The City Where the Sirens Never Sleep
Detroit is dying. But, it is not dead yet.
Dec 29, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 15 • By MATT LABASH
This is the place where bad times get sent to make them belong to somebody else, thus, it seems easy to agree about Detroit because the city embodies everything the rest of the country wants to get over.
--Jerry Herron, AfterCulture: Detroit and the Humiliation of History (1993)
The lawyer sitting next to me sniggered. He was only buzzing in for a day or so, but knowing I was a reporter, come to write a story on the city, he asked, "How long are you in for?"
"About a week," I responded.
"Good luck with that," he said, piteously shaking his head. "It sucks."
Before I'd left, I'd asked an acquaintance if he was from Detroit. "Indeed I am," he said, "Give me all your f--ing money." Another colleague, always mindful of my desire for maximum material, suggested, "You should go when it's warm, you'd have a better chance of getting hurt."
Somewhere along the way, Detroit became our national ashtray, a safe place for everyone to stub out the butt of their jokes. This was never more evident than at the recent congressional hearings, featuring the heads of the Big Three automakers, now more often called the Detroit Three, as that sounds more synonymous with failure. Yes, they have been feckless and tone-deaf in the past, and now look like stalkers trying to make people love them with desperation moves such as Ford breaking the "Taurus" name out of mothballs, or Chrysler steering a herd of cattle through downtown Detroit for an auto show (some of the longhorns started humping each other in front of reporters, giving new meaning to the "Dodge Ram," which they were intended to advertise).
But with millions of jobs on the line, including their own, the Detroit Three honchos went to Washington to endure the kabuki theater, first in their private jets, then in their sad little hybrids. All to get their slats kicked in by Congress (and who has been more profligate than they) in order to secure a bridge loan to withstand an economy wrecked by others who'd secured no-strings bailouts before them. The absurdist spectacle was best summed up by car aficionado Jay Leno: "People who are trillions of dollars in debt, yelling at people who are billions of dollars in debt."
It happens, though, when you're from Detroit. In the popular imagination, the Motor City has gone from being the Arsenal of Democracy, so named for their converting auto factories to make the weapons which helped us win World War II, and the incubator of the middle class (now leading the nation in foreclosure rates, Detroit once had the highest rate of home ownership in the country), to being Dysfunction Junction. To Detroit's credit, they've earned it.
Before arriving, I conducted an exhaustive survey, reading everything I could about Detroit, including and especially the journalistic labor of the diligent if shell-shocked scribes of the Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press. How bad is Detroit? Let's review:
Its recently resigned mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, he of the Kangol hats and five-button suits, now wears jailhouse orange as he's currently serving a four-month sentence as part of a plea agreement for perjuring himself regarding an extramarital affair with his chief of staff, which yielded soupy love-daddy text messages that would make Barry White yak in his grave. Those in Detroit who are neither recipients of sweetheart contracts nor Kilpatrick family members on the city payroll at inflated salaries think he got off easy. Because what led to the perjury was concealing an $8.4 million payout from city coffers to settle a whistleblower suit brought by cops who'd been fired for investigating, among other things, the murder of a stripper named Strawberry who, prior to her death, was allegedly beat up by Kilpatrick's wife when she caught her entertaining her husband.
In a city often known as the nation's murder capital, with over 10,000 unsolved murders dating back to 1960, the police are in shambles through cutbacks and corruption trials. (They have a profitable sideline, though, as one of the nation's largest gun dealers, having sold 14 tons of used weapons out-of-state.) Their response times are legendarily slow. Their crime lab is so inept that it has been closed. One Detroit man found police so unresponsive when trying to turn himself in for murder that he hopped a bus to Toledo and confessed there instead.
Detroit schools haven't ordered new textbooks in 19 years. Students have reported having to bring their own toilet paper. Teachers have reported bringing hammers to class for protection. Declining enrollment has forced 67 school closures since 2005 (more than a quarter of the city's schools). The graduation rate is 24.9 percent, the lowest of any large school district in the country. Not for nothing did one frustrated activist start pelting school board members with grapes during a meeting. She probably should've reached for something heavier.
An internal audit, which was 14 months late, estimates next year's city deficit to be as high as $200 million (helped along by $335,000 embezzled from the Department of Health and Wellness Promotion). With a dwindling tax base--even the city's three once-profitable casinos are seeing a downturn in revenues (the Greektown Casino is in bankruptcy)--the city has kicked around every money-making scheme from selling off ownership rights to the tunnel it shares with neighboring Windsor, Canada, to a fast food tax. It's perhaps unsurprising that Detroit now has the most speed traps in the nation.
It also has one of the highest property tax rates in Michigan, yet has over 60,000 vacant dwellings (a guesstimate--nobody keeps official count), meaning real estate values are in the toilet. Over the summer, the Detroit News sent a headline around the world, about a Detroit house that was for sale for $1. But it's not even that uncommon. As of this writing, there are at least five $1 homes for sale in Detroit.
The city council has been such a joke that one former member demanded 17 pounds of sausages as part of her $150,000 bribe. Its prognosis for respectability hasn't grown stronger with Monica Conyers, wife of congressman John Conyers, taking the helm. She has managed to get in a barroom brawl, threatened to shoot a mayoral staffer as well as have him beaten up, and twice called a burly and bald fellow council member "Shrek" during a public hearing. But with all the problems facing the city, the council still found time to pass a nonbinding resolution supporting the impeachment of George W. Bush.
How bad is Detroit? It once gave the keys to the city to Saddam Hussein.
Over the last several years, it has ranked as the most murderous city, the poorest city, the most segregated city, as the city with the highest auto-insurance rates, with the bleakest outlook for workers in their 20s and 30s, and as the place with the most heart attacks, slowest income growth, and fewest sunny days. It is a city without a single national grocery store chain. It has been deemed the most stressful metropolitan area in America. Likewise, it has ranked last in numerous studies: in new employment growth, in environmental indicators, in the rate of immunization of 2-year-olds, and, among big cities, in the number of high school or college graduates.
