the hell happened here

the hell happened here

detroit 1 chris congdon upstairsproject

The low sun lasers through window holes of burned-out buildings. It casts abysmal shadows inside open doorways and under collapsed porches. It silhouettes piles of illegally-dumped tires. It flickers through tangled brush and it sparks on points of broken glass.  

A ghost neighborhood: two-thirds of the lots have had their houses demolished and the rest are falling down on their own.  Windows, doors and roofs are optional. Evidence of fire appears to be mandatory. Shingles, siding and tar paper hang loose.  Walls are thin and transparent. Rot and filth are endemic. The few homes that are occupied seem to be more haunted by their humans than actually lived in.     

Later in our visit, Ed uses his arms to gesture in opposing directions as he tells us the squalor  goes on for twelve this way and eight this way. “Blocks?”, we ask. “Miles”, he says.

A writer quickly runs out of synonyms for “ruin”.  Terms like “war zone” and “disaster” are common and accurate. I don’t want to say “post-apocalyptic” because I’m not sure it’s quite done, yet.  The dereliction is spectacular, the decay lavish, the failure abject.

‘ the hell happened here?

Ask it as a question or just state the obvious.

The hell happened here.

. . .

It is an intimidating city and the rough reputation is legit.  If I were alone, I would be frightened, but at the moment I'm in good company ... actually, great company.  It is a warm evening and I'm rolling slow on a bicycle with about three thousand other people on an eight-mile tour of the urban wasteland.

Police stop traffic for this weekly bike ride, and I’m never far from another rider sharing hip hop or Motown on portable speakers.  The vibe is celebratory, the mood elated, spirits high - which is incongruous to the warscape around us. The scenes and the sounds blend in a cinematic way and we’re all part of a live performance-art piece, juxtaposing our revelry over the ghetto tableau.  

Bystanders holler and high five.  A woman jumps from her front steps, struts into the street among the bikers and preaches her civic pride, “Detroit Michigan”, she punches the air and shouts it twice, “Detroit, Michigan”.

. . .

The hell happened here.

It takes your breath away the first time you see it.  Maybe I should have said that in the first-person, “It took my breath away.”   Maybe if you come from Baltimore or Trenton this would look more familiar and you wouldn’t be shocked by the slums that seem to go on and on and on.  

We drove up to 8 Mile and down to Dearborn and every neighborhood we went through had an uneasy, “aftermath of anarchy” feel.  

The term “urban blight” doesn’t even begin to describe the state of the ‘hood.  “Neglect” is too soft, “apathy” too unintentional. It takes real rage to make something this bad. What may have begun as simple abandonment has become a premeditated and willful trashing of the city.  

A small and mild example:

Tires are everywhere.  They spring up like mushrooms overnight.  Those who sell automotive tires are supposed to dispose of the old ones properly - in fact, they charge their customers a fee to cover the cost of doing so.

But every night, trucks circulate the hood, dumping used tires while the “recyclers” pocket the fees.  They dump the tires in vacant lots. They dump them in front yards. They sometimes just open the tailgate and let the tires fall in a pile, blocking the street.  And then the recyclers get the hell out of there - a classic dump-n-run that leaves a mess for someone else to clean up.

They rarely get caught.  Confrontation would be dangerous and the neighborhoods are too empty to effectively self-police.  And the police themselves are occupied with matters more critical to life and death.

detroit 2 chris congdon upstairsproject

The tires are grimy and slimy.  Steel cords stick out of the rubber, so they’re dangerous to handle.  Water collects in them. Mosquitoes breed in them. And if a pile of tires is ignited - this is Detroit, remember - it makes a cloud of toxic smoke and leaves behind a charcoal goo. The tires  are not just an eyesore, they’re a public health hazard.

Maybe dumping used tires isn’t the worst thing that can happen to a city.  Not as bad as, say, murder and drugs and gangs and poverty and homelessness and abandonment and looting and crappy public schools and erosion of the tax base resulting in scaling-back of public services and all the other problems that Detroit has, but the tires are one more little example that this is a city that is not completely functioning.  

. . .

‘ the hell happened here?

We ask people over and over.  How is it that a first-world city, a city of power and wealth as recently as fifty years ago, is now a ruin of its former self?  

