Detroit striving to curb annual Devil's Night arson Relaxed vigilance led to more fires last year

October 30, 1995|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

DETROIT -- Once more, with new depth of feeling, Detroit's leaders are pleading with its residents not to try to burn their city down on the night before Halloween.

After being surprised and embarrassed by a surge in arson last year, the city is hoping to snuff the bizarre, heartbreaking ritual known as Devil's Night and substitute "Angel's Night," using curfews, dances for teen-agers, bans on containers of gasoline, and neighborhood patrols.

Prompted, they say, by reawakening pride in a reawakening city and by the lessons of the Million Man March, some 25,000 volunteers have responded to the city's call for help, and the list is expected to grow. Officials say the outpouring -- from churches, businesses and at least one motorcycle gang -- has been so strong that this year they are not even praying for rain.

"I'm looking for good weather," said Emmett Baylor Jr., the director of public safety and the executive assistant to Mayor Dennis Archer. "If we get 20 degrees and rain, we won't know if we can conquer this thing."

Detroit has been watching the urban revival across Lake Erie in Cleveland with a blend of envy and hope, as it plots its own economic renaissance. Residents fret that a fiery Devil's Night would set back the city's fragile recovery.

On Friday an important piece of Mr. Archer's turnaround plan fell into place as the city announced that it had secured public and private financing for a $235 million, 42,000-seat baseball stadium downtown. Mr. Archer is betting that the open-air, natural turf park, for Detroit's Tigers, will do for the city what similar stadiums have done for Baltimore and Cleveland.

The stadium is the largest but only the latest in a series of new developments planned for the city. Just 10 days ago Standard Federal Bank said it wanted to build 400 middle-class houses along the Detroit River on the west side, the biggest housing development in the area since World War II.

For years Detroit appeared to have doused Devil's Night. But the city relaxed its vigilance last year.

It was rewarded with the biggest outbreak of fires since 1986. The number reached 182, almost triple the level in 1993.

"The citizens didn't come out," said the executive fire commissioner, Harold Watkins Sr. "They felt we had it under control."

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