July 16, 2014 at 11:48 am

Years of blight take toll on Garland Street; arson speeds block's decline

Problems spotlight neighborhood challenge in Detroit

Detroit— A neighborhood grudge started the trouble last month on Garland Street. By night’s end, the resulting inferno destroyed nine houses and melted siding on homes that were spared.

In the early hours of June 20, two rows of vacant homes burned to the ground. It began after fire officials arrested a man for torching a neighbor’s car. As he sat in jail, his house was the first up in flames.

The fires spread to three other homes on the west side of Garland, then another five were torched up the street. Neighbors say they were fueled by a familiar cycle of foreclosure, abandonment and scrapping. On Garland, like so many streets in the city, there are too many empty homes and too many people seeking revenge through fire.

“If my mom and dad could see what they worked so hard for has become, they’d be standing up in their graves,” said Diana Arnold, who moved as a child in 1966 to the east-side street near Warren Avenue, less than two miles from Chandler Park.

She surveyed the rubble of the four torched homes across the street as young children played on the sidewalk. A familiar scenario had unfolded over the years. Neighbors die or move way. Homes sit empty. Scrappers and squatters move in. Some buildings become drug homes. Arson is the final act, fire department officials said.

“Detroit has a culture of fire like no other city,” said Charles Simms, arson chief of the Detroit Fire Department. “People often use arson as an act of revenge or fraud much more than other cities.”

Detroit has averaged 4,000 to 5,000 suspicious fires a year since 2000. The vast majority are believed to be intentional. Authorities say they are able to investigate only about a third of the suspicious fires because of limited resources. Of those, insurance fraud remains the top motive. Revenge is No. 2: 300 of 1,500 investigated cases last year were considered acts of revenge.

Simms said he’s hopeful Detroit is improving. His squad brought aboard nine new investigators last month, practically doubling its size. The investigators are now concentrated in designated areas of the city to better spot trends. Simms also said Mayor Mike Duggan’s anti-blight efforts will reduce arson.

“We can really change the culture, and also do a better job to educate the public,” he said.

Garland Street has been particularly hard hit. In the one-mile stretch between the two fires that consumed nine homes last month, at least 21 homes show obvious signs of fire damage.

“They’ve been burning everything up. It’s crazy,” said John Kiner, who has lived next door to Arnold on the east side of the street for 10 years.

The latest spark on Garland began when police arrested Sylvestor D. Ford, 27, for torching a neighbor’s car. His rap sheet includes convictions for operating a chop shop, felonious assault and receiving and concealing stolen property.

Hours after he was jailed, the home he was staying in at 4511 Garland was intentionally set on fire in the middle of the night, investigators say. By the time firefighters arrived, the 710-square-foot house was engulfed. So was the vacant house next door.

Arnold called the fire department. Kiner awoke to his Jack Russell terrier and its puppies howling at the sirens. He soon realized the heat from the flames across the street was melting his front porch siding. Firefighters doused Kiner’s home even as the fires across the street were destroying more empty homes, bringing the total to four.

“They saved me, my house, and some of the other homes where people lived,” Kiner said.

While firefighters were at the scene, another suspicious blaze erupted a half-mile away in a set of abandoned homes around 4:30 a.m., just two hours after the first set of fires began. Johnson and several neighbors say one of the homes was being used as a drug house, another inhabited by scrappers.

Five empty homes on the 5300 block caught fire. At one point, two dozen firefighters had to share one hose because of weak water pressure from the hydrant. Still, a firefighter in an aerial ladder was able to prevent the blaze from jumping to an occupied home.

Two unopened safes were found in one of the homes. The charred remains of a bicycle and a dog were found in the backyard.

“This is a revenge thing,” Simms said. “It’s just too much of a huge coincidence that after we arrested (Ford) at his house, the same house would catch on fire. It’s definitely connected.”

Ford pleaded guilty to fourth-degree arson of the car last week and is due to be sentenced July 31. Arson investigators are probing who torched his home and the others. Last year, police made 141 arrests for arson. The conviction rate of those charged is 90 percent.

“People burn stuff up all the time now. It’s the scrappers; it’s the drug dealers who got beefs with each other,” said Mark Johnson, 51, an eight-year resident of Garland.

Fire officials said scrapping often is tied to local arson cases because torches are used to remove metals from Detroit’s estimated 78,500 vacant buildings. Sometimes, the fires start accidentally from errant flames, Simms said. Sometimes, scrappers use fire to cover their tracks.

Decades of decline

Years ago, Garland Street was in a sought-after neighborhood. Dr. Ossian Sweet became a civil rights hero defending his right to buy a home on the street.

The black physician moved into the all-white neighborhood in 1925. He was met by a white mob of about 400 people with rocks and bottles. One was shot from the home and Sweet and his brother were tried for murder. They were freed after two trials.

Sweet bought his home on Garland for $18,500. Today, about 1 ˝miles west on Garland, a sign on a home with a bent roof says it is for rent for $100 down and $395 per month.

Arnold said the neighborhood was “beautiful” when she moved in her with her parents. Mostly wood bungalows, the homes were built in the 1910s and 1920s to accommodate blue-collar workers like her father, T.J. Byrd, who worked for General Motors.

In the 1970s and 1980s, original owners began dying off, Arnold said. Many homes became rentals. The foreclosure crisis of the late 2000s expedited the decline. On the stretch of Garland between the two fires last month, nearly one in three parcels — 96 of 314 — are owned by the city of Detroit or Michigan Land Bank because of tax foreclosures. Another nine are owned by banks, according to Wayne County records.

Images from Google Street View of one block of the torched homes chart the decline. In 2007, the lawns were mowed and children’s toys were on one porch. A year later, that home was in foreclosure and the roof was nearly collapsed. By last year, it was overgrown with vegetation.

Efforts to contact the home’s owner were unsuccessful.

The arsonist, Ford, was also living in a foreclosed home. Neighbors said he lived with this father and sister there for a few years. The city took ownership of the property in 2013 after it was foreclosed because of unpaid taxes. That’s the same year Ford’s father, Bill, died.

In 1970, the home was worth $11,000. Last year, it was assessed at $4,267.

'It's just horrible'

The fires on Garland started at the height of the foreclosure crisis, about 2008, and then intensified in the past nine months, residents contend. Fire department records show that, from 2009 to March 2013, crews responded to 19 arson fires from the 3800 block of Garland to the 5000 block.

“Whoever is setting the fires is good because the fire department can’t save them,” Kiner said. “Every night, every day, you hear those fire trucks around here in a four- to five-block radius. It’s just horrible the way they are tearing up Detroit, man.”

Scrappers already took most of the easily accessible metal and wires from the homes before they were torched, according to residents.

Shortly after the fires last month, someone pulled up in a van amid the charred remains and began to pilfer for metal, the residents said.

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Over decades, the bungalows built on Garland in the 1910s and '20s began to deteriorate, and the decay accelerated during the foreclosure crisis in the late 2000s. Many of the longtime residents moved or died, and the houses were rented out or sat empty. The years of decline are evident in a series of photos of the west side of the street. The arson fires in the early hours of June 20 reduced nine of the homes to charred rubble. / Detroit News and Google Street View