Some answer that it was corruption in the mayor’s office that funneled millions of dollars out of the public accounts.  Some answer that it was mismanagement which allowed city government to swell to a ridiculous size and saddle the citizens with unsupportable public debt.  Some answer that the city’s economy was too heavily grounded in the automotive industry and when cars crashed, the city went along for the ride. Some blame the outward migration that followed the crash.  It seems there’s truth in all of these.

detroit 3 chris congdon upstairsproject

There’s a former mayor in a federal penitentiary because of his corruption.  I saw a news report that indicated as recently as 2013 the City of Detroit had $18 billion in general obligation debt.  Billion with a B - including more than $3 billion in unfunded pensions. Since the crash and restructure of the auto industry there aren’t nearly as many jobs as before, and Detroit has one of the highest unemployment rates in the USA.  People have been leaving in droves. There are more than 70,000 abandoned buildings. Detroit was America’s 4th largest city in 1950 with 1.8 million people. The 2010 census counted fewer than 702,000 - a 60% decline in 60 years. On top of all this, many neighborhoods have violent crime rates more than 200% of the national average, which seems to be something of an achievement with so few people around.  So if you had the ability, wouldn’t you leave, too?

And when you ask “ ‘ the hell happened here?”, everyone mentions racism.  Everyone. Black people mention racism. White people mention racism. The famous Detroit riots of 1967 happened when I was one year old, and in Detroit I find people younger than me talking about them as though they remember - as though they were there.  The riots of 1967 are the piece of history that everyone in Detroit knows.

The trigger was a police raid on a party at an after-hours club.  It was one raid too many. The civil rights movement was in full-swing nation-wide and Detroit’s black population had lived for years under zoning designed to keep them in their place, and a police force that brutalized them with impunity.  They weren’t going to take it anymore.

“The riots started just a mile from here”, Ed said.  “This neighborhood was one of the ones that burned”. That would explain why it is two-thirds empty - it already had a head start on falling apart by the time the corruption happened, the mismanagement occurred, and the economy went bad.  

. . .

We’re gonna go get them.  We’re gonna go pick up the tires - a couple hundred of them, anyway.  Our group is working with Ed from Cass Community Services. He tells us, “Stay together, don’t wander off.  They’ll be watching us. As soon as we get there, they’ll come check us out. We’re going into neighborhoods where outsiders aren’t welcome.  They’ll be wary and nervous that we’re there - either because they fear more riff-raff, or because they are the riff-raff and for obvious reasons don’t want us around.  We’ll go in, get the tires, and get out.”

And that’s how our tire raid goes down.  We drive into yet another ghost neighborhood of wrecked houses and vacant lots and before the first sixty seconds tick away, before we’re even out of our vans, two guys appear at the far end of the block and come toward us in the street - slowly, cautiously.  Ed engages them directly - it’s our best defense, he says. He identifies himself and makes it clear that we’re just here to pick up the tires and then we’ll be gone. The sentries return to their end of the block where they can watch us work from a distance.

The mailman comes to deliver to the three houses that are actually occupied.  He, too, is wary of us … pulls out his phone to take pictures of the tires and the truck.  He thinks we’re dumping. Ed goes through his speech again and has to say it twice before the mailman understands that we’re there to clean up the place.  People cleaning up is such a novel thing that the mailman takes a selfie with us.

Cass Community Services will repurpose the tires as mud mats and sell them at their store.  It’s a process that provides a few jobs and raises a few dollars which will be used to help support Cass’ other services: shelters, meals, affordable housing solutions, etc.  

. . .

Next to the lot where we’re collecting tires is a house that is a fair representation of most of the others on the street.  The occupants left years ago.  It looks like they stayed until the last moment before eviction or foreclosure and then just walked away.  

But it’s worse than just that - this house has been destroyed in an intentional way.  

There is no glass in any of the windows.  The front door is standing wide open. It can’t close - someone has filled the entry with bundles of un-delivered newspapers.  They’re damp and rotting and they stink. Behind the newspapers we can see sweaters still hanging in the open closet. Two sofas and a chair are overturned in the living room.  Mirrored tiles have been pried off the wall. Layers of paint are peeling to the point that you can’t tell which color is on top. Carpet is shredded into strips. Floorboards are missing.  There are holes in the walls where pipes and wires have been ripped out. Imagine the rodents and the roaches.

A hell of some sort happened in this house and to this house, and to the people who lived here, and to the people next door and the ones next door to them, too.  

