Detroit - The Riot of a Thousand Arsons
"If you can't take it, burn it."
The first fire started at 6:30 a.m. on Sunday, 1 1/2 hours after Detroit police left Economy Printing and decided to remain out of the area hoping things would cool down. They did not. Hardy Drugs, only a couple buildings away from Economy Printing, was the first store looted. Inside the looted store, one rioter took out his lighter and struck it, "No man," said the other looter, "People live upstairs," He lit it anyway. Detroit firemen fought the blaze for an hour without incident. At 8:00 a.m., they were again summoned to 12th Street to fight a blaze. This time they were stoned. The unfortunate side effect of the fire trucks was that the
noise woke up the whole neighborhood, many of whom now poured out onto 12th Street to see what was happening. A staggering 1,300 more fires would follow in the next four days, many of which, under normal circumstances, would have been considered multi alarm fires were fought by single engines.
Many black business owners, sensing at first this was a race riot, let the rioters know their business was black owned. On Hastings Street in 1943 this technique worked. It was not to be in 67'. Some black owners, like their white counterparts, were also despised by their cliental. Also, because the buildings were so close together, the firebombing of an unpopular business often meant the destruction of those on either side even if they were well liked.
By Monday 12th Street and neighboring Linwood Avenue were ablaze. These neighborhoods, built primarily
in the 1930s, were constructed to maximize space. Buildings were literally bricked up touching their neighbor so when fire breaks out in one, like filling an ice cube tray with water, the fire just spills into the adjacent buildings.
Flames from the litany of burning building turned the Detroit sky red. “It looked like the whole world was on fire," remarked one stunned resident, "12th Street was burning. Guns were going off and electricity was popping all around. "
By midnight Sunday the fire situation was in runaway mode. With forty fires still raging, the beleaguered 1,600 man department was overwhelmed. It was at this point that Chief Quinlan put out the call to the suburbs for assistance.
Detroit police, many of whom were off duty or away on vaction, hurried to the scene still in there civilian clothes to protect firemen from rioters.
12th Street ablaze as seen from Blaine.
Detroit was shrouded in a pall of acrid, blackish gray smoke which could be seen from as far away as Grand Blanc.
The Guardsmen, which by Monday numbered some 9,000 in the city (85% of the force) were now being assigned to ride along with the firemen for protection and attempt to counter the snipers and rioters. At 1 a.m., a city block at Dexter and Davison went up. Detroit home owners also saw the urgency to protect the firemen. Many black owned businesses were already on fire. A black resident named Loften grabbed his rifle and urged his neighbors to do the same. Loften caught the attention of a big fire rig that was ordered to leave the area. “I hollered at the firemen, ‘Aren’t you going to put out the fire?’ They said not till the police came to protect them from the snipers. I told them go ahead and we’d shoot any SOB that tried to stop them.”
Pingree Street off Linwood goes up in flames. This all started when an irate rioter tossed a fire bomb into the store on the corner because the store owner was disliked. As the 25 mile per hour winds pushed the flames eastward the fire spread from house to house, resulting
in the loss of most of the block.
Hardy Drugs (circled) was the first store looted and put to the torch. While some arsonists did specifically target white store owners (Hardy drugs was black owned) who had failed to give them "the right measure" in the past, even a casual glance at the photo shows how many apartments sat above the stores, all crowed with people. It is a wonder the death toll was not considerably higher.
Longtime 12th Street merchants like Joe Greenberg lost everything. Although
the riot took many by surprise, insurance company's apparently saw through
the veneer of tranquility. Many business's in the area had their insurance canceled in the months prior to the riot because insurance company's felt the risk was just too great. Damage estimates initially went as high a 1 billion dollars in the post riot haze. A more reasonable estimate would be $200 million. The wholesale damage to the city's future, of course, was incalculable.