“If you could commit a crime and getaway with it, would you?”
In Detroit that’s not just a philosophical question, it’s a way of life. A thought experiment allowed to breathe. Justice as a social fabrication has been deconstructed in the city that would still elect King Kwame if given the chance. Sorry, Plato, virtue is for suckers. 8 out of 10 violent crimes go unpunished. Only 4 out of every 100 car thefts in the Car Theft Capital of America result in an arrest. Crime pays.
Vicious. Violent. Corrupt. Old Detroit will not go gently into the good night.
A quick glance from the outside would show The Comeback City making America’s largest municipal bankruptcy a diminishing object in its rearview mirror. Numbers allude to an improving and diversifying economy, the population skid has slowed. We have a competent mayor and the current members of city council aren’t creating Daily Show fodder while hiding inappropriate relationships with minors and/or accepting bribes from city contractors . . . as far as we can tell. The bar is set pretty low for local politicians, but let’s crawl before we run. There’s a police chief seemingly intent on rooting out deep-seeded corruption in his ranks. There are billionaires pouring money into old buildings and new projects. Instead of “ruin porn” we’re getting a live feed showing The District’s growth. In the place of buying houses for a dollar, you can now buy a Midtown loft for $700k. Brands want to associate with Detroit. Some brands only exist because of Detroit.
Detroit is the New Black. Made in Detroit. Detroit Hustles Harder. Say Nice Things about Detroit. Imported from Detroit. Nothing Stops Detroit. Detroit versus Everybody.
If a metropolis could be rebuilt on catchy marketing slogans, the Motor City would already be, for better or worse, the Next Brooklyn. Instead, Detroit is still the Most Dangerous City in America.
The story I started writing after my first car was stolen was born of anger.
It’s 5 AM on a Thursday morning; I head out the doors of our place at Research Lofts. The “luxury” lofts are housed in an old brass machining facility; a solid brick building with a grass covered lawn for the dogs and asphalt lot for the cars. The property is completely fenced in with large steel gates. The secure off-street parking was a big selling point when we moved here a year ago, not easy to find in Detroit.
Walking out, I don’t see my Challenger. Wait, didn’t I park . . . there . . . where there’s a pile of broken glass in place of my car. Shit.
This sucks. A neighbor’s Ford Explorer was yanked too, the second time in a month for them. Two other cars were broken into. Jerks had a productive night.
Within a couple of blocks from us there are five police departments: Detroit Police, Wayne StatePolice, Wayne County Sheriff, Michigan State Police, and Henry Ford Hospital Police Authority.
I file a report with DPD, which in hindsight was a mistake. Undermanned, corrupt, and their “we could give a shit” meter typically pegged into the red, they don’t show up to an auto theft unless it’s a recovery. Eventually we realized that Wayne State’s officers were the ones to talk to, but that wasn’t until after the second car vanished.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
In the days that followed I was outspoken about the Detroit Police Department being involved with the theft. Had my reasons. The next week, 6 officers from different precincts were suspended for connections to vehicle theft-related scams around the city. A post I published on Facebook regarding the situation received comments like “you better watch your back” and “they’re going to kill you.”
Now I was pissed but had more of a sense of righteous indignation than fear.
The FBI asked to talk to me, as did a State detective. When DPD’s Officer Taylor called to tell me they’d recovered my Scat Pack Shaker - minus wheels and tires, plus some bumper damage - he told me if I used “their” shop they’d waive my deductible and add an alarm. As if that didn’t raise a bright enough red flag, when my car showed up (late, after “truck issues”) to the shop of my choosing it was COMPLETELY, professionally, stripped. Don’t use our shop? Well, you’ll get back a little less of your car.
So many people in our community share a similar story. Friends in local media were interested as my experience matched up with an investigation they performed last spring on a number of thefts with the same modus operandi. Included in part of Channel 7's piece from early in 2016 is a video of a SUV getting stripped, then loaded onto a flatbed. The victim said the police then called to inform her it was recovered. All before she knew it was gone. Then came “if you use our shop . . .” Most people don’t know any better. Down here it’s hard to get any insurance at all, let alone one without a crazy deductible. A lot of people bite on the scam.
As word spread of this first incident, it was incredible how many friends, acquaintances, and coworkers came out of the woodwork to relay their Detroit stories. If you know someone that’s spent any real amount of time in the city and has not been personally hurt or had a close friend touched by a violent crime or property loss, buy a lottery ticket. Just about everyone can relate in one way or another.