Men's Fitness magazine christened Detroit America's fattest city, while Men's Health called it America's sexual disease capital. Should the editors of these two metrosexual magazines be concerned for their safety after slagging the citizens of a city which has won the "most dangerous" title for five of the last ten years? Probably not: 47 percent of Detroit adults are functionally illiterate.
On the upside, Detroit ranks as the nation's foremost consumer of Slurpees and of baked beans on Labor Day. And as if all of this isn't humiliating enough, the Detroit Lions are 0-14.
The best description of the feel of the place came to me from Jason Vines: "We're all Kwame-fatigued, the economy is crap, and the Lions suck. We're tired." A former executive with both Ford and Chrysler, Vines spun me around the decimated, half-abandoned neighborhood of Highland Park, which Chrysler left in the early '90s for the greener pastures of Auburn Hills. It's hard to fault them, he notes, since bullets used to occasionally whiz into the Chrysler buildings from the surrounding neighborhood.
Like many Detroiters (he lives in a posh suburb, where houses on his block have remained unsold for six years), he's bracing for one or all of the Big Three going down. He predicts millions will be thrown out of work, right down to the diner owner in Utah who serves lunch to the people who produce the screws which are bought by the widget manufacturers who produce a component that goes into a seat of a Ford automobile. The diner owner thought he wasn't in the auto business. "But he was," says Vines. "He just didn't know it."
Precisely what caused all this mess is perhaps best left to historians. Locals' ideas for how it happened could keep one pinned to a barstool for weeks: auto companies failing or pushing out to the suburbs and beyond, white flight caused by the '67 riots and busing orders, the 20-year reign of Mayor Coleman Young who scared additional middle-class whites off with statements such as "The only way to handle discrimination is to reverse it," freeways destroying mass transit infrastructure, ineptitude, corruption, Japanese cars--take your pick.
What's clear, though, is that Detroit has failed, that it's broken and cracked. It is dying. But it's not yet dead. Although it has lost over half its population since 1950, 900,000 people still live there. I went to Detroit to experience a cross-section of those who live between its cracks, who either choose or are stuck with living among the ruins.
For many, Detroit is identified with cars or soul music, with the novels of Elmore Leonard or the architecture of Albert Kahn. If they really hate Detroit, they might recall that its suburbs coughed up Madonna. But for me, Detroit has become synonymous with one man: Charlie LeDuff.
Currently a metro reporter at the Detroit News, Charlie crossed my path in 2003 when he was a hotshot national correspondent for the New York Times. Stuck on a press bus trailing Arnold Schwarzenegger in the last days before the recall election, I spied a madman a few rows ahead banging on the window as a jubilant crowd in Bakersfield mistook ours for the candidate's bus. Pounding away, Charlie fed back their mistaken adulation. "I'M THE MEDIA! YOU LOVE THE MEDIA!" he bellowed.
I errantly asked someone what motorcycle magazine he worked for, thinking him an out-of-work biker/pirate since he looked like the bastard spawn of Sonny Barger and Jean Lafitte--I described him at the time as "a leathered scribe with bandito facial hair." Part Cajun, part Native-American (he says his Indian name is "White Boy"), Charlie was as much performer as reporter, walking around in sleeveless New York Post baseball jerseys, once breaking a wine glass on his head to keep campaign staffers offbalance. "It's a trick," he told me quietly, "the glass is thin up at the top."
But Charlie was also writing some of the best newspaper feature stories in the country. His beat involved covering what he calls "the hole," forgotten people in forgotten places. He smuggled himself over the Mexican border with coyote-guided migrants and manned the lobster shift with a Burger King drive-thru attendant trying to support her two kids on $252 a week (before taxes). He won a Pulitzer with a piece in which he went to work in a North Carolina slaughterhouse. His editors pulled him out after a month, though he wanted to stay for six. He still thinks he'd have gotten a better ending, since he's convinced somebody on the killing floor would've gotten stabbed.
Charlie grew up in Livonia, a working-class suburb of Detroit, wanting to be a forest ranger. His stepfather had a quick fist and a big ring. The aggression that bred might explain how Charlie could start at nose tackle in high school (nickname: "The Missile") weighing 130 pounds. Feeling adrift after attending the University of Michigan, he took two years off to roam the world. He rode the Trans-Mongolian railways and slept in the Gobi Desert. He was a bartender in Australia, a baker in Denmark, and worked at a cannery in Alaska, where he lived in a treehouse, after chasing the woman who became his wife up north. (Upon seeing her trip at a party, bump her head on a stove, and lie sprawled on the floor laughing, he thought, "What an ass. I love her!")
Still drifting, he ran into a friend at a party who said he was going to journalism school. "Not trying to paint myself as a rube," says Charlie, "but I'd never heard of journalism school. I never thought I was a genius, but I'm not stupid. This looked good." He applied to Berkeley and got in, though he at first missed the acceptance letter on account of living in the treehouse. As a journalism student, he applied everywhere for internships with clips he picked up at the Alaska Fisherman's Journal. Nobody was interested except for one paper: the New York Times. "Luck counts too, doggie," he says.
The internship turned into a trial, the trial turned into a marquee gig, in which he got to write a bar column called "Bending Elbows" and a roaming column called "American Album." Charlie also did a participatory documentary series on the Times's Discovery Channel in which he might, for instance, ride a bull in a gay rodeo or get clobbered in an Oakland fight club. "I had whiplash for six months," he says.
But even though he became a fully made man over his decade at the Times, it was always a trial of a sort in that politicized meat-grinder. "My stomach hurt every morning," he says. It had been happening for a while, but by 2006, in real-estate bubble-wrapped America with no recession in sight, Charlie felt himself having to fight to get his kind of stories into a paper where they were once welcomed. So he walked.
The bubble burst shortly thereafter. Charlie didn't get as much money out of his overpriced L.A. house as he'd assumed, but he wrote a book, played Mr. Mom to his infant daughter, and did some top-shelf magazine work, such as traveling to China for Vanity Fair with legendary 84-year-old photographer Robert Frank, who nearly died in Charlie's arms in a soup shop.
