Letter from Detroit: "All there is now is crackhouses and churches"

With Motor City finally declared bankrupt, the Midwest’s industrial powerhouse has turned into a production line for drink, drugs and deprivation.

A homeless Detroit native with his possessions.
Warping on the dream: William, who has lived under the Eight Mile Road/Woodward Avenue overpass in Detroit for the past two years. Photograph: Dave Jordano.

For most of the world, Detroit is America’s most prominent version of a failed metropolis. The dire statistics have become familiar: 40 square miles of vacant land, an estimated 70,000 abandoned buildings, a population of just over 700,000 in a city – at one point the fourth-largest in the United States – whose citizenry peaked at two million in the Fifties. Now, in a move designed to protect the city from creditors (which include its own public-sector workers and their pension funds), Detroit has filed for bankruptcy – the largest US city ever to do so – with debts of more than $18bn.

I grew up in suburban Detroit and moved back to the city proper from New York in 2009 to write a book. My new apartment, a loft in a former warehouse, was a short walk from what had once been a working-class neighbourhood of Polish and Italian immigrants, auto workers who had come to the city when business was booming. They’d left decades ago, and since then the neighbourhood had become one of the city’s most desolate. In Detroit, this is saying something. Half of the houses were abandoned or partially burnt or completely gone, and vast overgrown fields had reclaimed the old residential blocks.

Still, if you got over the obvious drug houses and the scrap-metal thieves working in broad daylight and the news stories about body parts scattered in the fields, the place could feel oddly peaceful. In the summer, you’d see pheasants flying over the tall grass, and the insect noise could be deafening. I took to riding my bike around to explore, and began to get to know some of the residents.

One of them, a Dutch artist named Corine Vermeulen, had been photographing in Detroit for ten years and she would laugh about the number of European art-tourists who’d been passing through recently. Her street – literally, a single block – had been colonised by a quirky mix of hippies, urban farmers, artists and grass-roots activists. And now, visitors from Greece and Portugal and the Netherlands, all eager to see the epicentre of post-industrial American decline.

One lovely summer afternoon, I stopped by Corine’s house and she suggested we take a walk. She also wanted to find a guy she’d photographed so she could give him a print. The man lived in a mobile home permanently parked in an empty corner lot. In what could be read as either sincere patriotism or an extraordinarily committed act of satirical commentary, he’d draped a giant American flag across the side of his RV.

We started walking in the direction of Chene Street. We passed a NO STANDING sign completely overgrown with weeds and vines, and Corine pointed out a towering, multi-storey warehouse that some kids from San Francisco had apparently bought for 20 or 30 grand to turn into some kind of art space. Closer to the flag trailer, we passed a grey metal electrical box attached to the base of a lamp-post. Someone had used a black Sharpie to scrawl across the box’s front cover: “Like the junkie you are you destroy everything you touch.” Below that, someone else had written: “I’ll call you.”

Down the block, we spotted my friend Pastor Steve, the proprietor of a storefront church on an otherwise entirely abandoned block. Driving by, I’d noticed the motley assortment of characters hanging out front and an unruly garden taking up much of the vacant corner lot next door, and eventually I stopped by and introduced myself. It turned out that most of the folks out front were struggling addicts and prostitutes and criminals from the neighbourhood.

Pastor Steve had gone through his own period of felonious hard living – heroin, pills, booze, glue-sniffing, bank-robbing, you name it – before being saved and then called to the ministry. A rangy white guy in his early sixties, Pastor Steve had an obvious love for a certain era of countercultural accoutrement which had somehow managed to survive this spiritual journey intact. He had a bushy handlebar moustache and flowing grey hair, the curly ends of which spilled to his chest, and favoured cowboy boots, earrings with topaz beads, and the sorts of silver rings you might buy at a Native American souvenir stand. On his motorcycle, a parishioner had painted a picture of Chief Joseph, “who was one of the main, awesome Indians”, in Pastor Steve’s words. He continued, “After we’d been here a while, I got stories coming back to me that people in the neighbourhood thought we were a motorcycle gang. They saw me, saw the Harley, and they thought the building was filled with weapons and we were here to take over.”

Along with his church, Pastor Steve ran a couple of halfway houses for recovering drug addicts, one for men – the Jesus House, which for some reason, perhaps to do with biblical notions of temptation, was located across the street from an actual crackhouse – and the other (the Mary House) for women. This afternoon, Pastor Steve was loading a moving van parked in front of the Jesus House. Another white man who, like Pastor Steve, resembled an ageing biker, was helping him. Pastor Steve greeted me warmly, and when I introduced Corine and mentioned she was a photographer, he pointed to his helper and said, “Oh, well, Al right there is a photographer, too.”

