Watching Indianapolis Burn
After the sixth consecutive day of 90-degree temperatures, I’m ready to call it quits. I remember now how much I hate summers in this city, and why I left for a decade in favor of more temperate climates.
I can’t for the life of me remember why I returned.
It’s 3 a.m. There is no air conditioning in this house, and tonight there is no breeze, which means there is no relief. And it’s not just hot. It’s humid, muggy, sticky, dank. Miserable.
“Welcome to Indiana,” my father would say, “where the air is so thick you can eat it with a spoon.”
I don’t want to eat anything. I just want to sleep. But I can’t. Not in this god-forsaken place. Not in this heat.
Which is why I am in the shower at 3 a.m. on a Tuesday morning, in the dark, looking out my open, second-story bathroom window, watching a man stand under a streetlight at the end of the alley that runs behind my house.
I live in an “urban” neighborhood. I live downtown. I live near one of those “up and coming” downtown neighborhoods.
Here, our houses are older than we are and just as beat down. Lots of doubles — cavernous houses split in two. They are mostly rental properties, mostly in disrepair. Most of us would live elsewhere if we had the chance, which means we’d live elsewhere if we had the money.
In long rows and in close proximity, sound carries easily through so many open windows. There are few summer secrets from the next-door neighbor. Noise from the kitchen, the television and the bedroom float between houses with no regard for property lines.
Fire would do the same, I think.
A single spark from one roof to another, from that house to mine, and we would all go up in flames.
The man in the alley strikes a match and holds the flame to a cigarette. He tosses the match to the ground, and with the same hand pulls up the bottom of his white T-shirt and wipes away the sweat from his face.
I pull down a towel hanging near my head to do the same.
He only draws on his cigarette a few quick times before flicking it to the curb as a car makes a slow stop in front of him.
I watch as the man in the car pulls money from his pocket and hands it out of the window.
I watch as the man in the alley pulls a small bag of something from his pocket and hands it in through the window.
I drop the towel on the bathroom floor and go back to bed, naked and wet. It’s too hot for clothes. It’s too hot to dry off. It’s too hot to call the cops for the millionth time and complain about drug dealers in my backyard.
It’s too hot to do anything but worry about fires and what might get burned.
City on fire
According to a National Fire Safety Administration report, vandalism and malicious mischief by juveniles, along with acts of revenge or spite by adults, are the leading motives cited for starting arson fires.
Very few arson cases result in convictions. In Marion County, like most of the country, prosecutors average less than a 5 percent conviction rate of all suspected arson cases.
On average, Indianapolis experiences approximately 350 arson fires every year, with the majority occurring in the months of July, August and September.
By the end of June, more than 150 suspicious fires started since the first of the year were under investigation. An additional 50 such fires occurred in the month of July.
For weeks in May and early June, Indianapolis headlines were dominated by reports of a string of arson fires being set almost nightly, all in close proximity to each other.
Whether this leads to a significant spike in the number of arsons this year remains to be seen, but the rash of fires in a very specific geographic region of Indianapolis points to a serial arsonist. It also creates a lot of damage, a lot of fear and a lot of anger.
Between May 21 and June 17, 21 suspected arson fires were started in abandoned homes in the near Southside area bounded by Interstate 65 to the west, Sherman on the east, Pleasant Run to the south and Troy to the north. It is an area that fits all arson stereotypes: urban, poor, crime/drugs/gangs and, most notably, a large number of abandoned buildings. Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department estimates there are more than 1,800 such properties in the area.
According to the National Fire Institute, known incendiary and suspicious structure fires result in an estimated $2 billion in annual damage, or more than one of every $6 lost to fire in structures.
Even though they begin in abandoned buildings, arson fires spread — especially in older, urban neighborhoods. They also kill. Arson and suspected arson constitute the annual single largest cause of property damage due to fire in the United States and cause more than 500 deaths every year.
Playing with matches
It’s 8 a.m. I wake already sweating. I wake pissed off I have to do this heat all over again.
I also wake to the smell of fire.
Stumbling to the front window, I look down and see a neighbor on his porch. The grill is already hot. He’s putting rows of chicken parts across the metal bars. They’ll roast all day. We all will.
Too hot to sleep, too hot to lie in bed, I take refuge on my own front porch. The sun is barely up, but the neighborhood is teeming. Lawnmowers are already forming a choir. More barbeque grills are being readied. Children are riding bikes and screaming like they don’t have parents who should have taught them better. The old people are headed to church.
And so is Tina, the woman who lives in the mirror-half of my house. She comes out on her porch finely dressed and Jesus-ready.