But earlier this year, as the nation was roiling and the Detroitification of America was set to explode with the mortgage crisis and massive layoffs, Charlie moved home to work for the Detroit News. "I chose them because they chose me. . . . They let me do human," he says. At first, I felt sorry for him. After all, who goes back to Detroit willingly to find work these days? There was a notes-from-Siberia feel to the whole enterprise. When I talked to Charlie on the phone, passing on an idle bit of media gossip, then insisting it stay in the cone of silence, he'd say, "Who am I going to tell, Matt? I'm in Detroit."
But I stopped feeling sorry for him when his pieces started arriving in my inbox like a steady drip. Charlie was back in "the hole" with a vengeance.
He rode around with a near-suicidal Jack Kevorkian in Kevorkian's new egg-shaped electric car. Fresh from prison, Dr. Death now lived in a dumpy apartment, wore Salvation-Army clothes, and told Charlie he wished he'd never been born. He hung with Dead-Squad cops, who told stories of how more Detroiters get killed before Christmas so the murderers can avoid buying Christmas gifts, while puzzling how one murder victim had her feet removed ("Why did they take the feet? We can't use the feet").
He profiled a repo man, who with business now booming in the economic downturn, was suddenly able to remodel his bathroom, send his child to private school, and shop for vacation property. While everyone has done the white-flight story, and a few more have done the black-flight story, Charlie did "The Flight of the Dead." He got the idea while putting around the streets of Detroit in his 1973 Checker Cab ("made in Kalamazoo," he says proudly), cruising past a cemetery where someone was getting disinterred. Turns out, a lot of people were. Charlie found out that Detroit has now gotten so sketchy, that for every 30 living human beings who leave Detroit, a dead one is brought along too.
I go see Charlie at the paper, and find him standing in the freezing weather outside the building having a smoke. He's in his traditional winter-wear: Carhartt jacket, slouchy ski hat, motorcycle boots, and leather work gloves. He looks less like a newspaperman than an undercover narcotics cop in one of those '70s Sidney Lumet movies: the guy who's been on the street too long, who the desk sarge can't reel back into HQ.
Charlie moves abruptly and fast, like he's being chased by something, and maybe he is. He admits he was affected by the scenes he witnessed after 9/11, when he covered the firehouses of Manhattan for weeks. It seems to have sped up his metabolism. "I have a short wick. I don't eat much. I smoke a lot," he says. "Then I crash. Then I get up and go again. I don't think I'm going to have a long time. It's just the speed of my organism."
The New York Times may have recently had to mortgage its building, but it is obvious that the Detroit News is no longer the big leagues. Charlie shows me a big screen in the lobby on which some scenes-from-Iraq loop has been repeating itself endlessly, tormenting the front-desk guy. "Nobody can figure out how to change it," says Charlie. "The guy who did it before took another job. NPR, I think. Everyone's jealous," he jokes. "He got out!"
But Charlie's stomach doesn't hurt anymore, and he almost seems to glory in being back in the minors. He shows me his desk, surrounded by empty cubicles, colleagues now gone from buyouts. Unlike in his Times days, his cell phone has no international service. His desk phone only has one line. His chair is broken. But he seems strangely energized, ricocheting around the halls like a pinball.
He talks to a woman in an elevator, saying he should've taken the stairs, but he just wants to ride it one last time before the paper has to sell it off. He also calls dibs on a historic plate honoring the service of Detroit newsmen in World War II. He barks at a newsroom television screen flashing the Detroit Three congressional hearings, saying, "Just give them the money or don't! Why are we your kickin' boy?" His outburst earns tepid applause from colleagues, who mostly mind their knitting in a newsroom as quiet as a public library.
A week or so later, there will be an announcement that the Detroit News will curtail home delivery to just two days a week. Like all reporters these days, Charlie knows that the American auto industry isn't the only one that's dying. He barges into the deputy managing editor's office to introduce me. "Leaner and meaner, eh?" says Charlie, of the changes that are coming. "Leaner, anyway," shrugs his editor.
Despite the monumentally low morale in journalism at the moment (Gannett whacked 2,000 jobs the week I was in Detroit, and the Tribune Company filed for bankruptcy), Charlie believes in reinvention through a simple mantra: "Don't be boring." Along with his shooter/videographer, Max Ortiz, he makes himself a double threat on the News's website, not only hosting a show called "Hold the Onions" out of the American Coney Island diner downtown, but also doing video pieces that stretch the definition of by-the-numbers journalism.
When councilwoman Monica Conyers got in hot water for calling her colleague "Shrek," Charlie arranged to have her sit down on-camera for an interrogation by a group of middle schoolers. She proceeded to get a condemnatory lecture on how to behave like an adult from the kids. Charlie then interviewed her, convincing her to recite lines from the infamous Shrek-ish city council meeting, with him playing the part of her, in her sassiest Detroit voice. ("You know you not my daddy!" he said.)
It was a good stunt, as evidenced by its getting picked up (without attribution) by a number of national media outlets. But then he turned around and wrote a wrenching story on the girl who schooled Conyers--a 13-year-old who is ashamed to be poor, whose parents sell candy out of the trunk of a rattletrap Cadillac, who is not allowed to bring her books home from school because there aren't enough, and who dreams of escaping this city.
One night over dinner, Charlie admits that he knows most people think he's gone back to a dying newspaper in a dying town. But he feels he has work to do here. Not the kind of work that makes Gawker. Real work. He's always wanted to write about "my people," as he calls them--Detroiters in the hole--but he wasn't ready before. Now he is. He sneers at books like Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas? which treat human beings like electoral blocs to be extrapolated from. "We're not stupid," he says. "We do count, you know. All those statistics you're going to lay out? Fine. But we know how to make s--. We know how to fix s--. We do know how to read. Saved the union a couple of times, you know what I mean?"
He says there has to be room for the kind of journalism "where it's not a fetish, where it's not blaxploitation, where you are actually a human being with a point of view. The city is full of good people, living next to s--." But most media-types don't bother to ask since they view those people as "dumb, uneducated, toothless rednecks. They're ghetto-dwelling blacks. Right? They're poor Mexicans. They're a concept, not a people."
Regardless of media-industry misfortunes, work lies before him. "God gave me something to do, and I'm not turning my back on it. I'm trying really hard. Maybe I'm not great. I'm always nervous, never sure if it's any good. But I'm just trying. What's wrong with trying?"