Hell like this doesn’t just happen.  People make hell happen. This house is a single example of the piece of Detroit that I can’t figure out: that it wasn’t enough to just walk away from the economic trouble or the racial trouble or the political trouble or the house or the neighborhood.  Someone felt compelled to destroy it. It’s what I meant earlier when I said “it takes real rage”.

There are lots of different scenarios which may lead to a building being unoccupied.  In lots of other places it is possible for the title holder to shut the door and lock it and then leave it alone for a while with a reasonable expectation that the property will not be tampered with, and when conditions improve, a new occupant may be found.  That’s not the way Detroit works. If nobody’s home, the place gets trashed - trashed as though they’re angry at it.

I don’t know if the destruction was done by those who left, those who stayed, or outsiders who came in later and looted the place.  Regardless, they’re all examples of the people of Detroit allowing their neighborhoods and their city to go to hell. I’m sure there were people who tried to stand up and stop it, but there weren’t enough of them and the result is that I couldn’t find one single street corner where I could look left or right and not see a building that was burned out or boarded up.     

I hate to call-out the good people of Detroit as complicit in the hell that happened here - it feels like kicking them when they’re down.  Undoubtedly, there were big forces at work in the downfall of Detroit - forces bigger than a city’s people could resist: global economics and poor race relations to name two.  

But there have been other depressions in other cities that haven’t resulted in what I see in Detroit.  Something about the leadership or lack thereof, something about the history or the culture or the psyche of the city turned their depression into self-destruction.

It is in times of crisis that good leadership is needed and unfortunately the people of Detroit had elected crooks, cronies and incompetents.  That’s the thing with democracy - the finger always points back at the voters. We are responsible for watching those who lead us and serve us to ensure they are working effectively for us.  Apparently in Detroit, nobody was watching.   

‘ the hell happened here?  Wouldn’t it be great to be able to point the finger at something big and impersonal like the federal government?  But the US Congress isn’t one of the street gangs selling drugs and shooting people.  That’s Detroiters doing it to themselves.

‘ the hell happened here?  Wouldn’t it be great to be able to point the finger outward at a big, uncaring corporation and say that Detroit looks the way it does because all the good factory jobs got moved to Mexico?  But it’s not the Mexicans who have taken the good things of middle-class Michigan life - homes, barbecue grills, Lay-Z-Boys, Barbie Jeeps - and left them burned down, beat-up, thrown-out and peed-on.  That’s you, Detroit. You did that part to yourself. That’s how you reacted to the crisis and I'm having trouble understanding it and so far, nobody has been able to adequately explain it to me.

. . .

Actually, I loved Detroit.  I loved being in the city. I loved seeing it.  The history is fascinating and the former wealth is apparent. There are parts of the city that are amazingly beautiful.  No matter where you are, someone is playing music and dancing unself-consciously.  Museum-quality graffiti is everywhere, out in the open for everyone to enjoy.

Before I arrived, pretty much everything I knew about Detroit I learned from listening to Eminem. I was preconditioned to expect violence, menace, conflict, dirt and darkness, and guess what, they’re all here. But like one of Marshall Mathers’ raps, underneath the desperation and the fury, there are hints of resurrection and redemption.  There are great organizations like the one we worked with, Cass Community Services, which is creative in rescuing people and rescuing neighborhoods as it addresses the poverty and blight.

The fact that there are so many vacant lots tells me that progress has actually been made - that many derelict structures have already been removed.

There is some building going on and if I were an urban redeveloper, I’d be looking hard at Detroit.  There are lots of buildings available for anyone with the next great idea. There’s already an infrastructure of roads and rail and power for industry.  There’s plenty of vacant land for building. You could almost say Detroit is a blank canvas for tomorrow’s urban dreamers and that kind of potential is exciting.

In the people I sensed a desire to overcome, and in some of the people, like that woman who strutted into the street and shouted during the bike ride, there’s a real pride in the city.  Recovery will be a long, hard process, but it feels like it has already started. The hell happened here, but I think Detroit is worth watching and in another ten years we may find that the people of Detroit are tougher than hell.  


background note - I was in Detroit for a week in May, 2018 with a crew from Threehouse, a campus ministry at the University of Northern Iowa. It's the same organization that I went to NYC with last year. We worked with Cass Community Services in their efforts to rehabilitate people and neighborhoods.

black side | white side

black side | white side