Residents along the 12000 block of Barlow Street in Detroit prided themselves on their neighborliness. Children played freely in the streets while their elders sat on porches in summertime discussing the day’s weather or the Tigers’ hopes of a pennant. Still, there was no denying that the racially integrated area was in decline, its modest brick-and-shingle homes fighting a losing battle against vandalism, drugs and decay. Prostitutes had begun to walk the streets and, worse, pushers had taken over some abandoned homes to sell the potent form of cocaine known as crack.
Angelo “Butch” Parisi, 28, lived two doors from one such house with his girlfriend, Vicki, 25, and their two children. Across the street lived Perry Kent, 30, with his wife, Dawn, 26, and their three children. Both Parisi, an exconvict, and Kent are unemployed. They had no money to move, to flee the drug plague that had arrived at their doorstep.
They insist that when neighbors called the police to complain, nothing happened. “Anytime the police drove down the street, the crack dealers were gone,” says Butch. Thus, to protect their families, Parisi and Kent took matters into their own hands: They set fire to the house the dealers were using, reducing it to a charred ruin. Most of their neighbors applauded them; the police, however, did not. Charged with two counts of arson each, Parisi and Kent face trial later this year, and, if convicted, up to 20 years in prison.
Until late last summer, the house at 12077 Barlow Street had been rented by Rocco Tatarelli, 31, and his sister Kelly, 27. “That place was falling apart. My sister and I left because we found a better, cheaper place,” says Tatarelli, who moved two houses down the street. “I had the utilities shut off, but then we started seeing these young guys in the empty house. They managed to turn the utilities back on. But even so, nobody really worried until lots of traffic started. Then it became obvious. Crack was being sold.”
“That crack house was like a fast-food restaurant,” says Butch Parisi. “They put up a basketball net out front. A car would stop, they’d do some business, and then they’d turn back to playing basketball. They didn’t even try to hide it. Sometimes the dealer would stand out on the porch or in the backyard and shoot his pistol into the air.” Confirms Robert Firmstone, another Barlow Street resident: “I could look out the back window at just about any time and see young kids in the alley. They’d run into the house for a couple of minutes and then out again. You could hear the squeal of car wheels at 3 or 4 a.m.”
By October the neighborhood’s fear of violence was palpable. “I was standing outside with Dawn’s and my kids when I saw these punks coming down the street,” Vicki recalls. “One had a shotgun hanging out from under his trench coat. The others had their hands under their coats like they were holding guns. I grabbed the kids as fast as I could and pushed them into the house.” Other neighbors saw what was happening, too, and watched in horror as one of the thugs fired a shot into the air before departing.
With an equal measure of desperation and defiance, Parisi and Kent decided to act. The next day they marched on 12077 Barlow carrying a bucket of gasoline. “Two guys were on the porch,” Parisi remembers. “We told them we didn’t want them doing business here. One of them laughed at us. I hopped onto the porch with the bucket and poured out some of the gas. The dealer said, ‘What are you doing?’ ‘This,’ I said, and tossed a lit match on the porch.”
Parisi and Kent insist they were only delivering a get-lost message, and for a time they thought their point had been made. After the fire department extinguished the blaze—”It wasn’t big enough to really damage the place,” says Kent—the house was boarded up. “We figured that was the end of it,” says Parisi. “We were wrong.”
Working from the back and side doors of the empty house, the dealer was soon doing “business as usual, busy as usual,” says Kent. At that point Kent and Parisi began planning for the next windless night. On Nov. 15, it arrived. “It was dark, and everyone was off the street,” says Parisi. “We didn’t want nobody hurt. We went through the house to make sure no one was there. Then we poured gas on the first floor, went outside, lit a piece of paper and tossed it through a broken window. The fire company came. Neighbors were on their porches. Many of them said, ‘Yeah, it’s about time.’ ”
A month later, according to Parisi’s lawyer, David Steingold, arson investigators came into the neighborhood on an unrelated matter and noticed the burned-out house for the first time. “They questioned my client, who was told that he wasn’t going to get into trouble,” says Steingold. “They just wanted the fires stopped. Parisi told them about the crack house, the gunplay and why he burned down the house. The investigators left.”
Three weeks after that, Parisi and Kent were arrested and charged with burning real property. Parisi also faces two counts of obstruction of justice for threatening two of the acquaintances of the alleged crack dealer, both of whom live nearby. (“That’s crazy. I’ve already admitted I burned the house, so why would I threaten anyone?” he asks.) Meanwhile, Parisi and Kent have launched a Save Barlow Street Defense Fund to help pay their legal fees. “I didn’t approve of what they did,” says Tatarelli, the house’s former occupant. “But I didn’t lose any sleep over it.”
Neither have others in similarly besieged neighborhoods. When the Detroit Free Press asked its readers whether they felt Kent and Parisi were justified in torching the crack house, 87 percent of 347 respondents said yes. Understandably, police are concerned. “It’s anarchy,” says Officer Philip Love, who often patrols the area and says that 12077 Barlow had never appeared in police files as a suspected crack house. “What if someone just suspects that a house is a crack house, and he’s wrong? Then you burn down an innocent person’s home.”
Parisi, who sometimes works as a landscaper, has lived on Barlow Street all his life—except for 3½ years in prison on a 1981 armed robbery rap. (“I haven’t been in any trouble since,” he declares.) Kent came to Barlow Street from Flint, Mich., four years ago to go to mechanics school. He was laid off from his machinist’s job in August, and his wife, Dawn, supports the family with her waitressing job at a bowling alley. Both men concede that their desperate act has not restored serenity either to the neighborhood or to their own lives. Their families now spend most of their time together, hiding behind drawn drapes in Parisi’s home.
Fear of reprisal by drug dealers—and rumors that conspiracy charges might be filed against neighbors who helped Parisi and Kent pay for the gasoline—has left the entire street with a sense of foreboding. “This was a nice neighborhood, and on a sunny day like today people would be outside talking, picking up trash, visiting,” says Robert Firmstone. “But now what do you see? Nothing.” Even in their absence, it seems, the dealers cast a shadow like death on the city.
—By Dan Chu, with Maria Leonhauser in Detroit