Detroit’s “Great Fire” of 1805 is solidified in the history books as a defining moment for the city. With only the brick chimneys remaining, Detroit residents dug in and rebuilt their city. Justice Woodward drew up his inspired hub-and-spoke street plans (1806) to bring Detroit on par with cities like Paris and Washington D.C. Following the “Great Fire” Detroit saw continued progress and became one of the most well-known cities in the world for its industry.
However, Detroit has had a more recent “Great Fire,” one that began in the 1970s and is most often seen on display during Devil’s Night. As Detroit’s population declined and crime increased, both dedicated residents and criminals took to setting abandoned homes on fire. A news segment from 1975 features an interview with two Detroit residents talking about how they decided to torch an abandoned house on their block because it was being used as a drug house. They were concerned for their children’s safety.
This decades long “Great Fire” has been a result of multiple factors, but could be summed up as varying degrees of desperation.
The recent Motor City Mapping (MCM) project identified 8,641 structures with fire damage. This number obviously can’t capture the issue of arson since the 1970s nor demolition of burned down homes, but is an important marker of what the city has faced in the past and continues to confront. The Motor City Muckraker has been cataloging faulty fire hydrants and their effect on the work of firefighters and families who lose their homes. Detroit’s second “Great Fire” may finally be waning, but significant infrastructure issues need to be addressed in order to ensure the safety of residents.