Notoriety is a bittersweet quality. Those who say “any publicity is good publicity” embrace it, while others prefer to attract no undue attention, positive or otherwise. Detroit, Michigan, our beloved Motor City, is notorious for many reasons, but Devil’s Night may be the most controversial one.
For over 60 years, pranking has been to Devil’s Night what turkey is to Thanksgiving. Kids have been going out on October 30th for decades, armed to the teeth with toilet paper, eggs, shaving cream, cellophane and, for the more advanced protagonists, flaming bags of animal feces. This arsenal usually made for a little extra clean-up work the next day, but was generally considered to be harmless fun overall.
In the 1970’s, however, Detroit’s version of Devil’s Night took an unexpected turn for the worse. In a metropolitan area of over 1.5 million people, the replacement of petty vandalism with extreme violence was neither predicted nor prepared for. Arson became the name of the game: by 1984, over 800 fires were being set on Devil’s Night, as the night before Halloween lived up to its name. With an abundance of abandoned buildings and unwatched business fronts to attract vandals, the police force was unable to provide the level of surveillance necessary to prevent the fires. As the “holiday” became a city-wide event, many cash-strapped business owners would take advantage of the guaranteed bedlam, and volunteer their buildings as firewood; insurance companies were forced to pay up in the face of widespread arson. As real estate values continued to plummet through the 1980’s, this became more and more common.
By 1994, the residents of Detroit had had enough. Children and families were being injured in some of the more malicious fires, and the vigilance that had been so admirable after Devil’s Night in 1984 had tapered off. Hundreds of teenagers were cited for breaking the dusk to dawn curfew, and the number of fires was out of control once more as vandals sneaked through gaps in the city’s law enforcement. Fire Chief Archie Warde said of Devil’s Night in 1994, “This goes back to one of our worst nights since I have been on the job.” In 1995, under pressure from concerned citizens, Mayor Dennis Archer led an initiative to rename Devil’s Night to Angel’s Night.
The driving force behind Angel’s Night was sheer volunteer power. While the number of law enforcement officers and firefighters were increased, nearly 50,000 civilians also did their part by providing surveillance. Groups were positioned in abandoned buildings and houses from 6pm until midnight, and signs were posted to warn potential arsonists of proximate witnesses to their crimes.
The increased attention worked – by last year, there were only 18 working fires for the whole 24-hour period. The fire chief endorsed the usage of an additive in the hose water to expedite the extinguishing of fires, and the presence of volunteers was still staggering, even 18 years into the Angel’s Night initiative.
As Detroit repairs the negative reputation in the media that has haunted the metro region since the 1960’s, it’s amazing to see the city becoming notorious for something so positive. Our thoughts are with them this October 30th, as we celebrate the positive spin Detroit has managed to engender on this day in Michigan’s rich history.