detroit fireFIRE's US Correspondent Catherine Levin reports on how the bankrupt and arson blighted city is beginning to bounce back:

I had read so much about Detroit and its problems with arson that I went to see it for myself. Detroit is only 90 minutes by plane from New York City, but it might as well be on a different planet as the difference between the two cities is so vast. 

But it was not always the case. New York suffered hugely from crime and violence in the 1970s; large areas of the city were abandoned and many buildings were lost to fire. The response of the New York Fire Department to widespread arson is well documented in Joe Flood’s 2010 book, ‘The Fires’. Forty years on from the Bronx burning and New York is a very different place.

And it is this renewal that makes me hopeful for Detroit. Not so the filmmakers, who set out a dystopian view of Detroit in the newly released film, Brick Mansions. There is a scene where the Mayor of a fictional 2018 Detroit tries to clear the blight of the city – the Brick Mansions – by getting a bomb detonated to achieve cheap site clearance regardless of the cost of human lives. 

The blight of Detroit is not as stark as that depicted in this imagined future version of this city in the heart of the State of Michigan, but there are streets of empty homes, many burnt out shells and these are the reality of today’s Detroit.

Shrinking City 
The term ‘blight’ is used commonly in Detroit – not as a form of plant disease, as the dictionary would define it, but as a way to describe a city that has shrunk from its 1950s heyday to a husk of its former self. Forbes magazine compiles an annual list of the most violent cities in the US and for the past five years, Detroit has been at the top of that list. 

This is a sprawling city of 138 square miles, designed for over 1.8 million residents and now home to just 700,000. According to the US Census Bureau, 200,000 people have left Detroit since 2009. No one walks here, the streets are empty and the car is, appropriately for motor city, king. 

With the exodus of so many families over the last 50 years, entire areas of the city lie empty. Abandoned homes and schools are a magnet for metal and wire thieves, the so-called ‘scrappers’ stripping properties of valuable assets.  And it is not just the scrappers that take advantage of the abandoned buildings. “Doing the Detroit thing” is how one arson investigator described the level of squatting that plagues the city. Once in, a squatter will get mail sent to them to show that they live there and it is hard to get an eviction. In one recent case a squatter refused to leave a house recently bought by a local family and firebombed the property destroying the house and injuring the owners. 

During my tour of the city’s neighbourhoods with the Head of the Arson Investigation Unit, Chief Charles Simms, he showed me streets of abandoned and often burnt out homes next to affluent neighbourhoods full of beautiful detached homes with manicured lawns and expensive looking cars. 

Arson Blight 
It is perverse that someone in Detroit would burn down their house. There is so little value left in many of the houses that the insurance claim would be incredibly low. Of the 1,500 arson cases investigated by the Arson Investigation Unit in 2012, 326 of them were motivated by fraud. Over 400 cases related to occupied dwellings, with a similar number in vacant dwellings. 

In an attempt to reverse the blight, the new Mayor, Mike Duggan has introduced a new initiative called Building Detroit. Starting on May 5, the city is auctioning off one house a day with as starting price of $1,000. Sales in the first week were brisk, with the first five houses going for $30-40,000, attracting 80-150 bids each. 

This is not a lot of money in comparison with the UK property market, but for this area, it means filling in pockets of neighbourhoods with new owners, new investors and improving communities one step at a time. All of which will be of great benefit to reducing the attraction for arsonists. 

Any measures to reduce the incentive for arson are welcomed by Simms. His unit has reduced in numbers over many years and now stands at just seven investigators. Simms is delighted that Mayor Duggan has recognised the need for more staff here and he is expecting to double the number of investigators in the near future. 

On average, there are over 30,000 fire calls to the Detroit Fire Department each year. In 2012, the Arson Investigation Unit received 4,460 assignments. But with so few staff they were only able to service just under half of them. Using NFPA 921 Fire and Explosion Investigation to guide their work, the arson investigators acknowledge “there’s a lot of ambiguity in what we do”. Captain Pat McNulty told me that they are just “putting a finger in the dyke” to stem the flow of arson. 

They are ably assisted by Colby, their accelerant dog who is provided to them by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms which is a law enforcement agency in the US Department of Justice. Colby, a black Labrador who lives and works with her handler, arson investigator Omar Davidson, attends around 150 fire scenes a year. She is a crucial part of the team.

The investigators know that the only way they will get the prosecutors to accept a warrant from them to pursue to successful conviction is if the paper trail is right and the evidence is watertight. It is hard to do and takes hours of painstaking investigation work. 

Prosecuting the Arsonists 
Detroit is one of 43 district communities that come under the purview of the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office. This office is a crucial partner for Simms as they are the ones who will try to get the arsonists into court and prosecuted. Maria Miller, Communications Director, told me that “establishing rapport, a level of communication and trust with the Detroit Fire Department” was vital to the success of their work. 