Detroit has always been a city of fire. Nearly all of it was destroyed by fire in 1805, more of it burned in the Detroit Race Riot of 1863, and over 2,000 buildings were consumed in the Twelfth Street Riot of 1967. Even its flag contains fire; its Latin motto translates, "We hope for better things; it shall rise from the ashes."
About a week before I left for Detroit, I got a message from Charlie, in which he was laughing, saying he was supposed to be at a big media day for firemen. "We were gonna put out some fake fires," he said, "but had to call it off because the fire simulator's broken. Good metaphor." A day later, he left another message, but this time he wasn't laughing.
One of the most popular firemen in the ranks of the Detroit Fire Department, Walter Harris--a biker, minister, and mean firehouse cook--had died that night fighting an arson fire in a house that had burned before, but had yet to be knocked down by the city. Walt had gone upstairs looking for victims, since empty houses in Detroit are often occupied--by everyone from drug addicts to homeless families. The roof collapsed on him, ending a 19-year-career and leaving his six children fatherless (one of whom he adopted out of the ghetto as a teenager and who has become a firefighter himself).
Back in April, Charlie had done a story and video about the men of Squad 3/Engine 23, which included Walt. It was more of an angry cry than a piece. The details of what the firemen endured in this dysfunctional city were nearly unbelievable. Charlie relayed how the average Detroit fireman faces twice as many fires as his New York counterpart, but in much more adverse conditions. In a city of looters, these firefighters once went out on a call in the middle of dinner, only to find upon returning that their meal had been stolen, as had the truck of one of the men. In fact, after one deranged woman set fire to a house, she tried to drive away in their firetruck as they were putting out the blaze.
The city is so cash-strapped that firefighters have to purchase their own toilet paper and cleaning supplies. Their aging bunker gear is coated in carbon, "making them the equivalent of walking matchsticks." The firehouses' brass poles have been removed and sold off by the city.
When I get to town, Charlie wants me to meet his new friends. Even after his story, he kept stopping by the firehouse regularly, chancing to hear Walt's final prayer on the last day of his life. Being a minister, Walt often said pre-meal prayers. During his last one, Charlie disrupted it with laughter, he says, as the television above Walt's head incongruously showed a "cheerleader with budding nipples coming through a chiffon dress," while the big man was asking Jesus to bless the food.
We take off in the newspaper's pool car, a Plymouth Neon, and Charlie drives me through blighted neighborhood after blighted neighborhood. I suggest I'm prepared for this, as I watched the Eminem film, 8 Mile, before coming. Charlie, mistakenly convinced he's better than Eminem, decides to freestyle by ticking off the scenery before us: Liquor Store / Liquor Store / Nail Salon / Pawn Shop / Car Parts / Get your Jesus on.
We tear through the ravaged east side--not to be confused with the ravaged west side. When he was growing up, Charlie's mom had a flower shop down here, but there are almost no signs of commerce now. In my line of work, I've seen plenty of inner cities, but I've never seen anything in a non-Third World country like the east side of Detroit. Maybe the 9th Ward of New Orleans after Katrina. But New Orleans had the storm as an excuse. Here, the storm has been raging for 50 years, starting with the closing of the hulking Albert Kahn-designed Packard Plant in 1956, which a half century later, still stands like a disgraced monument to lost grandeur.
There is block after block of boarded windows and missing doors, structures tilting like the town drunk after a vicious bender. Some houses have buckled roofs, some have blue tarps, some have no roof at all. Which is not to say nobody lives in them. A mail carrier I see on the street says desperate squatters will frequently take up residence, even switching house numbers as it suits them. Not all fires are started maliciously. With no utilities, they'll often make warming fires on the floor. At one point, we stop the car just to count how many burned-out houses we can see without moving. We count six, all from different fires.
We enter the firehouse of Squad 3/Engine 23, or the "Brothers on the Boulevard," as they are nicknamed. It looks like a very orderly frathouse. There is Dalmatian statuary, in lieu of a real dog, a mounted swordfish, a photo of Walt holding a giant sub on the bulletin board. It is ordinarily a place filled with mirthful gregariousness, a place where new recruits might get dropped to their knees with buckets of water, or where middle-aged men play air guitar to Thin Lizzy solos coming from radio speakers.
But today, nobody's in the mood to smile. In a 90 percent black city, a firehouse is one of the only truly integrated places. The photo that ran with Charlie's April story contained white Sgt. Mike Nevin, smoking one of his ever-lit Swisher Sweets, clapping black Walt on the shoulder. They looked like ebony and ivory, living together in perfect harmony. They faced death together every day. When they call each other "brother" around here, they mean it.
Several wear shirts memorializing their fallen brother. A black wreath commemorates him on one wall. Charlie and I hang out for the better part of a day, and the stories come fast and furious. Firemen tell me that the safest time to be here now is Devil's Night, the infamous night before Halloween for which Detroit earned its title as the arson capital of the world. With Angel's Night counterprogramming, which sees more cops and neighborhood patrols on the street, they've managed to whittle the over 800 fires they suffered in 1984 down to 65 fires this October 30. Only in Detroit could 65 arsons in one night be considered a success.
They tell me of getting their ladders stolen off trucks, and then sold for scrap, how 90 percent of the fires are in vacant homes which the city takes at least a year to tear down, if they ever do tear them down. They tell how they have even walked up on people having wakes for dead loved ones in which they deliberately burn abandoned houses in a "Detroit-style campfire." I hear from one firefighter, Wes Rawls, that he actually had his car stolen from outside the church at Walt's wake. He didn't really sweat it, since it was the fourth time his car has been stolen. (The third time it happened, he was conveniently coming out of anger management class.)
When Mike Nevin walks in, Charlie suggests I call him Sgt. Mullet since he sports one. "I'm a hockey player first, fireman second," explains Nevin. Charlie tells me, "Look at this s--," pointing to Nevin's gear. Ordinarily, cities might replace a fireman's turnout gear every six months or so. Nevin's had his for nearly a year and a half, and it looks like it. There are random rips. The white outlines of his harness straps are evident from where flames have licked around them. There is a hole in his crotch, which could theoretically leave his chestnuts roasting on an open fire.