“You going to church today, Miss Laura?”
It’s a joke. She knows the answer.
And I know why she’s going to church. It’s not to see Jesus.
“Nope. Maybe the movies. Anywhere it’s air conditioned,” I tell her.
“It’s air conditioned in church,” Tina says with a smile and a wag of her finger before popping a Tic Tac in her mouth and snapping her pocketbook closed. “You going to the movies with that man in the fancy silver car?”
“Uh-huh,” I say, smiling. “You going to church with the man in the fancy blue car?”
There is laughter. The word “girl” is drawn out and said and meant like it’s a good thing. There is a high-five and more laughter. Then there is the man in the fancy blue car and the sound of his horn honking.
After Tina leaves, I close my eyes and listen to the city wake up. It makes me sleepy.
Where bad dreams come from
When I was small girl, my family lived on the near Westside of Indianapolis, where Lafayette Square now dominates in a land of strip malls and car lots. Back then, there were a few houses and lots and lots of cornfields.
A man named Jennings began selling small pieces of his family’s land in the late 1960s, and brick ranch houses eventually formed a row along 46th Street between the original farmhouse and an old barn that no one had bothered to tear down. We lived next to that barn.
As I doze on my front porch, I remember waking up in that house on a summer night when I was about 5, in the room my sister and I shared. The room was filled with bright orange light; my window was a giant movie screen, filled with the flames engulfing the barn like bonfire kindling, and I had a front row seat.
I remember grown-ups yelling. I remember their fear. I remember fire trucks and sirens and a neighbor, Mr. Hensel, carrying my sister and me, one in each arm, to his front porch across the street. And then everyone left us, safe, but alone, while they concentrated on putting out the blaze.
“Less than 300 yards from our house,” my mother said recently when I asked her about the fire. “It was some teenagers. They’d been horsing around in that barn. Smoking dope probably. I don’t know how we didn’t all die.”
“Did we almost die?” my sister had asked me as we sat on Mr. Hensel’s porch back that night. She was a year younger. Just a baby. I took her smaller hand in mine.
“Yes,” I whispered. “We almost died.”
How the other half burns
It’s a Saturday afternoon. I’m sitting in one of those nice, fancy, rich people houses on the near Northside. Just a couple dozen blocks up Meridian Street from my neighborhood, but a world away from where I live.
I’m here to listen to why the current property tax increase is the most devastating and near-riot-inciting action by our local government in decades. I’m praying that this nice woman doesn’t give me the same reason I heard a protestor give to another reporter on the governor’s front lawn, just a few blocks from here.
Holding a hand-made sign, consumed with earnestness and civic outrage, the man lamented the effect this property tax increase would have on his family. “The governor needs to understand how this impacts people,” he told the reporter. “How am I supposed to tell my kids that we won’t be going on vacation this year, that they aren’t going to Disney World?”
I am relieved and grateful to discover that my interview subject has a more compelling story to tell. I am also relieved and grateful that she has air conditioning, so I draw the interview out longer than I would otherwise. Not so different than going to the movies with the man in the fancy silver car, I suppose.
As it becomes obvious to us both that the interview has run its course, the woman and I make small talk as she walks me to my car. She asks me what other stories I’m working on. I tell her I’m researching arson.
“You know,” she says with a conspiratory whisper, “it doesn’t just happen in black neighborhoods.” She nods, not inconspicuously, to a house across the street, to a giant, sprawling, English manor type of abode that must be worth several million.
“They have a son,” she tells me, “who’s been in all kinds of trouble for starting fires. He’s in counseling now. But for a while, it was bad. Lots of trash cans, a cat once, I think. But he got arrested when he set the garage on fire.
“He told his parents that he just wanted to watch it burn.”
Boys will be boys
Eighty-seven percent of all arson arrestees are male; 75 percent of all arson arrestees are white. Nearly half of all arson fires are started by juvenile males (46 percent), the highest percentage of juvenile involvement in any FBI index crime.
Stereotypes being stereotypes, the generalized psychological explanation for arson perpetrated by middle-class white boys is that they do not generally have the accepted outlets for anger as other youths in congested “urban” areas do.
According to the National Fire Data Center, “White middle-class children are socialized to repress anger and control their hostility, whereas lower-class youths shout their anger and there is a certain amount of tolerance for physical violence.
“Passive aggression is the outlet for the boy who must control disturbing feelings if he is angry or feels unable to compete. Lighting fires is passively aggressive. Lighting fires can give a powerless person a sense of power that he may not feel when he is with his parents or peers. Arson is an assertion of control, power and superiority.”