Al looked to be in his sixties. He had stringy, shoulder-length hair and his teeth had been reduced in number by an apparently brutal rate of attrition. The only lower teeth remaining looked like ravaged pilings at the foot of a sunken dock. Corine said, “Oh yeah? What kind of stuff do you shoot?”

“Mostly 35 millimetre,” Al said. “But I’ve been having trouble getting it developed, so I switched to digital.”

When Al spoke, he made eye contact with seeming reluctance. He mostly stared warily over his shoulder, as if on the lookout. Occasionally, without turning his head, he would allow his eyes to drift back in the direction of whomever he happened to be addressing. This had a creepy effect and gave him the air of a crazed Old Testament prophet.

“I live in the most photographed place in the world,” Al said cryptically.

“Al lives in the Packard Plant,” Pastor Steve said.

Corine and I exchanged glances. The Packard, spread over nearly 40 acres, had closed in the Fifties and remained one of Detroit’s best-known ruins. Al apparently ran an auto repair shop out of one of the few parts of the facility that remained intact, also living in a little room in the back. His friend had owned the building, an old forge room, for the past 30 years. After Al’s house had been repossessed, he’d moved into the place, and now he was part-owner. “You know what a forge is?” Al asked me. I said I did. He gave me a sceptical look.

Then Al said, “You read the Bible?” We both shrugged noncommittally. “It talks about backbiting,” Al said. “That’s what happened here. People like to talk about how bad Detroit is. Now we’re falling into biblical times. This city is under a demonic spell. One of the first indications of the death of manufacturing was the closing of the Packard Plant. The 1967 riot – you know what that was about?” His eyes shifted over to mine. I nodded affirmatively. He said, “What was it about?” Not expecting the question, I stammered out something about police brutality, the early-morning raid on the blind pig on 12th Street, years of pent-up racial tension. Al cut me off and said, “It was about money. The workers had to hand over their cheques right away to the stores on 12th Street, and they wanted them back. It was not a race riot.” Al said he’d been living in Madison Heights, a Detroit suburb, at the time. “Twenty miles from the front,” he said. Still, he could remember the sound of people racking their shotguns up and down his block.

Across the street, someone had set up a church bench in an alcove of one of the abandoned storefronts. It fitted so perfectly that it looked like it belonged there. At certain times of day, you might drive by and see a pewful of raggedy-looking people sitting there as if it were a bus stop, only a special kind where, instead of picking you up, the bus driver would just give you a bunch of heroin. One of the regulars was an old man with his nose tubed to an oxygen tank on wheels.

This afternoon, only Larry Stone was sitting on the pew. A resident of the Jesus House, Larry had terrorised the neighbourhood for years. He robbed people, scrapped houses and abandoned buildings, boosted cars. He was trying to get clean now, but when he was using, he would snort a bundle of powdered heroin every day, along with a couple of eight-balls of coke, and would take ten or 20 Xanax, two or three fifths of vodka, maybe ten 40-ounces of malt liquor. He could stay up for seven, eight, nine days at a time. He was a white guy, of Polish descent, but Pastor Steve said he remembered seeing Larry around the neighbourhood with skin as black as a chimney sweep’s from burning the plastic sheaths off the copper wiring he’d steal. Sans plastic, the copper is graded number one by scrapyards and is worth more money. Larry would burn the wiring in a fire pit in his backyard early in the morning, so he could be at the scrapyard by seven. The neighbours never said anything. They were scared of him. He would call the dope man from the scrapyard and arrange to meet him a couple of blocks away. Days, he mostly hid out inside his house. The cops were looking for him.

Larry also used to hang out in front of the liquor store – they’re called “party stores” in Detroit – a few blocks up, along with the other crackheads and junkies, and when people from the suburbs drove in looking to cop dope, they knew to pull up there: Larry would hook them up, call his man, be back there in eight minutes, adding his own fee. One afternoon at the party store, some guy had been messing with Larry. Then an unfamiliar car drove up. Larry thought it was the guy’s friend. He walked over to the car, but it turned out to be Pastor Steve’s son Jeremiah, who also preached at the church. They knew each other from the neighbourhood.

“What’s up, Larry Stone?” Jeremiah asked.

“You’re lucky, man,” Larry said, “because I was about to tell you what was on my mind.”

