LOGAN SQUARE — About 5 a.m. Oct. 24, Vicky and Derrick Fleming awoke to their neighbor pounding on their door.
The neighbor told them one of their cars was on fire and the blaze was rapidly spreading to their second car.
The Flemings rushed to the back of their Logan Square building, where both of their cars were parked, and were greeted by flames. A neighbor would later tell the Flemings he saw a man holding a gas can nearby before the fire erupted.
“You see your vehicle in a big ball of fire and you just can’t imagine it. It’s like, ‘Am I dreaming?'” Vicky Fleming said.
The Flemings are among numerous Chicagoans who have had their cars, alleys and businesses go up in flames over the past 10 months, part of the worst surge of arson fires the city has seen in at least a decade.
Chicago has recorded 477 cases of arson through Oct. 27. That far outpaces the toll for the same time period in any year dating back to 2010, according to a Block Club analysis of Chicago Police data.
About one-third of those arsons have involved cars, data show. Property on the South and West sides have been hit the hardest.
Local officials and experts cannot offer a consensus on why there are so many arson fires this year. But the spike comes as Chicago battles a worsening pandemic, an economic crisis, a sharp increase in gun violence and simmering civil unrest.
‘It’s Frustrating To Me’
Publicly available data on arsons differ from figures provided by Police Department officials. But both sets of numbers show an unusual increase.
Arson is up almost 58 percent so far this year, with 477 arsons so far compared to 302 in 2019, according to the public data. There were 314 reported arsons in 2018 and 378 in 2017.
Prior to this year, 2016 had the most arsons in recent history, with 433 arsons reported through late October. Just like this year, 2016 also saw a huge surge in gun violence.
The Police Department’s figures show fewer overall arsons but a more drastic year-over-year increase.
In a written statement, a Chicago Police spokesperson said there have been 357 cases of arson this year, compared to 194 last year — an 84 percent increase. The data officials provided only goes through Oct. 7.
Police officials also said that number — 357 — might not accurately reflect how many arsons there have been throughout the city because it’s common for officers to reclassify fires as non-criminal after investigation.
That’s exactly what happened to the Flemings.
Both of the Flemings’ cars — a 2018 convertible Volkswagen Beetle and a 2015 Jeep Cherokee — were destroyed in the Oct. 24 blaze. Two other cars belonging to neighbors were also damaged.
Vicky Fleming said police initially told her, her case was being investigated as arson, but police told Block Club they are investigating it as an accidental fire.
Vicky Fleming said she’s disheartened police reclassified the case given one of her neighbors saw a man in the area holding a gas can around the time the fires erupted. Another provided surveillance video of a driver coming into the alley and then leaving shortly after the fire.
“If they can pass this off as something else, they probably will do that because it’s less work for them,” Vicky Fleming said. “We pay all of these taxes to live in the city … . It’s frustrating to me.”
Block Club’s data analysis shows police have only made 26 arrests this year out of the 477 arsons reported in city data.
Police officials disputed that number and said they’ve made 43 arrests. That’s a 59 percent increase in arrests compared to last year, but it still means about 91 percent of arson cases this year are so far unsolved.
In one incident, a man was arrested for allegedly setting fire to dumpsters and garbage cans eight times in Logan Square. The man has been charged with five counts of arson and one count of battery.
Police also received reports of at least five intentionally set fires in Wicker Park and Bucktown on the same day in August.
But there’s little evidence serial arsonists are what’s driving the sharp increase.
The department has identified eight “crime patterns” this year in police districts across the city. In most of them, someone set fire to garbage cans and loose trash in an alley, police said.
But public data shows people are setting fire to residents’ cars more than anything else.
‘A Way To Express Rage’
What is causing the citywide spike in arson? It depends who you ask.
Police said “civil unrest” in May and June that followed police killing George Floyd in Minneapolis “caused a spike in arson incidents.”
The city recorded 19 cases of arson during the unrest over the span of two days, according to police, a fraction of the total number of intentionally set fires this year.
Many argue there are deeper reasons why arson has surged in Chicago.
One likely explanation is Chicago has seen a sharp increase in shootings and homicides this year, which could be translating into more violent crime overall. Chicago also is combatting a surge in carjackings this year in neighborhoods across the city, from Lincoln Park to Calumet Heights.
Arthur Lurigio, professor of psychology and criminology at Loyola University, said the coronavirus pandemic combined with the economic crisis has left many in already-trying situations feeling hopeless.
Lurigio also noted many of the South and West side neighborhoods seeing the largest spikes have inadequate access to mental health services.
“Think about being a young poor person in a neighborhood being wracked by violence and you’re seeing a lot of your relatives dying. If you had a job, you probably lost it, and you’re not going to get it back. It’s frustration,” Lurigio said.
“The burning down of properties is a way to express rage in a collective sense. It’s a way for people who are feeling powerless to be very powerful.”
Whatever the factors that led to the Flemings losing both of their cars, they are now seriously considering moving.
Vicky Fleming said they’ve been talking about leaving Logan Square for a while, but losing their cars was the final straw: They’re either going to move Downtown or to the suburbs.
“It’s time to go. You have to feel safe where you live,” Vicky Fleming said.
The Flemings are lucky in that they have car insurance and will be able to replace at least one of their two cars. But they still owe thousands of dollars in car payments, so they’re likely going to end up owing a lot of money even after the insurance company pays out.
Vicky Fleming said she’s still shaken by the incident itself and the fact police have chosen not to investigate it.
“At least nobody was hurt, but it’s still very frustrating,” she said.
Subscribe to Block Club Chicago. Every dime we make funds reporting from Chicago’s neighborhoods.
Already subscribe? Click here to support Block Club with a tax-deductible donation.