Not all juvenile fire-starters outgrow their fascination with flames as a means of asserting power. According to the FBI, “When drawing a profile of an arsonist, look for a passive, unmarried man between the ages of 18 and 30, who lacks a capacity to confront people.”
Arson was the weapon of choice for the Indianapolis skinhead 2-1 FATAL gang recently. Dennis Craig, leader of the group, who was already on home detention for other gang-related crimes, ordered members of his crew to set fire to a house because he’d heard a black family was moving into it.
Last October, Craig was sentenced to 25 years for the arson that destroyed three Indianapolis homes. Two other gang members pled guilty to arson charges as well.
Police originally thought the same gang was behind this summer’s fires on the near Southside. With a witness who says he was paid $100 hush money to keep quiet about the fires, IMPD arrested Robert Green in June, claiming he had connections to the 2-1 FATAL gang.
When a dozen more fires were set in the same neighborhood, in the same pattern, while Green was in police custody on unrelated charges, and with no more to go on than an informant’s word, prosecutors had insufficient evidence to move forward with the case. To date, no further arrests have been made.
Déjà vu all over again
It’s a little after 2 a.m. on a Wednesday. I’m not asleep. How could I be? It’s still 87 degrees outside, which means it must be a hundred in my bedroom.
I’m staring at the ceiling fan, wishing it would fall down and cut me in small pieces or, at the very least, cut the man in the fancy silver car who sleeps next to me in small pieces. Maybe then I’d feel a breeze. Maybe then he’d go home and stop sweating on me.
My macabre fantasies are interrupted by a tremendous clamor. Tina is banging on my screen door, shouting my name. I make my way down the hall, down the stairs and towards the front door in the dark.
“Girl, get some pants on!” she yells as she runs off the porch. “The whole damn city is on fire!”
Now I hear the sirens. Now I smell the smoke.
On this particular night, three fires are set in abandoned properties on the street directly behind mine. I will watch two of them burn from my back windows until dawn.
The Kenwood fires are “unrelated to the string of arsons on the Southside,” Chief Joe Krebschack of the Indianapolis Fire Department tells reporters the next morning. “It does not appear that there are any similarities.”
Except for the deliberate setting of the fire.
Except for the deliberate setting of the fire in an abandoned house.
Except for the deliberate setting of the fire in an abandoned house, in a poor neighborhood with a crime problem.
Luckily, no one was hurt in any of the blazes, or so said The Indianapolis Star.
Watching it burn
The morning after the fires, I am late for work.
So late it is almost noon before I get in my car.
The car that has now been baking for hours in the sun.
And as if I’d been smacked over the head by some kind of twisted magic humidity wand, my hair is a giant dandelion. My makeup is functioning only as color for the muddy Mississippi-like river of sweat dripping off my nose, upper lip, chin and forehead. I’m also going to have a giant sweat stain on my back by the time I drive the dozen or so blocks to the office.
If I’d been in a good mood when I left the house, it is gone by the time I get to the end of the block and turn the corner. First the heat, now this asshole.
The man from the alley, the one selling drugs by streetlight, must be on the day shift. He’s leaning into the red BMW that sits in the middle of the four-way stop directly in front of me. Inside the car, four college-age boys, all white, all blonde, conduct business with the older, darker-skinned, darker-haired man in the street.
I try not to stare. I try not to seem agitated. I try to affect an air of indifference, but I can’t remember what nonplussed looks like. Instead, I look out the passenger window of my car, and directly at one of the abandoned houses that burned the night before.
There is charred wood, a burnt stove, broken glass and what looks like it might have been a couch strewn between the former door and the alley. It’s all black. So is the back of the once-white house, from the street all the way up to the attic three stories above.
I look back to the intersection. Mr. Business is yelling something, and I follow his gaze, looking out the driver’s window at two small boys standing on the front porch of a ramshackle house directly across the street from the one that burned.
Both boys are between 5 and 10. The younger one is eating a red Popsicle, wearing a good amount of it on his face, hands, arms and bare chest. The older boy is running off the porch, carrying a small bag to the man in the street. The man takes the bag, hands it to the college boys, takes their money and steps back from the car.
I follow the convertible through the intersection. The man in the street stops counting his money long enough to look up at me and nod. I consider throwing it in reverse and backing over him.
But I don’t. I go to the office. I write a story about property taxes. And later, I go home and wonder how many other ways there are to watch a city burn.
Anyone with information regarding an arson fire is asked to call Crime Stoppers at 317-262-TIPS or the Indianapolis Fire Department’s Arson Hot Line at 317-327-6700. A reward of up to $5,000 is offered for information that leads to a conviction.