Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Motor City Masochistic

with 4 comments

I lived around and in the city of Detroit for a short span of my mid twenties.  It’s one of those periods of my life that I look back on with both fondness and a little embarrassment. 

On the one hand, it was a truly revalatory experience–my introduction to the America beyond the East Coast that I’d never before known existed, and areas of study that I should have expected, but didn’t.

I don’t begin to know how to explain all that, except maybe to say that there turned out to be a lot more to agriculture than I’d expected.

And that there’s a lot to be said for all you can eat family-style fried chicken dinners.

I’ve always wanted to take my younger son–who is one of those people who weight 25 pounds in spite of consuming about 8,000 calories a day–to Frankenmuth.  He might never leave.

The embarrassment comes from the fact that I knew, the whole time I was there, that I wasn’t really “pursuing graduate studies.” I was hiding out from taking the leap and seeing if I could be a wroter.

It’s been years since I spent any time in Detroit, but I can still remember it very clearly, both the good and the bad.   Detroit used to have one of the best Greek Towns in the country after New York City.  It was also the place where I first heard about a drive-by shooting, and where people celebrated a recent national crime survey by riding around in cars with bumperstickers that said: Detroit: Murder City–We’re Number One!

I have been watching the complete mess that has become of Detroit for about a year now, and I still don’t know what to think.

Certainly it’s the poster child for voting with your feet. 

As the city became more and more dysfunctional, fewer and fewer people wanted to live there, and the people who could get out did get out.

Most of them don’t seem to have gone very far, because most of them haven’t had to.   There are still fairly prosperous suburbs not that far over the city line, and businesses have moved to those as well as people.

Detroit itself has entered a weird phase that’s half dystopian novel and half urban fantasy: long stretched of vacant lots returning to the wild, complete with wildlife; people planting truck gardens to compensate for the fact that there are no grocery stores they can get to.

Along with this, of course, there has been a really remarkable level of violence.  There are no longer enough police or firefighters to keep reliable order. 

And that lack of reliability is killing all the rest.

It’s also causing a lot of paranoia.

It was almost certainly paranoia and the distinct understanding that the police can no longer be counted on to come when they’re called that led to the murder of a young woman named Renisha McBride.

Ms. McBride was driving through the city in the early morning hours when her car broke down.  She went to the nearest house and started pounding on the door, asking for help.

Her pounding awakened Thomas Wafer from a sound sleep.  He was alone in the house, and he was immediately convinced that he was about to be the victim of a home invasion.

He got his gun, went to the door where the pounding was coming from, opened up–and fired right through the screen at whatever was out there.

What was out there was Renisha McBride, and she was dead a few moments later.

If you want the whole story you can go here


and if you do, you’ll notice that Wafer, unlike George Zimmerman in Florida, was convicted of the killing.

Michigan has different laws than Florida’s, obviously.

But if you look more closely, you’ll see a few more things. Renisha McBride’s father himself said that he didn’t think the incident was primarily about race. 

I told this to a friend of mine from graduate school, and she answered: of course it’s not about race.  It’s about Detroit.

I get the point, I really do, but at the same time, I don’t think you can say that this case was not at all about race, because race is part of what everybody is paranoid about if they’re still living in Detroit.

Then there’s the ongoing crisis about the water, which has become an international incident.

That one took me a little while to figure out, and, from what I read in the comment threads of a couple of articles, I wasn’t the only one left confused.

The usual practice in the US is for residents and businesses to pay for the water they use.  

This is not usually terribly expensive.  Where I live, it runs about $300 a year for a household of four.   What we pay helps to fund the upkeep of reservoirs and pipes and other equipment, and pays the guys who do all that.  It also helps to keep people from wasting water. 

The reason the Detroit water story was so confusing at first was because it was reported rather simply: the city of Detroit was turning off the water to hundreds of homes that were behind, often significantly behind, in the payments for their water bills.

For all the heavy breathing this story caused in Europe, Americans were largely flummoxed.  The water department turned off the water on people who hadn’t paid their water bills? Okay. Is this a trick question?

As it turned out, it was a trick question. Detroit, it seemed, had just not bothered to collect on water bills, for years. 

People weren’t a payment or two beind.  They were sometimes as much as a decade behind.

Instead of doing what most places would do if they felt their poorer populations would have trouble paying the water bill–start some kind of program that paid the water company, issue vouchers that would help pay water bills the way food stamps help pay for food–the city had just gone on its way acting as if none of th is was happening.

Customers were sent bills.  Customers ignored bills.  Water department ignored customers ignoring bills.

And nobody, anywhere, bothered to explain to the City of Detroit why this wasn’t going to be able to go on forever.

It’s one of those things that makes you stop dead and go:  no.  wait.  just a minute.

When the water department started terminating service to households who were not paying their bills, there were a lot of stories about how the city was terminating water service to poor people with unpaid bills, but not to businesses with unpaid bills.

This sounds like one of those Evil Corporations and the 1% get everything and you get screwed stories, except that in this case, so many employers have already left the city, and so many middle class taxpayers have gone with them, the city no longer has a tax base large enough to fund basic services.

It doesn’t want to see any more of these people go where their neighbors have gone.

If Detroit has any chance at all of getting itself out of this mess, it’s going to have to keep the businesses it has and bring a lot more in.

