Detroit, not Rome, is burning

Nothing like it when you consider that an arsonist has set eleven abandoned properties ablaze in the past month. Or that there were “6,486 arson fires in 2008 investigated by the Arson Squad,” according to the Detroit News.

This line rings a bell for me:

“[Detroit] fire and city officials [are] worried as Halloween nears, because in the mid-’80s hundreds of homes burned on Devil’s Night, the night before the holiday.”

I remember hearing about that when my family lived in the area in the early 1980s. Must have been 1983, as we left in summer of  ’84. I listened to the story as any wide-eyed third grader would, puzzled as to why people would burn empty houses, and a touch afraid that they would come and burn our house. I think I asked my parents about it, and I imagine that they told me that such a thing wouldn’t happen to our house. Those sorts of things didn’t happen where we lived. Later, I realized that this, and seeing the open fields that were empty lots on the other side of the Detroit city line, were my introduction to the urban-suburban divide.

A few years later, I remember looking out the window from my parents’  station wagon as we passed down I-43, en route perhaps to the airport or a brief stop in downtown Milwaukee. I noticed the rows of neat little houses over the freeway, and wondered who lived there. I noticed the Milwaukee Inner City Arts Council building, and wondering what it was. (Still do!) (Hmm, I appear to be Facebook friends with that group’s Executive Director. Hi, Denise!)

During a brief chat with a friend about Milwaukee’s mayors this weekend, the residency requirement was mentioned as something that has helped save Milwaukee from the near-total destruction that Detroit and so many upper Midwestern rust belt cities have faced since the start of deindustrialization in the 1960s and 70s. That said, there are parts of Milwaukee’s north side that are barren where there were houses that were either burned or razed, and the poverty is very deep. And god knows it’s affecting the city. I saw Mayor Barrett when he spoke at the memorial service for Jasmine Owens, the four-year-old girl who was killed in a drive-by shooting back in 2007. It’s gone on since then. And it will go on for the foreseeable future.

That doesn’t mean that nothing can be done about it.

As a an adult, I chose to move to Milwaukee. As in, the City of. When things like Jasmine Owens getting killed happen, it affects me. I don’t have the insulation of the imaginary boundaries of the city line to protect me. That lack of insulation was one reason I moved here from Madison. While that means it can be painful at times, it’s also far richer and more satisfying than any of the other four states, four cities, or three suburbs that I’ve previously lived in.

And I’m not leaving.


Author: Jason Haas

Jason is an elected member of the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors, occasionally moonlights as an amateur gardener, and is a proud father of two, or three, depending on how you do the math.