Slums of Detroit: A Look At The Heart of America’s 2nd Most Deserted City

December 10, 2009


I was in Detroit to visit my girlfriend’s family for Thanksgiving and decided to take a look around. Knowing my tastes, locals told me to head for a burnt-out slum called Highland Park, HP for short, as it’s hands-down the worst neighborhood in the city. And that’s saying a lot because in Detroit, beyond the bunker that is the revitalized downtown, the whole world’s a ghetto.

If you want directions to see what happened to the American Dream in the age of globalization, go north on Woodward Avenue. When the empty sidewalks and spiffed-up ghosts of department stores give way to miles of vacant lots, piles of arsonists’ ash and ruined factories, you’ve hit your destination: Highland Park. A beaten-down man in a black vinyl coat was there to greet me. Waving his hands furiously while I drove by, the crack-addicted hustler shouted, “Right here! I got that shit right here!”

This first-ring suburb once boasted Chrysler’s headquarters, a Ford assembly plant and 20,000 industrial jobs. Fleeing Detroit taxes, Big Three executives built fancy homes here at the turn of the century. Behind six-foot high brick walls, their mansions lie unheated and crumbling. In 1908, Henry Ford’s assembly line was born here, in a 2.5 million- square-foot complex of reinforced concrete and glass.

Looking around it now, Philip Levine’s famous poem, “What Work Is,” comes to mind: “We stand in the rain in a long line/ waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.” Outside the old Ford plant—now filled with broken glass and guarded by high chain-link fences—a cluster of young dealers shiver in a cold wind, also trying to make some green. Yet Levine’s evocation of 20th century hard times in Highland Park is no match for the modern-day misery that has settled here, permanently.

“In the mid-1980s, crack just hit us like a wave,” says Franklin Gaudy, a 46 year-old lifelong resident. Crack’s legacy is felt throughout a city that offers few other opportunities of escape. Middle-aged men and women shuffle out from the bulletproofed interiors of Iraqi-Christian-owned liquor stores with their heads hung low. A dilapidated drug treatment program sits between the old Ford Plant and a newish McDonald’s. Although most of Highland Park’s three-mile-square area lies in ruins, either burnt out or vacated, a few well-kept blocks of wood-frame homes do jut out of the rubble. The remaining homeowners, fearing rampant burglaries and worse, announce themselves against the falling darkness with bursts of floodlights.

For women and children forced to pick out gifts in chain drug stores along Woodward Avenue, the holidays in Highland Park are an especially grim reminder of the outside world, as viewed through TV. The Iraqi-Christian shopkeepers are even known to indignantly upbraid customers who wish them a generic “Happy Holidays,” instead of “Merry Christmas.”

Highland Park is technically a self-administered city-within-a-city, but most Detroiters lump it, as one suburbanite put it, “in the mix,” with its surrounding municipality. Industrial flight introduced the population to cradle-to-grave poverty and crack produced roving zombies, but nothing has quite transformed the look and feel of Metro Detroit like arson, and its trail is particularly evident in Highland Park. Charred carcasses of what used to be massive Victorian houses riddle the landscape. Whole blocks have no homes left at all.

Ask a white suburbanite the worst thing about the city and he’ll probably say, “Devil’s Night,” which comes like clockwork every October 30th. And there are a lot of empty houses to torch in the inner city—about 80,000, according to Forbes. Whites take it as an article of faith that roving bands of black pyromaniacs emerge from the shadows to torch abandoned houses and slip back into the trash-filled darkness. These crude racial fears ooze out of our national press corps every year, right around trick or treat time. In the October 30th 2009 Time feature, “Can Detroit Prevent a Return of ‘Devil’s Night’,” white volunteer firemen are pictured speeding through the burnt-out inner city to combat sketchily defined firebugs who are implied to be black. It’s hard to know who the perps are because they’re rarely caught. So why are whites convinced its poor blacks letting off steam? Who knows, but the whole thing looks real fishy. It reminds me of the type of shit the FBI used to get away with in the Ghetto all the time: sewing violence to disseminate fear.

