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Dispatch / December 14, 2009

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Matt Harvey writes for the New York Press.

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114 Comments

Add your own

  • 1. Lifelong Detroiter  |  February 21st, 2012 at 2:50 pm

    This piece is so full of erroneous statements, I don’t know where to begin.

    I’ll pick a few:

    You cannot absolutely state that Highland Park is the worst neighborhood, hands down. Detroit and Highland park cover well over 150 square miles. Anyone who has been in Detroit for more than a day knows of more decrepit areas. Try stepping out of your car at Palmer and Chene, I dare you.

    – 30 Philidelphia is not Tudor nor does its exterior have stucco and it is well over a half-mile south of Highland Park, in Detroit. This area is near the epicenter of the 1967 riots.

    – Any contemporary middle-aged person (such as Franklin Gaudy) could not possibly remember Highland Park in its prime.

    – White suburbanites regarding Devil’s Night as the worst thing about Detroit? Maybe in 1980something.

    Absentee (out-of-state) real estate speculators deserve as much blame for Detroit’s present state, especially downtown. Our spectacular collection of early 20th century apartment buildings are forever lost only because absentee landlords bled them to ruin.

    Driving through Detroit and daring to step out of your car a few times does not give you license to write an authoritarian piece. I have met too many people who have garnered a cartoon-like image of what Detroit is from reading pieces like these. Please don’t do this again.

  • 2. Walter Ring  |  February 28th, 2012 at 10:08 am

    The cause of all this is simple: CRACKERS, CRACKERS, CRACKERS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • 3. Son of Delray  |  March 13th, 2012 at 1:55 pm

    Dear Carpetbagger Journalist,

    We all know how bad things are in Detroit. What did you do when you were here to help make things right?

    “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.” Seriously? NOW? Where were you thirty or fifty years ago?

    Thanks for nothing.

  • 4. john monto  |  January 5th, 2013 at 7:45 am

    I stunned by the racist comments. When I read this stuff I want to ask what High School you dropped out of. Under achievers are famous for blaming their problems on minorities. You can’t be successful in life because some black person had done you wrong? America is a great country with some serious problems, for sure, but we won’t improve things by pointing hateful fingers or guns at our problems.
    Maybe we should just admit that we need to start from scratch and imagine the world we want and then create it. It has to start with a conversation based on hope and forward thinking, not on hate and it’s all your fault thinking. Please, people. Think before you speak. Read some books. Stop using socialism and communism as your only talking points. It’s more complicated than that. We are all the same, we just come in different colors. We all want our families to be safe and well fed. We all want security and prosperity and equality, and we all feel pain and loss equally. That is a fact. The problems in our country are not caused by poor people, socialism, or blacks. they are caused by too few people with too much money and power disregarding the needs of the many for the wants of the few.
    Gordon Gecko was wrong. Greed is Not good.
    Nor is racism and finger pointing. The idea that there is not enough to go around is complete bullshit. If you don’t believe me then check out Sheldon Adelson and his billion dollar fortune made by running gambling casinos that take advantage of human weakness. His money could help a lot of people but he sends it all overseas to avoid taxes and the money sits quietly while the world suffers. Greed is the problem, not the Niggers you speak of, you ignorant fools.

  • 5. Chelle  |  February 4th, 2013 at 11:53 pm

    An Australian here, not impressed by the racism! Shame America has become this way because of some small minded people being nasty to the blacks over the years that they have become angry! I don’t blame them! They have never learnt to be accepted! So its about time people gave them support and helped them, as this is ONE whole world, no one owns a country, we all own the world so be nice to each other.

  • 6. A. S. Mathew  |  November 3rd, 2013 at 2:56 pm

    While coming to the U.S. from India as a student in 1971, when the London-Montreal-Chicago flight was over Detroit, the pilot said ” we are now flying over Detroit”, I was greatly fascinated and looked down at the city which I heard as the automobile capital of the world in my younger days. I have seen in my younger days, only cars and trucks made either in England or U.S.A. While reading the most deplorable economic crisis of Detroit, it is indeed very depressing, as if watching the sinking of a ship with mental agony.

  • 7. solomon sidney  |  November 19th, 2013 at 6:38 am

    please i want information on how Detroit is now. i also want information on present percentage of slum dwellers in United States. Also various places in U.S. where slum could be found, for change of face is about to come. You can send your information to my Email: vibrant4real@yahoo.com. thanks for your understanding. One love brothers, peace must return.

  • 8. Scott Severin  |  November 19th, 2013 at 3:10 pm

    I was going to comment, but being an inbred white trash piece of dick cheese that I am, I had to take a break to let Uncle Jethro park his pecker in my poopie, and now I plum forgot what I was gonna say. Shucks.

  • 9. john mccandless  |  January 5th, 2014 at 3:55 am

    Where are the editors/fact checkers. Chrysler relocated to Auburn Hills, not Ann Arbor. Also, Lee Iacocca was still CEO of Chrysler when they moved out of Highland Park.

  • 10. Rust  |  September 6th, 2014 at 6:13 pm

    OK, here it is, crime is what killed Detroit. A beautiful city of Art and culture, But crime, drugs, and violent blacks are what killed the city. I can remember playing on Alter Rd. Walking down Beaconsfield, and visiting my grandfather on Alma. By 1982 we were afraid to visit and for damn sure were out of the city before sundown. After sundown Blacks controlled the streets and would shoot or rob anyone they came across. Drug dealers infested the parks, and areas around them. White people left because of CRIME. All the welfare spent went to giving them time to sleep all day and loot, rape and sell drugs all night! Welfare is the problem, And crime, Well shoot the drug dealers, gang members, and anyone out after 3am unless they are driving. People hanging on the corner at 3 am are up to no good. Race is useless, unless you follow up on the people that are causing the trouble, no good people do no good things, and that has to go to see the city grow again.

  • 11. Jim  |  March 21st, 2015 at 3:12 pm

    Such a shame to see such beautiful buildings and houses gone to waste. Such beautiful tree lined streets also.
    I live a long way away in New Zealand, so know little of the politics surrounding this, but I do feel for the people of Detroit. All the best.

  • 12. John  |  August 2nd, 2015 at 6:56 pm

    It’s 2015 and Detroit is still pretty much a shithole. Outside of the ghetto areas it’s just a bunch of skinny jeans wearing hipsters though, so that’s not any better. Just watch this and tell me if you think this is a place you’d want to live… Detroit 2015:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nfxmshUEvbg

  • 13. Frank James  |  August 5th, 2015 at 10:02 pm

    South side of Chicago is in the same decline ,it’s got to do with people who want every thing for nothing ,cry all the time about their situation when they celebrate crime gangs drugs and killing. Try working ,taking responsibility ,quit using drugs as an excuse for every thing. Hang drug dealers for a start

  • 14. Johnnie, cum lately?  |  January 14th, 2016 at 9:25 am

    Sorry, proves I’m a Detroiter.
    I guess it’s a piece of somewhat researched journalism but I feel one must begin with the nature of the city.
    It always was worker housing for people with few other options who wanted to make money and accepted the factory as the price of admission. It was a city of opportunity. Since that reason does not exist today (and I’ll let others argue the meaningless reason, “Why?”), the city has no reason to exist. The mojo has departed. Simple as that. All things change…


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