The station fire bell is itself a Rube Goldberg absurdity. When the house gets a call, it comes by way of fax from the central office. The printer paper comes out and pushes a door hinge, which then falls onto a screw that's wired to an alarm. They had to rig it themselves.
I ask how this could be, where is their funding? "I'll tell you what happened to our funding," Nevin says, stomping over to pick up a newspaper with a picture of Kwame's mistress copping a plea. "Kwame Kilpatrick, who is a f--ing retard. There's 20 years of Coleman Young, who is a f--ing retard." He doesn't limit it to black Detroit politicians. He suggests that Congressman Sandy Levin, who represents most of Detroit's northeastern suburbs, "can suck my nuts." Nevin is furious. His friend is dead. He's tired of do-nothing politicians who cuddle up to firemen like kewpie dolls during election time, then underfund them and fail to demolish the thousands and thousands of structures that burn again and again. The surprise isn't that Walt's dead, it's that more of them aren't. (When I ask Nevin later if he wants to exhibit such candor, he reconsiders, "You'd better have Levin kiss my balls," he says, much more gingerly.)
Charlie and I later meet up with Nevin at the house where Walt perished. Nevin leads us up a rickety, charcoaled staircase, and we stand atop what's left of the second floor in the frigid wind. Nevin shows us the spot where the flimsy roof crushed his friend, his boot pawing the ash-caked floorboards with bitter regret. He doesn't care if his complaints sound impolitic. "We're doing the f--ing job," he says. "We're scoring the touchdowns. We're the guys running down the sidelines with s--y gear, okay? Not them."
Nevin loves what he does. He bleeds for his city, even if he had to move out of it a few years back because he was worried for his family's safety. Being a fireman on the east side, what the boys call "the old third battalion," involves more than just putting out fires. Nevin calls his men "urban soldiers," and says, "I swear to God, I feel like our helmets should be light blue with 'U.N.' on the side." Detroit police are so outmanned that many citizens call in fires when they have other problems, such as domestic disturbances. The bad guys "hear these big chariots coming, man, they're out of there."
Aside from the troublemakers and firebugs, there is an odd kind of trust between the firemen and the neighborhoods they are paid to protect. "These people love us, and we love them too," Nevin says. When Walt died, wellwishers streamed in with baked goods and covered dishes. Old women came by in church hats out of respect.
Children often stop in, so firemen can pump up their bike tires. When one boy showed up in his underwear, complaining that his mom was getting beat up by her boyfriend again, "We put him in fire clothes," says Nevin. "You're safe, man," they told the child. "As long as you wear this sweatshirt. You show them that." They visited his mom, telling her, " 'You need to get out of this neighborhood, quit dealing with this a--hole, and move.' She did. She got away."
Nevin told me they recently fought a fire resulting from a man illegally siphoning gas with a rubber hose. He blew up an entire block. "They had kids in the street, glass sticking out of their head," he says. But, as horrible as it was, he says, "The guy's got four kids. And there's no jobs. And you know, he's got to keep the kids warm. So they come out, and they cut the gas off. Everybody looks to dad. 'Hey dad, I'm cold. Hey dad, I'm hungry.' It breaks your f--ing heart, man. You're dad. You're superman. So what do you do? 'I've got to pull something by hook or crook, man.' You know, it's like everybody is just trying to get by right now."
Nevin says that the contained redevelopment in the downtown area is well and good, but everyone can't work at the Hard Rock Café or pour beer at Ford Field. As the car companies moved outside the city, Nevin says, he watched the east side wither. The tool and die shops went away. The mom and pop groceries all folded. He has no soft spot for the Big Three, who he thinks abandoned Detroit in order "to chase the sun."
But what he really hates, what makes him seethe, is the mismanagement of what's left, the fact that all these "mousetraps" as he calls all the wrecked, abandoned homes that dot the city like tombstones, are not taken down. That the house that killed Walt is still standing now. "Hear the sirens?" Nevin asks. "Someone is going to a fire. That's all day long. This is a city where the sirens never stop."
This place, he says, "It's like a forgotten secret. It's like a lost city. And they never really talk about the f--ing truth about what is going on with this town." Of the house we stand on, he says, "We want it down. It symbolizes nothing. It symbolizes failure. We lost one of the best men this job will ever have or see. . . . And yet, this carcass still sits here. Arson is done. This is not a crime scene anymore. There's no tape. There's no one watching it. It just sits there to remind us that the city we work for has failed."
The city's ombudsman, a good, honest woman named Durene Brown, who is a regular thorn in the side of those who wish to turn a blind eye to the city's problems, shows me the figures. In 2005-06, the city demolished 909 structures, but they're only proposing 522 in 2008-09. Be it ineptitude, lack of funds, environmental disposal considerations, concern over lawsuits, you name it, there is always an excuse. Meanwhile, Detroit keeps burning, and Nevin and the Brothers on the Boulevard have to keep risking their hides in mousetrap infernos. The firemen need this house to come down, and Charlie has promised to help them.
There is something about the unsettledness of Detroit that forces its inhabitants to confront it. Therefore, many of them tend to have the most vivid of worldviews. Take political consultant Adolph Mongo.
He is one of Charlie's regulars, both in print and on his web show. This is no easy feat for Charlie, since Mongo's favorite word, one he uses every five sentences or so, is "motherf--er." A large black man who favors Versace glasses adorned with gemstones, he's known as the local flamethrower, unafraid to compare his opponents to Hitler or to run anti-lynching ads in support of his client, Kwame Kilpatrick, who sources say owes Mongo money that he'll never see.
Still, throwing a curveball, Mongo wishes me to know he's practically a conservative and asks for a column at this magazine. "I'm for low taxes, kicking people in the ass, tough on crime, and don't bail out motherf--ers. No welfare state. . . . We need to destroy the school district," he says, advocating "charters, vouchers, everything. My wife [a former public school teacher] is going to die if she reads this s--."
