News » Travel Feature

Burned Out

Detroit's devils lose their spark.



I see where Detroit has gotten a grip on Devils' Night. They call it Angels' Night now.

I rolled into Detroit one October 30th in the early '90s and was met by friends at the train station, which was dank and grungy even by train-station standards.

"Welcome to Detroit," they said. "You're just in time for Devils' Night."

"Devils' Night?"

"Yeah. That's the night people go around burning down houses."

Having worked for newspapers for years, I'm used to both smart-asses and bitter, cynical senses of humor. One paper I once worked for had an annual, odds-based betting contest on which famous people would die that year. (You never could get odds on George Burns.) So when I heard "people go around burning down houses," I figured we were talking about a few houses and a bunch of exaggeration.

My friends quickly cleared that up for me: "One year, there were 297 fires. It averages about 150."

They waited for that to sink in as we drove off to a hockey game. Two hundred and ninety-seven fires -- arsons -- in one night. In 1994, after I was there, the number hit 357. "They only burn down abandoned buildings," I was told. And one thing Detroit has is abandoned buildings -- 10,000 of them by one estimate. The whole place looks like everybody moved about 20 years ago. And, apparently, the folks who are left occasionally bust out the matches for entertainment -- like when the Tigers won the World Series in 1984.

As we drove to the hockey game, I couldn't help but look out across the city, expecting to see a scene from Blade Runner. Alas, no fire, except in a garbage can.

Even the hockey game was odd: There wasn't a single fight. I was starting to think Detroit wasn't all it's cracked up to be.

The next night, I was at my friends' house for Halloween, which in Detroit is about as wild and loose as an Al Gore "town hall meeting." Trick-or-treating was allowed during a two-hour time slot, and the locals stuck to it faithfully. At the appointed time, you could actually see kids streaming out of houses, and when the time was up, there was a noticeable scrambling to get back home.

That night, it rained, and thousands of volunteers hit the streets to patrol all night, keeping the number of reported arsons, according to the evening news, to around 87. The newspeople were patting the city on the back as if it had just set a record for charitable giving.

Apparently, such successes have become the norm. The Detroit News reported last October 31st that 30,000 volunteers hit the streets the night before, many armed with donated cell phones, as part of Angels' Night. Angels' Night was declared by the mayor in 1995 after the 1994 Devils' Night bonanza of arsons.

Poking around on the Internet, I came across a Masons page that detailed their efforts as part of Angels' Night. It seems that the Most Worshipful Grand Master himself was out last year.

Detroit is a fascinating city, in some respects. Not many major cities have shrunk, but Detroit has dropped from two million people in the 1950s to about a million today. In 1998, the Convention and Visitors Bureau closed its information center for lack of business. That's like seeing a McDonald's go out of business -- which has probably happened in Detroit too.

I looked around for attractions on their Web site -- they've got a Greektown, the Motown Museum, and the Henry Ford Museum. Kellogg's Cereal City USA is not far away in Battle Creek, where Tony the Tiger looms over downtown and you can take a tour of the corn-flake production process.

Angels' Night, meanwhile, has apparently become a feel-good tradition of its own. One man told the Detroit Free Press, "Last year and this year, people look forward to this. They come in and greet each other because they haven't seen each other in a long time."

Now, there's a new mayor in town, and he aims to break the record of the old mayor -- the record for volunteers, that is. The last guy got 32,000 to show up for what the paper calls "the city's annual anti-arson campaign." The new mayor, who bears the melting-pot name Kwame Kilpatrick, wants to hit 35,000.

If nothing else, there's a lesson in this for other cities: First, if you think you've got it bad, go check out Detroit sometime. And second, remember that even a city that can't keep its information center up and running and torches itself every year can rally and do something positive.

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