populations with black inmates representing 55% of the total prison population. Detroit is the poorest city in the nation with 1 in 3 residents living in poverty and many others living near poverty. There are still some very wealthy residents in Detroit, but they live in segregation on the outskirts of the city.
Detroit has the highest murder and missing person rates. These issues may play some role in the highest arson rates as well. As noted by the Detroit fire fighters above, to some degree vandalism has been the culprit, but there are a combination of reasons ranging from desperation where residents set fires to polluted houses that have been abandoned with rotting trash or that pose other social and environmental threats (vigilante fires) to sometimes revenge. Arson is a mechanism the residents have resorted to as a means to correct their immediate problems since the city either will not, or cannot.
But further, some locals believe that the general public is deliberately misled on the level of arson carried out by the residents as some of the power holders of the city are believed to be financially vested with local demolition contractors. It is cheaper to remove burned down houses than those fully intact. This destruction is a form of social expression from abandoned and socially neglected voices. It is revolt as Feagin and Hahn (1973) outlined in their earlier work on Detroit riots, to the many forms of racism that have championed the abuse and neglect of Black communities throughout history on into current times. With the effects of deindustrialization compounded with ongoing blocked legitimate means of survival and societal abandonment, it is no wonder the thousands upon thousands of houses representing the very icon of the American Dream have been set on fire many times over. What American Dream?