The City Where the Sirens Never Sleep.
January 20, 2009 11:07 AM   Subscribe

"The city is so cash-strapped that firefighters have to purchase their own toilet paper and cleaning supplies. Their aging bunker gear is coated in carbon, 'making them the equivalent of walking matchsticks.' The firehouses' brass poles have been removed and sold off by the city." - The City Where the Sirens Never Sleep by Matt Labash.
posted by chunking express (38 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
Page 2 is strangely way longer than page 1, but it is well worth the read. Detroit is a city of interesting and bleak facts.
posted by chunking express at 11:11 AM on January 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

Clearly the firefigters and the city just need to get more resourceful. Look at Erie County in New York. When they didn't have the money for toilet paper, they created a public-private philanthropic partnership, by which I mean Charmin donated toilet paper. Now they've locked up the bathrooms and started charging employees to use them. Do Detroit firefighters really expect the city to just hand out free toilet paper and toilet facilities? Commies!
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 11:36 AM on January 20, 2009

Detroit isn't a loser - it's a leader. it's the vanguard of the new de-urbanification movement. The dismantling of a once thriving city is unprecedented in modern history. This sort of thing hasn't happened since Carthage or Pompeii. Detroit residents should be pleased with their front-row seats for this case study in the power of the invisible hand and the dawn of a new global age for manufacturing.
posted by GuyZero at 11:46 AM on January 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

Detroit arcadia: Exploring the post-American landscape By Rebecca Solnit is also a good read, but sadly you need to be a Harper's subscriber to enjoy it.
posted by chunking express at 11:49 AM on January 20, 2009

I'm not surprised that Detroit is Iggy Pop's homeland.
posted by rageagainsttherobots at 11:50 AM on January 20, 2009

"American reporters keep deliciously recording our demise but nobody wants to do anything about it. We're not your pity party. You want to chronicle us? We've been chronicled enough."

Mitch Albom
posted by Nahum Tate at 11:56 AM on January 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

Great story. Aside from the presence of Mitch Albom, the decline of Detroit (and Cleveland and Newark) is probably about 91 percent attributable to the riots of the 1960s and forced school busing of the 1970s. Nobody talks about the riots in our day, unless it's in some kind of civil rights context. But they were explosions of crude, pointless criminality that scared the pants off of every white person of every political shade, and sent them and their businesses running so fast out of the cities, that the force of the suction made the empty liquor bottles spin on the ground outside the looted liquor stores. As for forced school busing, it was easily the stupidest idea since slavery, and destroyed these cities' school systems as thoroughly as if you'd reached into every school and removed any kid with half a brain and parents who cared even the slightest about his or her education, and moved them out to the suburbs and left the city schools to the morons, criminals, and their victims -- which, of course, is what did happen. You could draw a hundred charts of every statistic in Detroit, Cleveland, and Newark, and see a sharp spike or plunge corresponding to the dates of their riots and school busing initiatives. Compared to the riots (the real story of which remains to be told) and forced school busing, everything else is secondary.
posted by Faze at 12:15 PM on January 20, 2009

When councilwoman Monica Conyers got in hot water for calling her colleague "Shrek," Charlie arranged to have her sit down on-camera for an interrogation by a group of middle schoolers. She proceeded to get a condemnatory lecture on how to behave like an adult from the kids. Charlie then interviewed her, convincing her to recite lines from the infamous Shrek-ish city council meeting, with him playing the part of her, in her sassiest Detroit voice. ("You know you not my daddy!" he said.)

I hear from one firefighter, Wes Rawls, that he actually had his car stolen from outside the church at Walt's wake. He didn't really sweat it, since it was the fourth time his car has been stolen. (The third time it happened, he was conveniently coming out of anger
posted by jason's_planet at 12:20 PM on January 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

management class.
posted by jason's_planet at 12:21 PM on January 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

There is something about the unsettledness of Detroit that forces its inhabitants to confront it. Therefore, many of them tend to have the most vivid of worldviews. Take political consultant Adolph Mongo.

He is one of Charlie's regulars, both in print and on his web show. This is no easy feat for Charlie, since Mongo's favorite word, one he uses every five sentences or so, is "motherf--er." A large black man who favors Versace glasses adorned with gemstones, he's known as the local flamethrower, unafraid to compare his opponents to Hitler or to run anti-lynching ads in support of his client, Kwame Kilpatrick, who sources say owes Mongo money that he'll never see.

Still, throwing a curveball, Mongo wishes me to know he's practically a conservative and asks for a column at this magazine. "I'm for low taxes, kicking people in the ass, tough on crime, and don't bail out motherf--ers. No welfare state. .  .  . We need to destroy the school district," he says, advocating "charters, vouchers, everything. My wife [a former public school teacher] is going to die if she reads this s--."

