Fire In Detroit Indian Village Illuminates Fears, Persistence

Be it arson or not, residents of Indian Village, one of Detroit's most distinctive and historic enclaves, are reeling from a fire that destroyed a home and raised questions about the neighborhood's safety.

Detroit Police Chief Ella Bully-Cummings spoke to a group of residents gathered Tuesday night at the Iroquois Avenue Christ Lutheran Church about crime in the neighborhood and specifically about a fire that destroyed a house Saturday in the 3500 block of Seminole. The homeowners say it was arson; fire investigators aren't certain.

"I am just as concerned as you are," Bully-Cummings said, adding that she altered enforcement in the neighborhood two months ago after hearing residents' concerns. "I made a change at the 7th (Mack) Precinct because, like you, I didn't feel that you were getting the kind of attention that needed to be given. ... I think if you look backwards, there have been tremendous strides made over the last few months."

Under the new precinct commander, she said, there has been almost a double-digit reduction in crime.

"Is it enough? No. Do we need to do more? Yes," Bully-Cummings said. Residents acknowledge Detroit police have been aggressively responding to their pleas for help. And admittedly, those who live in Indian Village are aggressive about demanding protection.

"We believe we have a safe area. It's become a safe area overall; it's just not safe enough," said Steve Wasko, president of the Indian Village homeowners association. "People perceive that those in Indian Village are rich, which they're not, and they have a lot of belongings, which they don't.

"We certainly are people who choose to live in the city, and in many cases, have fled the suburbs or stayed in the city for decades, against the obvious trend of moving elsewhere," he said.

"We're not naive newcomers to the urban environment who don't anticipate having to do basic things to ward off a petty level of criminal activity."

Indian Village, a neighborhood of some of the city's most elegant houses, is a stone's throw away from some of Detroit's most impoverished and crime-ridden areas.

Around 10 a.m. Saturday, the home of Ann and Steven Serra was destroyed by fire. The couple called it a firebombing, and said they have been the victims of more than a dozen break-ins, vandalisms and other criminal harassment in recent years. The couple said they are leaving the neighborhood after 15 years there.

Ann Serra said the front window to her home was broken Saturday, and the fire was ignited in the home's office. She said she is certain the fire was intentionally set.

Fire officials typically classify fires as arson, accidental or undetermined. Detroit Fire Lt. Donald Catlin reiterated investigators' findings Tuesday that "it's an undetermined fire."

"At this point, it is not arson. We did not find any type of flammable liquid, accelerant or device such as a Molotov cocktail," he said, emphasizing that the investigation continues.

Catlin cleared up confusion about how many bottles had been found near the home. He said one bottle, in which no flammable liquid was detected, was the one found by Ann Serra on her lawn last week.

Serra turned the bottle -- that had a sock stuck inside -- over to investigators, who sent it out for testing, Catlin said.

Serra said she had remained in Indian Village partly because of its diversity.

"We decided to stay in the city because we wanted to make a statement and help be part of the solution," said Serra, a Detroit Institute of Arts grant writer.

"We wanted to raise our children in this community. We didn't want to live in some whitewash suburban community. I don't want to live in some cul-de-sac in a house that looks like every other one, and pretend there aren't people suffering.

"Even in my dreams, I'm still thinking about how I can go back there to live," she said. Serra is living temporarily with a relative in Macomb County.

Still, Serra said she had run-ins with the criminal element in her neighborhood, and told investigators that one of those people could have destroyed her home.

About two months ago, she said, a man on a bicycle approached her and asked for money. She told him no, demanded he get away from her home and threatened him.

"I wanted him to think I had a gun," Serra said. "I told him 'I'll drop you right here and nobody would care.' "

Several months ago, Serra said, a woman was driving about 45 m.p.h. down her street, and the two exchanged expletives and questioned why the other was in the neighborhood.

Serra said she does not own a gun.

Bully-Cummings acknowledged Tuesday there had been some reports about incidents at the Serras' house. On Monday, a department spokesman told the Free Press no crime reports had been filed involving incidents preceding Saturday's fire.

James Tate, a Detroit Police Department spokesman, said crime in Indian Village has decreased in the last three months, though he could not provide comparative statistics.

"Prior to August, we did have a huge issue over there with regard to breaking and entering, but a number of crime-fighting initiatives have been put in place with positive results."

Wayne County Undersheriff Harold Cureton told residents at Tuesday night's meeting that deputies would crack down on prostitution and drug trafficking in the surrounding neighborhoods.