Mongo says he has black clients and he has white clients. "I'm not a bigot, I'm a pro." He worked for Kilpatrick, of whom he once was a fierce critic. Kilpatrick offered to hire him because "I beat his ass for two years." And he's worked for some of the people who put Kilpatrick in jail as well. "People ask me what I do," says Mongo. "I f-- with people. I know how to debate. You've got to know both sides of the issue. I can be for you. I can be against you. I'm like a prostitute in the night. Nobody wants to admit that they've been with me, but they come seek me out."
Suckled in the Coleman Young machine, Mongo freely admits to playing the politics of race, because in Detroit, that's the way it works. "Black people stick together," he says, while he admits the downside: "We accept mediocrity." Those politics are played against Detroit all the time, too, he wishes me to know. And not just from white suburbs. Look what's happening now, he says, with the Big Three congressional hearings.
When white politicians want to get elected around here, explains Mongo, "They don't say 'n--er' anymore, they say 'Detroit.'" And so, while the Big Three have been running away from Detroit for years, they "got a rude awakening when they went to D.C." Mongo holds that when congressmen associate automakers with Detroit, what they're intending to associate them with are all the inept black people who come from there. Or as he puts it, when they say " 'Detroit,' they really said, 'they the new n--s.' Welcome to the club."
Charlie then takes me to see L. Brooks Patterson at the Mesquite Creek steakhouse in Clarkston, outside the city. He's another of Charlie's regulars, who Charlie introduces as "the head honky in charge." Patterson, who looks like everybody's best golfing buddy, is the longtime executive of Oakland County, Michigan, which contains Detroit's affluent northern suburbs. A pro-sprawl Republican who used to regularly buck up against Coleman Young when he worked as a prosecutor, Patterson has suggested that the dysfunctional members of the city council belonged in the Detroit Zoo, causing one of them to refer to him as "the Grand Dragon of Oakland County."
Patterson laughs at the charge. He's not a racist, and doesn't hate Detroiters. He is a Detroiter. He grew up in the city, and he's friends with Mongo (two sides of the same coin, Charlie calls them "Dee and Dum"). The problem, Patterson says, is his county is "tired of being Detroit's ATM machine." If Detroit's repeatedly disastrous decisions hurt his taxpayers, he will oppose them. "Once you understood that, everything I do and say makes sense."
The demographics of his own county are changing with black flight from Detroit, and he understands why people can't wait to leave. When automotive parts supplier BorgWarner was deciding whether to relocate from Chicago to Auburn Hills, Patterson says, "We had to send what I would call grief counselors over . . . to convince them it ain't that bad. We actually did videos saying, 'You are not going into the war zone. You are not going into the deluge. You are coming to Oakland County.' " Patterson adds, "I would love to see the city come back for a lot of reasons. It would make my job easier. But nothing works."
As the night wears on, Charlie grows defensive, and almost defiant, about Detroit. He recounts everything it's done for the country, insists the city still matters and won't disappear, speculates about the potential for it to become a major port since "water is the new oil," and insists that Henry Ford is more important to history than Jesus Christ since "even Muslims drive Toyotas." At this, Patterson, a good Catholic boy, leans into my tape recorder, "That was Charlie. . . . When I go home tonight, I will make the sign of the cross and pray to Henry Ford."
Charlie heads for the restroom, and Patterson grows philosophical: "Detroit's history has gone the way of Rome and Athens and Constantinople. It is what history does. History moves on. And history has moved away from the Babylonian Empire. It moved away from Egypt. It be what it be. . . . I think Detroit sees itself in its rearview mirror. But Detroit will never again be where those other cities were, including Detroit."
Later, I ask Charlie why he was pushing so hard, aside from his blood-alcohol content. After all, Patterson didn't say anything that Charlie hasn't said to me about his city. He explains it thus: "Living in Detroit is like having a retarded brother. You are allowed to make jokes, but once anybody else does, you are allowed to light them the f-- on fire, man."
Despite all the ugliness during my week in Detroit, I discover pockets of grace. The first finds me in the backseat of a black Crown Victoria. Former Motown superstar and current city councilwoman Martha Reeves, of Martha and the Vandellas, sits in the front seat. Maxine Powell, a crisp 84-year-old, sits beside me. She now works in Reeves's office, but used to be Motown's finishing instructor, teaching poise classes for two hours a day. She showed the entire Motown stable how to do everything from walk to dress. "Class, style, and refinement turned the heads of kings and queens," she informs me. Reeves's driver is Ulysses, who has two gold teeth and wears a coat that must've meant the end for an entire mink ranch. (He promises me that if any PETA members throw ketchup on him, they won't be around to throw it on anyone else.)
I've talked Reeves into showing me around Hitsville USA, Motown's first headquarters and now a museum. Along the way, she does her part as civic booster. Ulysses drives us through a shiny new townhouse complex that used to be a housing project. All the streets are named after Motown stars. Though Reeves is a little cross that hers is abbreviated "M. Reeves." Ulysses says her full name would be too long. "No longer than the Temptations," she huffs. The rest of the drive is through the typical blight. Reeves admits it's affected her too. Recently, someone broke into her late father's old east side house, a house where the doors never used to be locked, unless she didn't make it home by midnight, in which case, her father locked the doors on her. The thief boosted $100,000 worth of recording equipment, which she hasn't managed to replace.
Then there was the time three decades ago when she'd just returned to Detroit from Los Angeles. While she was getting out of a Mercedes and going into a house, a mugger grabbed her purse, the strap of which was wrapped tightly around her hand. He dragged her for 500 yards. I ask if she was hurt. "Scratched up knees, torn stockings, and my pride was just killed," she says.
Hitsville sits next to a funeral home. We cover every inch of the museum. She knows every drummer and backup singer and secretary in every photo. She tells of the '62 tour in a broken down bus with no toilet, in which Little Stevie Wonder wouldn't let anybody sleep. She sings into the trademark Motown echo chamber which provided much of its fabled sound. She dances and harmonizes to every other song playing over the speakers, songs by Smokey and Marvin and Shorty Long with that walking bass line beckoning us to his "Function at the Junction."
She takes me into the studio, where the floor has heel damage behind the sound boards from long-ago engineers, now "gone to heaven" in her words, who were keeping time with the music. She shows me the exact mike where she sang behind Marvin Gaye, who she'd flirted with.