An economic motive never seems far behind the flames. In 2009, after several years of decline in arson, fires burned as brightly as they ever had. Last October 22nd Highland Park suffered a five-house blaze that burned three children to death. The small local fire department blamed the tragedy on a faulty kerosene space-heater. Maybe so, but that was only one of a rash of serious fires in the Detroit Metro area last October, one of which claimed ten run-down homes on the city’s East side. Even Detroit’s own police had suspicions that speculators were behind it, using the fire as a cover to cut their losses and collect on their insurance policies.

Like many stretches of Highland Park, East Philadelphia Street has only one architectural remnant of its urban middle-class past. On Thanksgiving eve, I parked in front of number 30—a boarded-up, four-story, brown brick and gray stucco pre-War Tudor-style apartment building with ornate wings—and stepped out of my white rented Ford to snap a few photos. Twilight lent an eerie Omega Man style beauty to the quiet and abandoned landscape: high-grass covered in fallen leaves, gnarled trees, telephone poles, blackened piles of debris and not a living soul in sight.

I had the block to myself for several minutes before a blue Pontiac with tinted windows pulled up. Rolling down his passenger-side window, the driver, a black guy in a Tigers’ cap, leaned towards me and asked, “Do you mind telling me why you’re taking a picture of that building?” After glancing at my NY Press business card, he said, “We used to have thirteen houses on this block, now there is only one left. We had a grocery store we could walk to when I was growing up.” Before trailing off, he added, “That probably doesn’t sound like much to you. It was still the ghetto, but to us, you know….”

The man introduced himself as Franklin Gaudy, a godson of Motown Records founder Berry Gordy. For the next fifteen minutes, Gaudy, who worked as a caterer and was youthful-looking although deep into middle-age, took me through the recent history of Highland Park. He talked mostly about the effects of a virulent strain of crack addiction. “It used to be so beautiful here, but crack ravaged this block,” he explained. “It was just an epidemic. There used to be eleven-old dope fiends in every house.” Embattled cops seeking to halt the spread of the virus started torching homes. “If it wasn’t the police it was the people living there, or the drug dealers,” he added. In his estimation, the crack epidemic—and the fires that raged because of it—peaked in the early nineties, then began to decline. In the mid-nineties, a whole generation of sick, tired people, “started to go to the rehabs” that had become more prevalent by then.


Even with the establishment of seizure laws, declining usage, and whole blocks reduced to ash, the cops continue to set fires, Gaudy maintains: “It’s not worth it to take people’s property for what they have here, so they just burn shit down.” At one point, another middle-aged black man drives up to tell Gaudy he’s looking for a chef to hire. During the great recession, the official unemployment rate in Detroit has skyrocketed to 30% and Gaudy, happy with his $22-per-hour from the catering hall, doesn’t bite. Asked how the current economic crisis has affected his neighbors, Gaudy says, “They about the same. People are so deep in the ghetto, they don’t know they broke.”

Highland Park is at least 95% black and has a higher crime rate per population—and is even more sparsely populated—than Detroit proper, which surrounds it on all sides. A tragic story from this burnt-out enclave spread across the mediasphere on November 19th, after an enraged 37-year old mailman named Jamar Pickney executed his 15-year-old son, who was stripped naked, begging for mercy on his aunt’s front lawn. The guilt-burdened teen had confessed to the aunt that he had fondled her toddler. When she told Pickney, he snapped. The murderer’s dreadlock-framed face became the latest symbol of “Murder City’s” endemic violence. Highland Park Mayor Hubert Yopp, new to the job, was under tremendous strain even before the calls from homicide reporters started flooding in. After a decade of control by state-appointed managers—the most recent of whom had just been indicted for embezzlement—responsibility for Highland Park’s tragic condition was shifting back to the elected city government.