From there, Larry had moved towards the church and in the direction of getting straight. Corine and I joined him on the bench. He seemed happy to see me, although it was always hard to tell with Larry. Some combination of the details of his appearance – the perpetual moistness of his pale blue eyes, his pockmarked skin, the loose, vaguely institutional feel of his hand-me-down clothing – contributed to his seemingly conflicted affect, at once dangerous and fundamentally broken. He spoke with a black urban lilt, not overly pronounced or put-on-seeming. He often asked if I knew what he was saying. Larry was 37 years old.

We sat out there and Larry, who had grown up in the neighbourhood, began pointing out everything that was gone. Furniture store. Pharmacy. All of the meat-packing plants closer to St Aubin. The Gentleman’s Club, between Kirby and Ferry, which had been owned by the Chambers brothers, a family of notorious Eighties crack kingpins (they were the inspiration of the film New Jack City) who, according to Larry, catered to suburbanites, with guarded parking lots at their dope houses, just like downtown nightclubs. People from the suburbs liked to feel like their cars would be safe, even when they were scoring crack. The Chamberses, Larry also claimed, would pass out ones and fives to old people and kids in the neighbourhood, laundry baskets full of them, because they got sick of counting the small bills – that’s how much money they were pulling in in those days. Larry used to mow lawns for them when he was a kid.

“I was a piece of pure hell, dude,” he told me. “I ran these streets for years.” Larry’s real last name was Sych, but everyone in the neighbourhood called him Stone. “Because my heart was a stone,” he said. I smiled, assuming he meant to get an admiring chuckle out of me, talking in rap lyrics that way. But his face remained serious, and he seemed more melancholy than ever, thinking about what he had been.

A man walked past our bench holding a single cucumber.

Larry told us he could get what he needed out of a car in less than five minutes: 30 seconds to steal the car, and then all you had to do was move it and snatch out the catalytic converter, which was all he wanted, the platinum inside of it. If he stole eight or nine in a day he could make a thousand bucks. “They used to call me the Copper Chopper,” he said. Larry said you would see scrappers scaling the light posts like monkeys around here. They used ropes and wire cutters. It was dangerous, though. A guy fried himself at one of the old plants a few blocks away. Hit the wrong wire. That guy had died. Larry, too, had been badly electrocuted while cutting into a transformer at an old box company.

He fell 15 feet. “Lucky I didn’t break nothing,” he said. His hacksaw melted in his hand and the hair got burned off his face. He staggered to his buddy’s place. The guy had a bottle of Christian Brothers sitting on the porch. Larry killed the entire pint.

“I was a pure piece of hell,” Larry repeated.

A young, pretty black girl in a baseball cap walked by. She was drinking a beer from a paper bag and smoking a cigarette.

“How y’all doing today?” she asked us.

“You all right?” Larry replied.

“I ain’t wrong, that’s for sure,” she said, and kept walking.

Larry itched his back against the church pew. Before he got hooked on drugs, he used to work, first at a machine shop, later as a painter. His stepdad taught him to paint. Then one day he bought what he’d thought was powdered cocaine, but the dealer had accidentally given him heroin. Larry thought, “What kind of coke is this?” But he assumed it must have been re-rock. He ended up nodding out en route to work before he even got to the freeway. Perhaps doing coke in the morning before work points to a budding substance abuse problem wholly independent of any accidental heroin sale, but in any case, Larry said, “My head felt like a pumpkin.” And after that, he couldn’t stop. As he spoke, he burned the tip of a half-smoked cigarette with his lighter, spinning the butt with his fingers, staring at the flame as if he were cooking a rock.

“I was shot, robbed, had my head cracked,” Larry said. He said another of his nicknames was One Hit ’Em Quit ’Em. I found this nickname slightly awkward, but also kind of excellent. “I’m pretty good with these,” Larry said, raising his fists like a boxer. “I’m not gonna lie.” Shortly after reconnecting with Jeremiah, he actually ended up kicking cold turkey in prison, after being busted with eleven hundred pounds of metal. Detroit has such a serious scrapping problem that, as of a couple of years ago, the police department possessed its own Copper Theft Task Force. As with most things in government at all levels, there was a moneyed push behind this new effort – big telecom companies, whose infrastructural wires were being liberated of their copper marrow. But at any rate, the Copper Theft had started sending undercover guys into the scrapyard, and as soon as Larry put the metal down they busted him. Shortly after he got out of the joint, he moved into the Jesus House. Once his probation is through, Larry said, he wants to move to North Carolina.

“All my friends are gone,” he told me. He said the neighbourhood started going to fields around ’99, probably. “All there is now is crackhouses and churches,” he said. Larry said the neighbourhood had been an Empowerment Zone since he was a kid. Once again, he did not laugh wryly or give any indication whatsoever that he’d meant to stress the irony of the remark. This time, I kept my face equally solemn and just wrote down what he said.

