The Haunting Story of an American City

By Tag Christof |

Rachel Maves

This piece originally appeared on

Projectile eggs and streams of toilet paper are as much a part of Halloween tradition as stale candy corn and sexy kitten costumes. And as the holiday continues to shed its religious roots in favour of pure revelry in the bizarre (if only superficially so), Halloween’s temporary ‘opposite world’—where grotesque is gorgeous and candy is proper food—lends itself beautifully to a bit of destructive subversion. Restless spirits in need of mirth on their only night out. But in Detroit, where the day to day has for decades been decay and economic devastation, the only subversion possible seems to be full-fledged destruction.

By the 1970s, the city’s population was already two-decades in to a population free-fall from its postwar high of nearly two million. Imagine, if you will, every fifth house on your block going dark, being boarded up, and slowly being overcome by ivy and weeds and weather. Then every third house, then every other house. Since at least the 1990s, the better part of Detroit’s old residential neighbourhoods, from the recently demolished Brewster projects to the stately old mansions along the Cass Corridor, have looked like uneven blocks of haunted houses.

The fires began in earnest—a series of disconnected events that punctuated otherwise benign Halloween night mischief. But by the late 1970s, arson had become something of an October 30th tradition, the sky over the Motor City would erupt in flames like clockwork and the region would then be choked in soot for days. Thus, Devil’s Night was born. By 1984, with nearly 300 fires set in a single night, Detroit earned the dubious distinction of of “Arson Capital of the World” (along with a Guinness record), with numbers falling until a major spike in the mid-90s that many Detroiters chalk up to an underprepared new mayor. And while the night’s place in pop mythology had been firmly established by the late 1980s, it became a definitive image of Detroit with the 1994 cult film, The Crow. 

Today, there are far fewer fires—usually a few dozen per year. This is partly because much of the kindling—the old houses—are gone, replaced by vast fields crisscrossed by broken streets and punctuated by newer developments like the hideous Motor City Casino monolith. More important though, are the efforts of vigilant and well-organised neighbourhoods like Corktown and the city-endorsed “Angel’s Night,” which encourages residents to come out en masse, armed with hoses and CB radios, to defend their homes and city through solidarity.

Given the city’s granular piece-by-piece cultural renaissance (in the midst of a circus-like bankruptcy, no less), Detroit is a crucible for future cities, for community organization, for creative use of space—check out the inspiring collective Ponyride—for an America organized around a entirely new set of priorities. We’d argue that Devil’s Night is, and always has been, part of a renewal process—a schlepping away of the old, even if there’s no fancy new development to take its place.  

Illustrations by Rachel Maves.

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