Within the last two years, Michigan State Penal Law has changed to create the offence of ‘First Degree Arson’. This was significant as it meant that in arson cases involving harm to human life, perpetrators can now face life imprisonment and or heavy fines. 

Prior to this legislative change, the non-profit National Insurance Crime Bureau was so concerned about the high levels of arson in Detroit that it provided funding to the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office to focus efforts on investigating arson fraud in the city. This focus was seen to be so successful that the Prosecutor’s Office now has three full time staff devoted to arson work on its baseline budget. 

Louisa Papalas and Kelly Casper are the two assistant prosecutors focused on arson who spend some of their time with arson investigators in fire departments across the county, training and coaching investigators to be expert witnesses when they take the stand in court. This is clearly working as they told me that they have a 97 per cent conviction rate. However, whilst the conviction rate is high, the actual number of cases getting this far is tiny compared with the overall number of incidents in the city. 

Fire Department Under Duress 
Any restitution coming out of prosecutions will not find its way directly back to the Detroit Fire Department. It is the creation of the not for profit Detroit Public Safety Foundation (DPSF) that is bringing in the big bucks. Between 2011 and 2013 the DPSF was able to secure over $50 million from the US government under its Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) programme. 

The DPSF uses professional grant writers to secure federal funds to pay for firefighters when the city’s budgets shrink. The administration of these grants is a task in itself and the DPSF is acutely aware that the SAFER money will not last forever, so it needs a long term strategic plan to get the budget increased by the Mayor. 

In March this year Kevin Orr, the city’s Emergency Manager, included an additional $25.4 million for the Detroit Fire Department in his first bankruptcy restructuring plan. The same amount from the federal government enabled the Detroit Fire Department to pay for 108 firefighters over three years. 

Whether the funds will be forthcoming is still uncertain as the bankruptcy case continues to rumble through its judicial process, but the fact is that the Detroit Fire Department is run on a shoestring and when the DPSF is providing donated toilet paper it is clear there is not enough money to run the service. 

In amongst the many column inches devoted to discussing the way in which Detroit will escape from bankruptcy are references to the art treasures of the Detroit Institute of Arts. This magnificent building is home to eight Picassos, a beautiful red Rothko, paintings by Matisse and Miro; and the famous Detroit Industry Murals by Diego Rivera, which depict Detroit’s industrial past. With an $18bn debt to contend with, the value of the city’s art collection is often cited as an asset that the city could use to pay off that burden. 

The Heidelberg Project 
There is also art on the other side of the city, both geographically and economically, in the McDougall-Hunt neighbourhood. A patchwork of abandoned and occupied homes, this neighbourhood houses a beacon of hope: the Heidelberg Project. 

Using vacant lots and abandoned houses, local artist, Tyree Guyton has used the neighbourhood where he grew up to become the canvas for his art. It is a controversial approach, where what many would consider junk, is used to create, in the words of Assistant Director, Alvita Lozano, “a visible platform for art in the environment”.

Unfortunately for the Heidelberg Project (named after the road on which many of the art works stand), there are those who are not so enamoured of his efforts and of the ten houses that once provided the canvas for Guyton’s work, only four now remain, the rest victims of arson and now burnt out shells. 

Subject to an ongoing investigation, Simms would not be drawn on why someone would target the Heidelberg Project. But the impact on those who work there is palpable: Lozano described the multiple arson incidents as “a deliberate attack on the project” which had been “emotionally devastating” for them. 

Uncowed, Lozano is leading a project to put in extra security around the streets that house the project and has partnered with local firms to get cameras and lighting to deter future would-be arsonists. There is a strong community response to what is essentially a community asset. And there is real value to the city of this work, which brings 275,000 visitors and much needed tourist dollars to Detroit. 

A City Again 
It may take a generation, like it did in New York, to get Detroit on the tourist map. Simms tells me there are lofts being built in Downtown Detroit and that people want to live in the heart of the city again. Schemes like Mayor Duggan’s one to get people into the suburbs again could see a renaissance in housing development with families staying put or even returning to Detroit. 

The combination of new leadership and innovative approaches to dealing with the blight of Detroit, along with more controversial ideas about shrinking the city so that the emergency services are not stretched quite so thin, all contribute to a new optimism about where Detroit might be in the next ten or more years. 

“We have a lot of work to do but I am confident that we can make a difference” says Simms. I have no doubt about that after my visit. It is the passion and commitment of Simms, his dedicated team and his allies in the Prosecutor’s Office that will chip away at the arson problem of Detroit. Accompanied by the wider optimism coming out of the Mayor’s office, this is a place that is on its way to restore its former glory so that no one will want to burn this city ever again.