Another afternoon, I stopped by Pastor Steve’s for his midweek church service, which also doubled as a food bank. The church was just a cluster of pews towards the back end of a low-ceilinged room that could have passed for an unfinished basement. Pastor Steve’s son Jeremiah was going to be the one preaching this afternoon, but Pastor Steve – today, wearing denim shorts with a jailer’s tangle of keys hanging from a belt loop, a wallet on a chain and a white muscle shirt that read CREATED TO SERVE JESUS – stood at the door, greeting congregants as they filed inside and then giving me the inside scoop on their deal, in the manner of a red-carpet reporter. “This guy right here, he’s staying in the Jesus House now,” Pastor Steve said, sotto voce, as an older gentleman with a long, scraggly hillbilly beard of the Hatfield-and-McCoy variety wandered past. “But he’s spent the past 15 years living under a bridge up in Utica.”

Spotting another man with a bulbous, almost misshapen drunkard’s nose, pushing a shopping cart and wearing a DARE T-shirt, Pastor Steve exclaimed, “You’re still breathing! The devil ain’t killed you yet!” The man, possibly incapable of complex speech, smiled and nodded and shuffled on inside. He was followed by an alarmingly skinny woman with straightened hair, wearing a bright purple shirt, who asked if the food would be handed out before or after the service. Pastor Steve said after. After the woman sat down, he told me she rented a room in the run-down apartment complex next door. He said most of the people living there used their welfare cheques to pay for the cheap rent and blew the rest on drugs, knowing they could get free food at places like this. He said this week’s service would be sparsely attended, because it was the beginning of the month and people’s cheques hadn’t run out yet.

Since I’d met Pastor Steve, my friend John Carlisle, who wrote as Detroitblogger John, had also independently stumbled upon the church and written a cover story for the local weekly about him. I thought it might have boosted attendance but things didn’t seem radically different from my past visits. The name of Pastor Steve’s church was Peacemakers International. The first time I met him, Pastor Steve told me he’d taken over the space about 16 years earlier. Before that, he’d been preaching at a regular church out in the suburbs. But the Lord had instructed him to expand his mission. With someone like Pastor Steve, possessor of a past life rooted so firmly in the Sixties counterculture, the leap from Pynchonian, drug-fuelled hippie conspiracy theory and outright paranoia to believing that the weaver of the worldwide webs of conspiracy was Jesus was a short one. And for a man so predisposed, it was easy to see epic metaphysical fatedness in the tiniest forks in life.

No one was ever turned away from the church. “I’ve had guns and knives fall out of people’s pockets and slide across that floor,” Pastor Steve told me then. “I’ve had a prostitute come up and hump me while I was at the pulpit. ‘Hey, sister! What’s going on?’” Pastor Steve paused to mime his own shock at being humped mid-sermon, though, even in the miming, he could not bring himself to emote unmitigated displeasure. Grinning faintly, he went on, “This is a different kind of church, brother – trust me. But these are the people we’re called to serve. We practise true Christianity around here. Christ died for everyone. I don’t care if you’re a serial killer – if you just killed someone and blood is still dripping down your hands, I don’t care. I want you to walk through that door.”

Pastor Steve had grown up in Detroit in a big Catholic family – his dad had sold cars at a Lincoln-Mercury dealership – but Steve had been the family fuck-up. He talked about his drug years with more than a hint of survivor’s pride, like a fisherman who had taken his boat out despite warnings of a possible storm and the sky looking hinky and somehow survived an epic hurricane; after that, you’d sort of have to boast about how you’d thwarted fate, it would seem like bad luck not to. “I was a wicked glue sniffer,” he said of his 12-year-old self. Oh, and the acid he could get, when he was a little older, it had been the pure stuff, not stepped on – they had a buddy with a connection who was a scientist and he could get it straight from the lab, “and man”, Pastor Steve told me, “you could kiss yourself goodbye”. He snorted heroin for the first time before going to a sock hop.

He and his friends developed their own language, most of it having to do with levels of stoned-ness: “laid to the bone” meant getting extremely stoned, while “getting straight” meant getting stoned so they were “exactly right”. Pastor Steve basically stayed stoned all the time. He found himself in and out of jail, including the time he’d been a driver for a bank robbery job. “Basically, the first time I laid my high-school sweetheart, I got her pregnant,” he said. They got married, but they were both heroin addicts and speed freaks and the marriage only lasted a year. She took the kid when she left him.

Pastor Steve said he doesn’t remember the following nine months. That son eventually died of cancer.

