DETROIT'S EAST SIDE is now the poorest, most violent quarter of America's poorest, most violent big city. The illiteracy, child poverty, and unemployment rates hover around 50 percent.
Testifying at the New Prospect Missionary Baptist Church.Stand at the corner of Lillibridge Street and Mack Avenue and walk a mile in each direction from Alter Road to Gratiot Avenue (pronounced Gra-shit). You will count 34 churches, a dozen liquor stores, six beauty salons and barber shops, a funeral parlor, a sprawling Chrysler engine and assembly complex working at less than half-capacity, and three dollar stores—but no grocery stores. In fact, there are no chain grocery stores in all of Detroit.
There are two elementary schools in the area, both in desperate need of a lawnmower and a can of paint. But there is no money; the struggling school system has a $363 million deficit. Robert Bobb was hired in 2009 as the emergency financial manager and given sweeping powers to balance the books. But even he couldn't stanch the tsunami of red ink; the deficit ballooned more than $140 million under his guidance.
Bobb did uncover graft and fraud and waste, however. He caught a lunch lady stealing the children's milk money. A former risk manager for the district was indicted for siphoning off $3 million for personal use. The president of the school board, Otis Mathis, recently admitted that he had only rudimentary writing skills shortly before being forced to resign for fondling himself during a meeting with the school superintendent.
The graduation rate for Detroit schoolkids hovers around 35 percent (PDF). Moreover, the Detroit public school system is the worst performer in the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests, with nearly 80 percent of eighth-graders unable to do basic math. So bad is it for Detroit's children that Education Secretary Arne Duncan said last year, "I lose sleep over that one."
These girls are the lucky ones. In Detroit, only 1 in 3 kids will graduate from high school. Almost half of all adults are illiterate.Duncan may lie awake, but many civic leaders appear to walk around with their eyes sealed shut. As a reporter, I've worked from New York to St. Louis to Los Angeles, and Detroit is the only big city I know of that doesn't put out a crime blotter tracking the day's mayhem. While other American metropolises have gotten control of their murder rate, Detroit's remains where it was during the crack epidemic. Add in the fact that half the police precincts were closed in 2005 for budgetary reasons, and the crime lab was closed two years ago due to ineptitude, and it might explain why five of the nine members of the city council carry a firearm.
To avoid the embarrassment of being the nation's perpetual murder capital, the police department took to cooking the homicide statistics, reclassifying murders as other crimes or incidents. For instance, in 2008 a man was shot in the head. ME Schmidt ruled it a homicide; the police decided it was a suicide. That year, the police said there were 306 homicides—until I began digging. The number was actually 375. I also found that the police and judicial systems were so broken that in more than 70 percent of murders, the killer got away with it. In Los Angeles, by comparison, the unsolved-murder rate is 22 percent.
The fire department is little better. When I moved back to Detroit two years ago, I profiled a firehouse on the East Side. Much of the firefighters' equipment was substandard: Their boots had holes; they were alerted to fires by fax from the central office. (They'd jerry-rigged a contraption where the fax pushes a door hinge, which falls on a screw wired to an actual alarm.) I called the fire department to ask for its statistics. They'd not been tabulated for four years.
Shoddily equipped firemen face some 500 arsons a month.Detroit has been synonymous with arson since the '80s, when the city burst into flames in a pre-Halloween orgy of fire and destruction known as Devil's Night. At its peak popularity, 810 fires were set in a three-day span. Devil's Night is no longer the big deal it used to be, topping out last year at around 65 arsons. That's good news until you realize that in Detroit, some 500 fires are set every single month. That's five times as many as New York, in a city one-tenth the size.
As a reporter at the Detroit News, I get plenty of phone calls from people in the neighborhoods. A man called me once to say he had witnessed a murder, but the police refused to take his statement. When I called the head of the homicide bureau and explained the situation, he told me, "Oh yeah? Have him call me," and then hung up the phone. One man, who wanted to turn himself in for a murder, gave up trying to call the Detroit police; he drove to Ohio and turned himself in there.
The police have been working under a federal consent decree since a 2003 investigation found that detectives were locking up murder witnesses for days on end, without access to a lawyer, until they coughed up a name. The department was also cited for excessive force after people died in lockup and at the hands of rogue cops.
Detroit has since made little progress on the federal consent decree. Newspapers made little of it—until the US Attorney revealed that the federal monitor of the decree was having an affair with the priapic mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who was forced to resign, and now sits in prison convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice.
The Kilpatrick scandal, combined with the murder rate, spurred the newly elected mayor, Dave Bing—an NBA Hall of Famer—to fire Police Chief James Barrens last year and replace him with Warren Evans, the Wayne County sheriff. The day Barrens cleaned out his desk, a burglar cleaned out Barrens' house.
In Chief Evans' defense, he seemed to understand one thing: After the collapse of the car industry and the implosion of the real estate bubble, there is little else Detroit has to export except its misery.
Evans brought a refreshing honesty to a department plagued by ineptitude and secrecy. He computerized daily crime statistics, created a mobile strike force commanded by young and educated go-getters, and dispatched cops to crime hot spots. He assigned the SWAT team the job of rounding up murder suspects, a task that had previously been done by detectives.
Evans told me then that major crimes were routinely underreported by 20 percent. He also told me that perhaps 50 percent of Detroit's drivers were operating without a license or insurance. "It's going to stop," he promised. "We're going to pull people over for traffic violations and we're going to take their cars if they're not legal. That's one less knucklehead driving around looking to do a drive-by."
His approach was successful, with murder dropping more than 20 percent in his first year. If that isn't a record for any major metropolis, it is certainly a record for Detroit. (And that statistic is true; I checked.)
So there should have been a parade with confetti and tanks of lemonade, but instead, the complaints about overaggressive cops began to roll in. Then Evans' own driver shot a man last October. The official version was that two men were walking in the middle of a street on the East Side when Evans and his driver told them to walk on the sidewalk. One ran off. Evans' driver—a cop—gave chase. The man stopped, turned, and pulled a gun. Evans' driver dropped him with a single shot. An investigation was promised. The story rated three paragraphs in the daily papers, and the media never followed up. Then Huff got killed. Then Je'Rean was murdered. Then came the homicide-by-cop of little Aiyana.
Chief Evans might have survived it all, had he, too, not been drawn to the lights of Hollywood. As it turns out, he was filming a pilot for his own reality show, entitled The Chief.
The program's six-minute sizzle reel begins with Evans dressed in full battle gear in front of the shattered Michigan Central Rail Depot, cradling a semiautomatic rifle and declaring that he would "do whatever it takes" to take back the streets of Detroit. I saw the tape and wrote about its existence after the killing of Aiyana, but the story went nowhere until two months later, when someone in City Hall leaked a copy to the local ABC affiliate. Evans was fired.
But in Evans' defense, he seemed to understand one thing: After the collapse of the car industry and the implosion of the real estate bubble, there is little else Detroit has to export except its misery.
And America is buying. There are no fewer than two TV dramas, two documentaries, and three reality programs being filmed here. Even Time bought a house on the East Side last year for $99,000. The gimmick was to have its reporters live there and chronicle the decline of the Motor City for one year.
Somebody should have told company executives back in New York that they had wildly overpaid. In Detroit, a new car costs more than the average house.