Night of hell: Arsonists burn 5 houses, apartment building in 1 sad block of Detroit

Robinwood fire
Fire gutted this house on Robinwood early Wednesday morning.

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.

Robert Jurseau
Robert Jurseau outside his Robinwood house.

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.

robinwood before after

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.

Robinwood street

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

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.

  • Tim Hoerner

    Firefighters are sworn to protect life and property. It goes against their very nature to let buildings burn to the ground.

  • Gunnut2600

    Wait a minute…the neighborhood is imploding and the dude envisions a community center where some of the houses were? Who he heck is going to use the center?

  • Why the fire department doesn’t just let these beyond rehabbing shells burn to the ground, while standing by to protect inhabitable houses, is beyond baffling. Why continue to extinguish these fires when they could be allowed to reduce blighted structures to piles of ash and bricks. No more drug houses, no more hiding places for criminal activity and no more need to go and put out the next fire that would certainly be lit. The cost would be far less than demolition and get the job done in a fraction of the time.

    • Billy Blake

      Right On

    • CLMalone

      Many houses in Detroit are so close together- and letting these homes “burn” creates so much heat- that often they are put out simply so they don’t catch others on fire. It’s difficult to let a home burn that is four feet away from another.

      Plus it takes a lot longer- eating up manpower.

    • bdcanuck

      Letting houses burn puts a lot of shit in the air that would be better put into a garbage dump.

  • bebow

    Why are so many residents leaving Detroit and half of remaining property owners plotting an escape? It’s so nice here.

  • melodicmizery

    thanks obama! pretty soon every major city in america will look like this. my city already has 3 to 8 abandoned houses per street that holds 20 houses. detroit is worse then us but i know in a few years cleveland will look exactly like this. its already started. they need to lower the god damn gas prices already. all our bakeries over here have went out of business because they cant afford the products. cheese has gone up, flour has gone up, pizza shops and bakeries are closing. small businesses cant survive. this country is FUCKED.

    • Billy Blake

      You mean thanks to Bush every major city will look like this

      • melodicmizery

        man fuck all of them none of them did shit for us, i know bush fucked us over and some of the stuff he did in the past is still fucked up now, but obama is the one currently fucking us over. i spent 14 hours on the phone in 3 days trying to fix my insurance because of that asshole making me switch when i had a perfect plan already. im sick and god damn tired of his bullshit

    • Dust Buster

      remember this little ditty? those creepy hollywood weirdos made these kids do a propaganda video about how awesome dear leader would be if we just could manage to vote for a black dude. man i bet these kids will be pissed when they get around 40 years old and see how that cruel joke was on them


      We’re gonna spread happiness

      We’re gonna spread freedom

      Obama’s gonna change it

      Obama’s gonna lead ‘em

      We’re gonna change it

      And rearrange it

      We’re gonna change the world.


      Music and lyrics by Kathy Sawada

      Now’s the moment, lift each voice to sing

      Sing with all your heart!

      For our children, for our families,

      Nations all joined as one.

      Sing for joy and sing abundant peace,

      Courage, justice, hope!

      Sing together, hold each precious hand,

      Lifting each other up;

      Sing for vision, sing for unity,

      Lifting our hearts to Sing!

  • Anthony Rubens

    Nigeria safer than this street.