“Man, my work van got broken into the night we moved here.”
“I have three friends whose cars were stolen in the last two years. One of them, twice.”
“I saw a dude get run over by a car. Looked to be by an off-duty cop. Hell no I’m not reporting that.”
I could keep going.
One kid spoke of the push and pull Detroit has on everyone who loves the city.
“My family grew up in southwest Detroit. My dad was an activist, always pushing for civil rights and justice and political change and wanted so badly to see the city turn the corner. After 40 years he gave up. His soul was finally crushed. He moved to the suburbs.”
“Dude, as your friend, as someone who spent his first 30 years in the city, get the hell out. You tried. It’s not changing. You gave it a shot, nobody will fault you for leaving.”
But it was never about trying. There was no delusion of grandeur. Local writers love putting the savior tag on any Detroit 2.0 entrepreneur who comes down to town to work, from pie bakers to bicycle shop owners, whether they ask for it or not. This wasn’t about turning the city around. I’m a millwright, a welder. An artist. I learned my trade in the city, became an artist in the city. Detroit is the Industrial Mecca of the world. There is a creative freedom here you will be hard pressed to find anywhere else. I only wanted to be part of it.
“That’s just Detroit.” Over and over and over this garbage line is repeated. One guy had the balls to tell me that I shouldn’t talk about the incident on social media because “you’re being negative; outside of the city people already think bad enough of Detroit, this stuff happens everywhere.” The rationale of “it happens everywhere” just doesn’t hold water. Bad things happen to Detroiters by Detroiters at a rate you will not find anywhere else in America. Keeping quiet does no good. Sweep my problem under the rug and let the next naive dude who thinks, “man, Detroit is fixed!” get his wheels swiped? Nah. If people either accept this shit or leave, how are things ever going to change?
My friends at Dodge and SRT were kind enough to drop off a 392 Challenger press car to drive while I dealt with insurance (another story for another time) for my stolen Scat Pack. It wasn’t in my brain yet that vehicle theft is still so bad in Detroit. I had believed the headlines touting major headway against the criminal element, especially in this regard.
Within a week it was gone, taken from a spot inside the gated lot, under a light post, right outside my living room window. More than a few people told me it was a message as much as a theft: “Shut up and get out.”
The following week was my annual SEMA roadtrip, and despite their car gone missing, the Dodge/SRT crew still gave me the keys to a 6spd Challenger Hellcat for the journey from Detroit to Vegas and back. I just made sure it was only in Detroit-city-proper long enough to pack and unpack. Now I had two weeks away from the city, away from this mess.
After SEMA it’s back to the real world. Fast-forward to Thanksgiving. Early Black Friday I received a message: “There’s been a break-in.”
I lease a shop space at Ponyride, a small business incubator/collaborative work project situated in Corktown, “Detroit’s Oldest Neighborhood.”
My shop was gone.
Pretty much all of it. In a building housing a bunch of start-up businesses, including blacksmiths and woodworkers, thieves went around to the far back corner of the place, kicked in a door, and concentrated on wiping me out. Welders, a plasma cutter, saws, and an entire toolbox full of top of the line equipment I’ve spent 15 years collecting. Dynabrade die grinders, full metric and standard wrench and socketsets, machinist’s blocks, my beloved hammers, drawers of Channellocks and Vice Grips. Full size argon bottle, you can’t buy them anymore. Boxes of 2% thoriated tungsten. On and on and on. Some stuff, I’ll never get back at any price. Gone. The only other resident to have items stolen was Phil Cooley, who owns Ponyride. Some of his equipment was mixed in with my stuff. Phil has spun through the ringer himself while he and his family have been the major factor in revitalizing Michigan Avenue. They’ve been robbed, threatened, and more. He’s been at it over a decade. He’s a better man than I.