That church day, a couple of rows of haphazardly arranged pews faced each other from three directions. Up in a low, makeshift DJ booth, a man had begun playing loud, synthesised gospel music on a CD player hooked up to a crude sound system. “Ex-heroin junkie,” Pastor Steve said. “Chased him for ten years.” People stood and began to clap. Pastor Steve had been correct: the crowd was small, perhaps 20 people in total. The place smelled vaguely of disinfectant. An older woman in a black dress and heels and a white knit sweater had passed out in one of the pews. Before the church service began, I’d seen her passed out in the pew in front of the abandoned building across the street.

We chatted with a black kid, probably in his late twenties, wearing a matching red shirt and shorts. The kid seemed like he might be mildly retarded, and it was difficult to follow what he was saying. An ugly scar ran across his throat and his voice emerged as a painful croak. I wondered if he’d been shot or stabbed in the neck. But after he walked away, Pastor Steve explained that he’d tried to hang himself when he was eight.

Earlier, Pastor Steve had introduced me to the most recent – as in, just arrived that afternoon – resident of the Jesus House, a white guy in his thirties wearing denim shorts and a plain brown T-shirt. “He’s been a heroin addict for two years, but using crack since he was 18,” Pastor Steve said. This was surprising: the guy looked relatively healthy. He wasn’t emaciated, and didn’t have the zombie eyes of a fiend. According to Pastor Steve, he lived out in the suburbs, where he worked as a welder. The guy looked like a welder from the suburbs. He had an un­ironic moustache and hair that stuck straight up in a half-feathered sort of way. He told me that he’d OD’d twice in the past month, and that he’d taken it as a sign that he needed to get clean. Then Pastor Steve had escorted him to his new room in the Jesus House. The upstairs bedrooms had all been subdivided into cell-like bunk rooms. Some of the guys hung up sheets in front of their beds to give themselves a modicum of privacy.

As the church service got under way with one of the residents of the Mary House, a heavy-set African-American woman, standing up and informing the crowd, “It’s hot in here, but it’s hotter in hell,” Pastor Steve spotted the new guy standing next to a water cooler at the rear of the room. He was chatting with another congregant with a heroin problem. I’d talked to the second guy, whose name was Mark, before service. He was also white, with a moustache, but he had an unctuous, sidling manner I’d found deeply unpleasant. At the same time, he’d made some paranoid-sounding anti-tax comments and then gone on a long jag about the shootout at Ruby Ridge.

Pastor Steve made his way to the water cooler and said something to Mark, who nodded and wandered outside. The new guy sat down in one of the rear pews, eventually putting his head down and running his fingers through his hair. When Pastor Steve returned, he whispered to me, “That guy was throwing moves back there. I had to tell him to beat it.”

Surprisingly, after the service, Mark was still hanging around outside. I’d told him about my book and he seemed eager to continue chatting with me. He was leaning against the church van, still wearing his sunglasses and black Ultimate Fighting Championship cap. As we spoke, the new guy came outside, grinning now, and slung his arm across Mark’s shoulder. “Man, get away,” Mark hissed. “You’re being watched!” The new guy stepped back and pretended to be doing something else. Then someone from the church grabbed him and put him to work in the garden, hauling bricks.

Heroin Mark buttonholed me, launching into a rambling story about his time in prison and subsequent meeting of Pastor Steve. As he spoke, he attempted to light a home-rolled cigarette. It took him several tries. He also seemed, during several long pauses, as if he were just on the verge of nodding out. Eventually, he took off.

Larry Stone and another Jesus House resident, a younger kid, probably in his late teens or early twenties, were both fuming about the incident. They said they wanted to kick Mark’s ass, and that they would, if he continued to bother the new guy. The kid pulled a switchblade out of his pocket and grinned. Another guy, standing nearby, made a joke about spilling blood for the Lord. He had a bulge in his belt underneath his shirt. Larry looked at the bulge and made a joke about how the kid was bringing a knife to a gunfight. Everyone laughed. Larry said he could tell right away that Mark was trouble. “Game sees game,” he said. Then he shook his head in disgust and asked, “Why would you wanna throw a brick at a glass house?”

A white woman came out of the church, wearing nothing but lingerie and carrying a bag of food. Her exposed skin was completely covered in hideous scabs, like the bites of a thousand insects.

Larry stopped talking for a moment as she passed by. Then he shook his head and said, “That woman is mentally disturbed.”

Mark Binelli is the author most recently of “The Last Days of Detroit: Motor Cars, Motown and the Collapse of an Industrial Giant” (Bodley Head, £20)