As Yopp talked healing and “crisis initiative” at a press conference that Wednesday, the city’s largest private creditor, Detroit Edison, was sending a different message. The utility was cutting power to sparsely occupied apartment towers throughout the inner city for non-payment. Joe Pechi, a white slumlord who has recently filed for bankruptcy, owed DTE tens of thousands in back payments on Highland Park Tower, a four-story shabby-genteel building taking up a monolithic square block. Despite publicly admitting that tenants were paying their rents to Pechi on time, DTE claimed it had no choice. While the chain stores lured to Woodward Avenue’s cheap rents during the sub-prime bubble continued to radiate their neon come-ons into the gloom of Thanksgiving Eve, Highland Park Tower went dark, turning off the lights in the heart of America’s second most deserted citeis.

Metro Detroit’s privatized social services are nakedly corrupt. Even the shop kids whose vocational school had been shuttered mid-semester and the confused senior citizens trapped without bus service could grasp the message directed at Yopp and Highland Park Tower residents: pay up or freeze in the dark. Tenants, who had been given a weeklong taste of living off the grid back in September, became refugees. Frightened looking women and children shuffled into busses while television cameras caught the heart-numbing scene for suburban viewers. DTE has expressed no plans to return power to Highland Park Tower.

Suburbanites discussing Detroit’s disaster speak from a cultural script reflecting decades of “white flight.” According to that script, the city was, as its publicity machine once boasted, a “Wonder City”—until the 1967 Riots, when ungrateful blacks suddenly turned savage. Shaped into a cohesive narrative by neo-conservative journalists like Tamara Jacoby and Ze’ev Chafets, it’s a framework that has influenced the entire country. Summing up this framework perfectly, the cover blurb to Chafets’s “Devil’s Night: And Other True Tales of Detroit,” published in 1990—when another round of disinvestment rocked the rust belt—reads, in part: “Overnight, Detroit was violently jerked from an existence as a prosperous, integrated industrial center, to that of a seething ghetto.” As Rep. John Conyers frequently points out, black Detroiters hold a very different picture of the city’s decline. Disinvestment and white flight, he says, began in the early 1950s. Economic figures and census data from the 50s and 60s strongly bear him out. In 1961 Time, the weathervane of the media establishment, reported, “Detroit’s decline has been going on for a long while.”By the late 50s, Ford Motor Company fled Highland Park; whites had already been leaving for a decade. Lee Iaccoca made repeated pledges not to abandon Chrysler’s long-time home, but in 1992 the automaker moved fifty miles away, to Ann Arbor. Overnight, 4,500 people were left unemployed—and Highland Park lost over half of what little remained of its tax base.

Briefly during the sub-prime boom, the real-estate hype machine shilled the three-square mile area—with its $5,000 3-bedroom handy-man specials and rock-bottom property taxes—as an urban pioneer’s dream. Sweetheart deals lured a few chain stores, like McDonald’s and Walgreen’s, onto Woodward Avenue, which for decades had only been able to hold onto liquor stores, porn theaters, and hot-sheet motels. And when the sub-prime bubble burst, a wave of foreclosures displaced an estimated 5,000 people, bottoming out the population at ten thousand.

The meltdown also smoked the scammers out of the government. On December 9th 2009, two high-ranking officials in a powerful non-profit, confessed to siphoning off $750,000 from a Highland Park homeless shelter into former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s coffers. Kilpatrick, among other things, is strongly suspected of having ordered the hit of a stripper. Then there was Art Blackwell, Highland Park’s emergency financial manager—and Kilpatrick’s chief political adviser—who was arraigned in October on charges he embezzled over $250,000 from the half-dead city.

Now, with an estimated 5,000 of some of the poorest people in America displaced by the real estate crash, Highland Park’s future looks grim. One local church pastor recently said that the only way to save Highland Park is to pave the way for subsistence farming.