Having the cars stolen and stripped sucked. (Both were found dropped in the street at about the same location, missing the same parts). Yeah the ’16 392 was a press car, but I feel responsible, it was under my care. Maybe a stolen car is a write off for a giant car manufacturer, but I know the people who had to deal with the situation and it’s a headache not to be wished upon anyone. My ’15 Scat Pack was purchased with the intent of keeping it forever. Uniquely optioned. Had a lifetime comprehensive warranty. I expected to get it back just needing wheels replaced after hearing from Officer Taylor. Officer Taylor . . . oh, yeah. According to the FBI, he doesn’t exist and the number he gave me didn’t get them anywhere. Then again the FBI told me that they don’t believe this car theft ring is that well-organized. Right. In the last 3 months they’ve taken my two Challengers, an ex-cop’s Charger, a brand new Ford Escape, and the Explorer all from Research Loft’s lot. Forget about this last week’s thefts of a Hellcat straight out of a dealership and Mobsteel’s Road Runner.
If you’re wondering why so much of this (dealership theft aside) isn’t in the news, here’s a quick anecdote to sum it up: Back in December a gentleman from L.A. flew in to town to look for a place to live. He was moving to Detroit, had a nice car, and knew of our city’s rep for auto thievery. The “luxury” loft he was looking at had a “secure” lot, but he asked, John, the man showing him the loft, point blank:
“Have you had any car theft issues here?”
John replied with a straight face: “No.”
L.A. guy didn’t know this, but he was flat out lied to. Once he moved here he was surprised to find out his new digs had had been victimized 5 times from the fall of ’16 until now.
Real estate prices have escalated rapidly since we started looking back in 2013-14. In some cases new high-end lofts and renovated houses in the neighborhoods around downtown have double or even tripled in value. Developers and property owners want to cash in on the“comeback,” but who in their right mind is going to pay top dollar when they’re aware of the truth? That in a city of fewer than 700,000 people, more than 30 cars a day are stolen. To put that number in perspective, New York City has about 20 cars stolen a day, with twelve times the population. A Midwest city close to the same size, Columbus, Ohio, has over 100k more people than Detroit with less than a third of the car thefts. A smaller industrial city (just under half the population compared to Detroit) that was hit hard by recession, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania has less than 2 cars a day stolen.
I ran into a friend of mine, a gentleman who has invested an incredible amount of time and money into projects that are even just now coming to light, at a fundraiser for Ponyride the night my car was recovered. The atmosphere was enthusiastic, but while we were discussing the theft he looked at me and nodded towards the high roller crowd:
“All these people, the ones that are putting money into these projects and businesses . . . none of them actually live here. They might own a loft or an apartment in the city, but they live in the suburbs.”
In 1992 a Detroit journalist literally invented the term “carjack,” which is what happens when an asshole tries to steal your car with you in it, usually at gunpoint. Police Chief James Craig, shortly after he himself moved here from Los Angeles 2013, was lamenting “the good people” of Detroit running red lights on a consistent basis. Then someone tried to carjack him in his police cruiser at a red light, and he realized “the good people” of Detroit were blasting through lights to lower the chance of getting carjacked. As someone who worked in the city for 7 years, who has driven in and out of Detroit most every day since 2002, you learn to be aware of your surroundings. Never get boxed in. Don’t stop for gas. Roll through red lights. Keep a piece ready.
Carjackings are down to one a day for the last three years . . . which, credit where credit is due, is a HUGE improvement over the 4 a day in 2008, or the 2 a day in 2013. For what it’s worth, the night my Challenger was stolen I drove up Trumbull from my shop in Corktown to our loft in Woodbridge at about 10:30pm. Earlier in the day, in broad daylight, a 65 year old woman was shot multiple times during a carjacking. So it could have been worse.
Days into 2017 and carjackings and attempted carjackings are so prevalent in our neighborhood that the Wayne State Police set up a hotline where, between the hours of 12am and 5am, you call them ahead of time and they’ll escort you to your home. In Detroit it’s not as simple as “do what the robber says, it’s just a car.” Too many times victims are executed even after giving up possession of their vehicle.
Which leads to another staggering statistic: Detroit averages 45 homicides per 100,000 people. That number has been at least that high every year since 2010. It’s the most of any city in the country and 10 times the national average. A third of those cases result in an arrest. Boston is about the same size, population-wise, as Detroit. There were 38 homicides total in 2015. 75% were cleared by the police. Los Angeles, with 3.8 million people, had 16 less homicides than Detroit in 2015.