As she tells me these stories, she attracts a small crowd, all of them white people, who periodically sing along with her. A woman who left the city long ago--though she still wears a Red Wings jersey--tells me she misses it while getting an autograph from Reeves. "It was once a great town," she says.
Reeves is 67 years old, but as we walk the halls, about 40 of those years fall away. "You see the pride and happiness I have coming in here," she tells me. Ulysses chauffeurs us back to my truck, parked behind the Coleman Young Municipal Center downtown. As we ride up on it, we see the Spirit of Detroit, the Marshall Fredericks monument in which a seated man holds a gilt bronze sphere which emanates rays meant to symbolize God.
Or at least we see its silhouette. Night's fallen, and this being Detroit, the lights are off. "He's out in the dark," says a puzzled Reeves. "Ain't he scared?"
"He's got a ball in his hand," says Ulysses. "He awright. He got people with him. He's cool."
The second pocket, I discover by accident. Charlie once quoted Sam Riddle, a local political warhorse, as saying that the only difference between Detroit and the Third World, corruption-wise, is that "there are no goats in the streets in Detroit."
Actually, there are. With so much empty space these days in Detroit, "urban farming" has taken off--vegetable patches right in the middle of the city. And I'm told someone keeps goats a few blocks away from my hotel, the gleaming MotorCity Hotel and Casino, which sits in a downwardly mobile neighborhood with businesses like Goodwill Industries, a sewing machine repair shop, and liquor stores.
While combing the streets of the North Corktown neighborhood, unable to find the goats, I see a black man carrying a box. I stop to ask directions. He offers to show me, so I tell him to hop in my truck. I take him for a construction worker or mover or something, but he's homeless.
His name is Wayne Williams, and he has a gentle spirit. We get to talking, and I quickly lose interest in the goats. He says he moved to Detroit two years ago. He was a gravedigger back in Alabama, and he came here to get a better job.
"You came to Detroit to get a better job?" I ask.
"Yeah," he says, smiling. "I know better now."
He says he's tried to get a job in over 100 places, everywhere from construction to fast food to gravedigging again, but hasn't managed. The box he is carrying is full of clothes that he got out of a dumpster. He walks the empty streets waiting for passersby, seeing if they want to buy any. His own clothes are all from charity, which might explain why he wears snowboots that look like they belong to a 10-year-old boy.
I ask him where he lives, and he shows me. He lives beneath a Rosa Parks Boulevard underpass, in the shadow of Tiger Stadium, which has been mostly torn down, though the preservationists are trying to save the last of it. The Tigers now play at Comerica Park, though the company the park's named for has fled to Dallas.
He shows me his lean-to boxes and blankets, and a Bible sitting on a bridge girder as though it were his bookshelf. I ask how he could sleep, it's so incredibly noisy. He's used to it, he says, and he wants the traffic. That's why he's there. He figures there's less chance of getting killed if he sleeps where motorists can see him. A few months ago, he was robbed and thrown off an overpass. He shows me his still-swollen thumb and the scars on his head and back. "I feel safe under the bridge," Wayne says.
We go back to my truck. He asks me for nothing. But I tell him I'll give him a lift to wherever he's going since he's been a good guide, and also slide him twenty bucks. He offers me a breast-cancer awareness pin. He found a bunch of them in a dumpster and is going to try to sell them, but thinks I should have one for free.
We talk local politics a little. With time on his hands, he reads all the newspapers he finds. He's disappointed in Kwame: "Great leaders take care of their people." He says he would make a good one because "I love the human race." He prays for them, as well as for Detroit, he says, which he worries about. I ask him if he gets lonely out here. He says yes, he does, but a red-tailed fox sometimes comes to visit him, though it's too scared to approach, so he'll roll food down the overpass embankment to it. Plus, he talks to God a lot. He calls him "my partner."
"All I want to do is live to be an old man," Wayne says. "That's what I ask my partner for."
I ask Wayne if he has a substance-abuse problem. He says he's never been drunk in his life. And even if he was a drunk, he adds, he couldn't afford to be out here, in case he has to defend himself. But he does admit he smokes pot "about five times a year." Recently, he said, he was scoring some weed at a nearby drug house. What he saw there, he says, he'll never, ever forget, no matter how hard he tries.
"What?" I ask.
He's extremely reluctant to tell. He breaks eye contact, and looks to the sky in pain. "I can't believe the things I've seen," he says, "Some are hard to talk about." I prompt him some more, and the details start tumbling forth. He says he saw a young woman there: very attractive, nice body. There were about nine men there as well. For their benefit, or maybe for the benefit of their drugs, says Wayne, "She was having sex with a pit bull."
I stop writing. "C'mon," I say in disbelief.
Wayne looks at me as though he's hurt that I'd doubt his story and shoves the $20 bill I gave him back at me. "Take this if you don't believe me," he insists. I shove the money back at him. "If I'm lying," he says, "then God is gay. And I know He ain't gay, cause He's my partner."
He shakes my hand, starts to get out of the truck, then shakes my hand again. "I have a hard time saying goodbye to people I like," he says. "That's what I don't like about the human race. You meet people you like, then there's no way of seeing their face again."
He asks me if I'd stop by to bid him farewell before I leave. I say I will. "What time?" he asks. I tell him I have a lot of appointments, so I can't predict, and I don't want to hold up his schedule. "Okay," he says. "If I'm not there, just leave a note in my Bible." He gets out, shuffles off to White Castle, but after about 30 yards, he turns around again and waves.
The last pocket is found by exploring Detroit with Randy Wilcox, a photographer and artist who combs the ruins of Detroit and posts his riveting studies of the city on detroitfunk.com. He knows every inch of Detroit, from underground tunnels and abandoned auto factories to the empty skyscrapers that make the skyline of Detroit at night look like what he calls, "a smile with broken teeth."
He comes from a Big Three auto family, and so wearing a bomber jacket and a plaid stocking hat, he dutifully drives us around in a Ford Taurus with a crack all the way across its windshield because, he says, "I can't afford a Honda." We park his car far away from the buildings we crash, to avoid detection by police (not that we ever see any). We hit the hotspots, such as the old Packard Plant, which he calls a "whore" ("a building that everybody has had"), and the beautiful ruins of the once-magnificent Beaux-Arts Michigan Central Station, which saw its last train in 1988 and which from afar looks like a porous cheesecloth.
