Rise from the Ashes

Last night I dreamt of fire. Green flames licking blown out windows; curling wood planks falling from abandoned houses. Detroit was burning.

My dreams are real. Speramus Meliora Resurget Cinerbus. We Hope For BetterThings; It Shall Rise From the Ashes.

Father Gabriel Richard, a Frenchman who settled in early Detroit, first said these Latin words after a fire on June 11, 1805 nearly destroyed the entire city. With no fire department existing at the time, citizens formed lines between the Detroit river and the burning buildings in order to pass buckets of water from hand to hand. Despite their best efforts, the fire leveled most of the city to the ground. Almost 100 years later those Latin words became sealed on the city flag with an image of two women, one weeping over the destruction of the fallen city, the other gesturing toward the new city that will rise in it’s ashes.

Fire: The rapid oxidation of a material in exothermic chemical process of combustion releasing heat, light and energy. Fire is alive. A breathing, convulsing element. In it’s purest form a dance between light and shadows; a movement toward destruction and rebirth at once.

As one of the first grassroots organizing movements in the city, the 1805 fire proved that a resiliency–a certain fix it ourselves attitude– existed in the minds and hearts of those Detroiters that formed the fire line that June day. We shall rise from the ashes, they thought, hand over hand, sweaty from the Michigan humidity, their faces ablaze with hope and fear of what would become of their dear city.

Last night I dreamt of fire. Smoke inhaled into my lungs, each one expanding, a hot air balloon with every breath. Smoke singeing the roots of my hair. Fire sweeps through Detroit Homes the headlines read.

The Detroit Fire Department puts out an enormous amount of fires a day all across the city. Over 95% of the structural fires are due to arson, many of them in vacant houses. People start these fires for lots of reasons: amusement, insurance fraud, or even ridding a neighborhood of unwanted vacant homes. The city burns, and the people respond. 

As a child of the 90’s, growing up in suburban Detroit, I knew what Devil’s Night meant, everyone did. The term fueled many fears that the city was evil–hot, and that those of us who lived on the periphery of these flames should stay out. The 1980’s and 90’s saw the peak of Devils Night, where every year on October 30th-the night before Halloween- arsonists would set fire to hundreds of homes across the city.

This past October, less than a month ago, the fire department recorded 97 fires on what is now called Angel’s Night. Every year, Detroiters patrol their neighborhoods calling in any attempts of suspected arson on the night before Halloween. That’s the fourth year in a row fires were below 100. A far cry from the over 800 fires the city saw in 1984. We shall rise from the ashes, they thought as they patrolled the city streets. We hope for better things.

Last night I dreamt of fire. Piles of ashes and soot, clouds hanging low over roofs; a grey film over the cityscape. In the fog, a flash, the white heat sparked, and in the distance shadows of people combing through the rubble, organizing for a new energy in the rising morning light.   


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