Personally, I don’t think Detroit is going to get itself out of this mess. 

I think it’s going to collapse where it stands.  In another ten years, I think there is going to be nothing left but abandoned buildings and vacant lots returned to some kind of quasi-natural state.

And then–then, I don’t know.

Maybe Detroit can adopt Shelley’s “Ozymandias” as its official poem.


Written by janeh

August 9th, 2014 at 9:43 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Motor City Masochistic'

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  1. Stray comments:

    The usual band of (American definition) liberals claim that Detroit would be fine if it could annex every suburb in sight so there was no way to flee. Presumably after a while they’d be kept from moving to Indiana too. Preventing escape is very important to liberals.

    As I understand it there are or were until fairly recently about as many police and firemen as you’d expect for the population. The problem is that since the population is spread over such a large area for the number of inhabitants they usually arrive too late. There was a proposal a few years back to legally abandon much of the city and concentrate the population and city services to get back up to a more normal population density, but the supply of politicians prepared to inflict short-term disruption for long-term benefit is a bit limited–probably because the voters want their problems fixed without being inconvenienced.

    Detroit may like business on paper, but it has the traditional volumes of big city codes and ordnances, so if you start a small business all the usual extortionists show up on your doorstep. You either want a business so small you can run from the police carrying your inventory or so big you can hire a full-time lawyer and a councilman or so–and if you’re that big, why operate in Detroit?

    All of which said, I expect it to bump along at its present level for a very long time. Michigan has what’s called a “strong safety net” which means the state pays out a lot of money and doesn’t usually expect people to work for it. Add that to national programs, and you wind up with a lot of people who can’t work and some who won’t, but have a small regular income. The living in Detroit is cheap, they have family and neighbors, and often they’ve never lived anywhere else. And the presence of lots of people with even a little regular income means a layer of government employees, payday loan shops, pawn shops, liquor stores and imitation 7-11’s–which in turn support a few higher-end stores. And a few blocks of museums and concert halls will be very thoroughly policed, much like the Mall in DC.

    Time was, except for the capital, cities and towns existed because there was work to be done, and if the mines played out the town was abandoned. Now, a city full of people is its own justification–but not a very good one.

    I know a few places like this elsewhere. The ambitious young move on. The schools, what with federal and state funds, have what might be enough money to educate them, but no one cares very much about schools except as a source of government jobs–or graft–so the kids who do get out will be starting with a handicap, and the ones who stay will buy into a culture which says “someone” should deliver a good-paying job to them right where they are, and none of this moving about or training to be fit for the job.

    No, I don’t know how to cure that thinking. Maybe we have to hit bottom first, and we have a long way yet to fall.


    9 Aug 14 at 2:42 pm

  2. As may be inferred from some of my remarks, I grew up in Detroit. My parents were born there and grew up there, too. Our families were, for the large part, unionized auto workers. About the time I was born, my parents joined the white flight to the suburbs, and it wasn’t until I was older that I even saw a black person. I did attend Detroit schools for much of third grade. By that time, I was more than a year ahead of their curriculum, so third grade was a wash for me.

    After the 1967 riots, white people started leaving the city in a flood. If the exit doors on Detroit had been revolving, you could have powered the city for decades on the backwash.

    In 1974, Coleman Young, Detroit’s first black mayor was elected. He served from 74 through 94, ushering in a grand tradition of utterly corrupt, almost imperial administrations that looted the city, and ensured the white workers and taxpayers who footed the bills left toot sweet. By the end, the working black population was also leaving, tired of not getting any services for their taxes.

    My first husband’s father worked his entire life for the Detroit schools. He dedicated himself to the maintenance and upkeep to the very buildings featured in all those photo stories about the “tragic beauty” of abandoned spaces. But Detroit ran out of money long ago, and out of students as well, I imagine, as the population declined. Mayoral administrations came and went, all of them designed only to enrich the mayor, the city council members, and their favorites.

    The rest of Michigan, including many of the surrounding majority-black suburbs, would like to cut Detroit out of the state like a festering sore toe. It’s a tax sink, and a source of crime to the surroundings. There are suburban residents who, though they live less than 20 miles from downtown, have NEVER walked on a downtown street, or spent a dollar to go to a sporting event or the casinos. There is no reason for anyone to go downtown, and plenty of reasons not to.

    The water crisis rises out of several factors. Water is *cheap* in Michigan. They are surrounded by 1/5th of the fresh water on the entire planet. Detroit has to filter the fish crap out of Lake Huron, pump it south, and that’s it. It has the best-tasting tap water of anywhere I’ve ever lived. No droughts, no reservoirs, no wells.

    And for Water & Power, as part of the city infrastructure, actually *doing a job* has been far down on their list of daily chores. That’s not where their money comes from. Graft is where it comes from. So, collections? Not so much.

    Meanwhile, vast stretches that were formerly solid brick middle-class housing, neighborhoods, shopping and schools, are flat stretches returning to the native prairie. With bandits.


    9 Aug 14 at 4:08 pm

  3. Not a hijack, precisely. This article was written in the aftermath of Ferguson, but nails the policies which are producing uninhabitable cities all over the US:



    16 Aug 14 at 9:09 am

  4. Another take on Ferguson. This time from Australia.


    Quadrant is considered a moderate right wing magazine.


    25 Aug 14 at 9:34 pm

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