He ticks off all the injuries he's gotten exploring, from scratches to sprains to nails through the shoe. He gives me the taxonomy of who he runs into, from drug addicts to scrappers to historians to foreign tourists to ghetto dogs to "Vikings," troublemakers who just come to break things more than they're already broken.
Wilcox is the opposite of a Viking. He is an aesthete and amateur historian with an appreciation of architectural detail and a story for every streetcorner. As we walk through various ruins, seeing old commodes and junked files and discarded boats, we run into no trouble, though we hear Vikings on the prowl here and there. Most don't want a confrontation and make their escape like specters.
Wilcox walks me all around the poorly lit edifices, except for where the roof is missing and snow drifts in, pointing out curios like discarded "whore bags"--condom-filled duffels that prostitutes use to ply their trade. I have notebook pages filled with descriptions of what we saw, but reading it now, all the wreckage runs together.
Wilcox drives me all over the city, pointing out missed urban-planning opportunities and eyesores. He takes me downtown to what the locals call "Skyscraper Graveyard," where the clock seems to have stopped in the Art Deco period and high-rise after high-rise sits empty. He points out the landmark Book Tower, a 38-story building finished in 1926, which he says is now vacant except for Bookies Tavern on the first floor. Wilcox's lawyer told him he'd been "the last tenant there. He had to downsize. People are too broke to sue people. He's now switching to bankruptcy law to try to save his house."
I come to think of Wilcox as the curator of a museum that's been overturned and looted. The prize of his collection, or what could have been his collection, is the detailed production notes he found written in Marvin Gaye's own hand for the legendary What's Going On album. He found them, along with other treasures from artist itineraries to expense accounts, in the Motown Center, which housed the label, then sat empty for 30 years, until it was knocked down in 2006 to make way for Super Bowl parking. Wilcox witnessed the demolition, which was typical of Detroit's callous disregard for its own history: "Motown letterhead was blowing down the road."
When NPR did a story on Wilcox's find, the phone calls started flooding in, plenty from people trying to muscle him for the rights to the production notes. His solution? He gave them to the Detroit Public Library. When I ask him why on earth he didn't keep them or flip them on eBay, he says it's because he made two decisions: One, that he didn't want to get sued. The other, "that I am not a looter." "I am a steward," he says. "I am just in possession of stuff until it gets where it is supposed to be."
I ask him if he ever feels that in spending so much time among the ruins, he's feeding off a carcass. "No," he says. "I'm part of the carcass."
On a sunny, cold morning, we all stand in front of the house where Walt Harris died: two of Walt's sons and Mike Nevin and the Brothers on the Boulevard and a few city council members and reporters and neighbors and more firefighters and the Axemen, the motorcycle group Walt rode with. Charlie LeDuff is there too, which is only fitting, since he's pretty much the reason we all came: to watch this mousetrap inferno get crushed liked charred Lincoln Logs.
Charlie had gone to New York for Thanksgiving, but promised Nevin that if that house was still standing when he got back, he'd start rattling cages and kicking in doors. The house was standing, and that "monument to failure," as Nevin called it, would've kept standing, as 60,000 others do, for infinity, because the city is too poor, too concerned about procedures and lawsuits, too inept to knock them down.
Charlie started working the phones, and after runarounds and dead ends, found a sympathetic city councilwoman, Sheila Cockrel, who fast-tracked the demolition at his behest, as a favor to the mourning firefighters.
Still wearing his ever-present ski-hat, Charlie has shed the Carhartt work jacket and today has on his three-quarter length brown dress-leathers. It's a special occasion. There's not even a notebook in sight. He doesn't want to write. He just wants to take it in, as there are not a lot of days of similar triumph working for a dying newspaper in a dying town.
As we watch the wrecker take the house down, I'm struck by the fact that rather than sadness, there is almost a note of celebration. How could anyone with eyes celebrate? Just looking around this very block, I count five or six similar houses, mousetraps that Nevin and his gladiators will inevitably be revisiting, piling off their chariots, swinging their axes, hoping the roof doesn't come down on their heads.
I stand next to Charlie, as he toasts up a Winston. I put the question to him: How could these guys celebrate? Just look at what surrounds them.
He exhales a funnel of smoke, shaking his head in assent. But he corrects me. "No one's going to cover this place in chrome tomorrow, or anything. But you've got to let the people have some hope. It matters."
With the house now in a heap, the grateful firefighters are hugging it out. They hug everybody. Each other. Charlie. Me. Since his wife dropped him off, Charlie asks me if he can bum a ride back to the newspaper. As we start heading to my truck, he catches a black man and woman on the porch across from the house that killed Walt. He'd interviewed them previously and had apparently made promises to more than just Mike Nevin and the men of Squad 3/Engine 23.
"Merry Christmas," Charlie bellows, pointing at them. "I told you we'd get that house knocked down."
The black man rises and starts toward Charlie, beaming and nodding his head. "Thank you," he says. "Thank you."
Then, he comes to a stop and his smile fades as he surveys the wreckage around him. "But what about the rest of it?" he asks.
On the way to the airport, I have one last stop to make: to bid farewell to my homeless guide, Wayne Williams, as promised. I park my truck near what's left of Tiger Stadium, and make my way down to the bridge overpass that Wayne calls home. I can see his boot prints in the light snow, heading out from underneath it. He's not home, nor is the Bible he instructed me to leave a note in.
His blankets and boxes are still there, however. So I place on them a book I bought for him the day before. Wayne seemed to be into the religious material, so I bought him a slim volume called God's Promises: Bible extracts, the good parts without all the genealogies and oxen sacrifice. It breaks verses out by subject, for occasions such as when you're afraid or lonesome. I mark a passage for him from Psalms:
I wait around a few minutes, but he doesn't return, and I have to make a flight. Maybe he's at White Castle. Maybe he's out peddling breast cancer awareness pins. But it is Sunday. So he could be in church, talking to his partner about the human race or Detroit.
Detroit should hope so. Wayne's partner is the only one who can save it now.
Matt Labash is a senior writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.