It was almost too easy.
One by one, arsonists struck one of Detroit’s most abandoned, blighted blocks from 10:12 p.m. Tuesday to 2:45 a.m. Wednesday, burning five houses and setting fire to an abandoned three-story apartment building.
Unlike most major cities, which have arson rates far below Detroit’s, the Motor City had no arson investigators working overnight, which is becoming the norm for a cash-strapped department. Police weren’t available until after 3 a.m.
“Someone is slaughtering our neighborhood,” said Robert Jurseau, 61, whose next door neighbor’s house was gutted by one of the fires. Three houses across the street also were burned.
On the block between Woodward and Charleston, there are eight occupied homes, if you count the dope house and the squatters. The remaining 82 lots are either empty or have abandoned, dilapidated houses.
The night of flames began at 10:12 p.m. when someone set a raging fire inside an abandoned three-story apartment building at the corner of Charleston and Robinwood. While 28 firefighters battled the blaze, an arsonist struck an abandoned home less than a block away.
While waiting for a new batch of firefighters, an elderly woman who lived next door waited anxiously as a passerby used a garden hose to fend off the flames. Firefighters began arriving eight minutes later and were able to confine the blaze to one house.
At 2:17 a.m., after firefighters left, an arsonist struck again, setting fire to an abandoned house across the street. The fire spread to two more houses, one of which was occupied.
About a half hour later, while firefighters were attacking the three-house blaze, an arsonist torched another home on the block.
And there was nothing firefighters could do but douse the flames. Without arson investigators available, firefighters had to depend on the police department, which didn’t show up until after 3 a.m.
For more than a decade, this stretch of Robinwood has deteriorated at an astonishing rate, brought down by drugs dealers, violence and poverty. It’s a stark contrast to nearby Palmer Park Golf Course, which is across Woodward.
The street is pockmarked with decaying trees, dilapidated houses and garbage-strewn yards. The road is worn-out and riddled with potholes.
In the past five years, the city has demolished more than a dozen dingy homes on the block.
From the front porch of Jurseau’s house, he sees new opportunities, a place for the city to start over. He said a friend plans to grow fruit and nut trees on the vacant lots. He envisions gardens, ponds and a community center in the empty parcels.
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Jurseau recently moved back to Detroit after his wife died and his dad fell seriously ill.
His neighbor, Calvin, stopped by to talk about the fires.
“Who did this?” Calvin asked.
“I don’t know,” Jurseau responded, “but I’m going to find them.”
Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.