I’ve defended this city for years to friends and family and followers who thought my wife and I were nuts for wanting to live here. We held a real belief in too much positive momentum; nothing could derail this train to reclaim glory. I’d preach the gospel to anyone who would listen. Ten years ago when I worked in the city? No way . . . there wasn’t many good reason to believe a step forward was imminent, let alone sustainable. Kilpatrick and his cronies ran the town. Investors bought land and sat on it because dealing with the government was impossible and labor costs weren’t worth the return. But now? Man, we were excited to finally be near downtown and part of the upswing.
And we, my wife Darla and I, didn’t want to leave. Not after the first theft. Not even after the second.
The shop, however, is a nightmare. Tens of thousands of dollars in equipment that I shared my blood, sweat, and tears with, that I built Brown Dog Welding with, that helped shape me as much as my sculptures. If having your car stolen feels like a personal violation, multiply that by 100.
Then there’s the video. Yeah, the crime is on a video that I can’t seem to wrestle away from the DPD. I was asked to watch it to see if I recognized any of the three crooks. I didn’t. What a gut punch, watching these thugs take their time loading a white Ram with the contents of my shop.
The same week my shop was robbed, Wayne State University’s Officer Collin Rose was shot in the head while on duty, just a mile or so south of where we live. This especially hit hard as Darla had just opened a dialogue with WSU’s police force about our car theft problem, and they were incredibly kind and attentive; that is to say they were the polar opposite of our DPD precinct.
Officer Rose died the day before Thanksgiving. A 29-year-old canine cop who often helped stray dogs connect with rescues, the community universally respected him. He was questioning a man about auto break-ins when he was shot. The cop killer, two months later, remains at large. At Officer Rose’s candlelight prayer vigil in the Woodbridge neighborhood, attended by over 200 people, Darla was asked to lead the processional while singing “Amazing Grace.” Officer Rose’s family, many members of the law enforcement community, and fellow neighbors joined in. It was a memorial, but also a stand that the people who live here will not be intimidated by Detroit’s violent criminals.
I did the walk, on crutches, actually. But I am intimidated by Detroit’s bad guys and girls. Unfortunately it feels as though those criminals have been emboldened; if anything crime in our neighborhood has increased.
Feel free to throw out the fixes, but you need money to fix things. Detroit Public Schools are the worst in the country. There’s physically just flat out too much space to take care of (for some reason this fact, of all things, is controversial). Law enforcement is ineffective at best and in on the whole thing at worse. Basic services like road maintenance, trash removal, fire fighting, and public transportation - things you take for granted elsewhere - are either piss poor or non-existent. When you’re the only city in American history to lose a million people in population, and when less than half of those remaining actually pay taxes, what the hell are you going to do about it? Governments are not altruistic. Contrary to popular belief, basic services aren’t a right. They need to be paid for.
Any place in Detroit where you see those services furnished at anything above “abysmal,” they’re paid for separate of taxes. Dan Gilbert has a private police force and helps to subsidize the infrastructure around his buildings downtown. Indian Village has their own security and trash removal. Restaurants and bars hire full time guards to keep an eye on customers’ cars. Some native Detroiters think New Detroit gets special treatment and “it’s not fair.” No, what’s not fair is businesses needing things like Project Green Light, where they basically pay police to patrol their shops and gas stations and fast food joints; where they pay DPD above and beyond their required taxes just to do the job their taxes should already cover. Sounds almost like a protection fee you’d pay the mafia, yeah?
Tell me I’m not being fair. Well, life’s not fucking fair, is it?
This piece is not something I wanted to write, and probably it’ll just be something for a few people to argue over, because that’s what people do when discussing Detroit. I can’t imagine it’ll do much good. But man, it’s really difficult to read story after story about this incredible revival while experiencing something pretty different. It’s difficult watching more and more folks moving into our neighborhood, excited to be part of Detroit, without a full grasp of what that entails. It’s frustrating and heartbreaking to witness families struggle to survive the city, who for one reason or another can’t leave, who get lost in the political, criminal, and economic disaster that is Detroit.
I stopped looking for a replacement for the Challenger after the fifth car was stolen from our lot. I’ll drive the beater for now. There’s not really a choice to make, Detroit made it for us. As soon as we’re able, we are out. I’ve never felt so powerless. If not for my wife I’d pry be waiting in the back of a bait car (yeah, I know, why can’t the Feds do this?) with an assault rifle. And I’d pry catch someone in the act. And I’d pry kill them or die trying.
And in Detroit, whoever survives will get away with murder.