Mongo says he has black clients and he has white clients. "I'm not a bigot, I'm a pro." He worked for Kilpatrick, of whom he once was a fierce critic. Kilpatrick offered to hire him because "I beat his ass for two years." And he's worked for some of the people who put Kilpatrick in jail as well. "People ask me what I do," says Mongo. "I f-- with people. I know how to debate. You've got to know both sides of the issue. I can be for you. I can be against you. I'm like a prostitute in the night. Nobody wants to admit that they've been with me, but they come seek me out."

posted by jason's_planet at 12:21 PM on January 20, 2009

This is a motherf---ing keeper.

In fact, I'd go so far as to say that it's probably the best link I've seen on MetaFilter in a long time.

Thank you for posting this, chunking express.
posted by jason's_planet at 12:23 PM on January 20, 2009

The station fire bell is itself a Rube Goldberg absurdity. When the house gets a call, it comes by way of fax from the central office. The printer paper comes out and pushes a door hinge, which then falls onto a screw that's wired to an alarm. They had to rig it themselves.
posted by chunking express at 12:23 PM on January 20, 2009

The decline of Detroit can be traced to the election of Coleman Young as mayor. Yes, the 1967 riots hurt the city, but it was trying to rebuild itself when Young took office and immediately made his distrust of the police department known: "As everyone knows," he told a group of black professionals, "law and order is a code word for 'Keep the niggers in their place.'" He later told the press that Detroit police were a danger to the city. The overall climate changed, and folks no longer feared the police, but rather, the police feared the public. Cops hesitated to respond to calls that involved black gangs such as the BKs or Errol Flynns. The recession of the mid-1970s meant lay offs in many areas of law enforcement, including the division that used to patrol the city's freeways. With no threat of cops, it was de rigeur for anyone who ran out of gas or had a flat to be attacked and robbed as they stood stranded. I well remember this era when employers headquartered in Detroit used suburban employment recruiters to find degreed professionals willing to drive into the city to work at Blue Cross or Detroit Medical Center or Michigan Bell or similar companies, and being offered an additional 15% on top of the salary paid by the same companies for their suburban locations for what recruiters referred to as "battle pay" but what was technically supposed to cover paid parking within the city.

Anyway, the resulting lawlessness was far more responsible for the migration of residents and companies to the suburbs than the Riots. As the tax base shrank, so did city services. Street lights that burned out stayed dark, abandoned houses stood for five years or more before being razed. Nepotism in City Hall and mismanagement of city funds (Mrs. Kilpatrick's Lincoln Navigator, anyone?) only added to Detroit's financial trouble. I could add many personal anecdotes about the attitude/competency of City Hall employees in the last 20 years, but I'll just mention one: I worked at a steel processing plant in Detroit and the company purchased the plot of land next door in order to provide a parking area for flat-bed trucks waiting to unload/pick-up. The land in question had the skeleton of an abandoned house on it, and when the City failed to respond to our requests, we hired a private contractor to demolish it. Eight years after the fact, we received a penalty notice from the City of Detroit for razing a structure without permission, along with a statement saying that we were liable for the unpaid water bill (over $500) of the previous tenant - dating back to the 1980s.
posted by Oriole Adams at 1:01 PM on January 20, 2009 [3 favorites]

God, this is just so depressing.

We emigrated to Detroit in the mid-70s, right in the middle of white flight. I went to nursery school and elementary school (through 3rd grade) in the Cass Corridor and lived nearby. My school, which eventually became a magnet International school, served the children of immigrants. I had friends who were Native American, Indian, Chinese, Serbian, Korean, Nigerian, Egyptian, etc. I was learning Mandarin in the 3rd grade! It was wonderful and lively and engaged. I learned about feminism as a 2nd grader from my teacher, Ms. Butler. Our principal knew all of the students by name. I walked to school hand in hand with my sister, past prostitutes and junkies and never felt fear. We played in run down city playgrounds and never noticed the rust or dirt or decay. I just remember how vibrant everything was: the sunshine, the grass, the concrete, the chainlink fences. I haven't been back in about 10 years and it just breaks my heart to read stories like this.
posted by nikitabot at 1:17 PM on January 20, 2009 [4 favorites]

Detroit has always reminded me of a junkie, dying a few milliliters at a time, cursing all the while.
posted by aramaic at 1:19 PM on January 20, 2009

That is so tragic. Great writing, but God what a downer. I don't miss Michigan.
posted by RussHy at 1:44 PM on January 20, 2009

"If I'm lying," he says, "then God is gay. And I know He ain't gay, cause He's my partner."
I feel this sorry for this guy, but geez what a boner. If I'd been that reporter, my next line would've been, "BWAAAAAHHHHHAHAHA!! You just – !! – Uh, you ...just..ohnevermind."
posted by gorgor_balabala at 2:01 PM on January 20, 2009

I grew up in Sarnia, about an hour north of Detroit on the Canadian side. Most of the TV (and radio) stations we received (this was back in the '70s and '80s, when we only had the channels on the TV dial; i.e. 2-13) were from Detroit, and one of the things I remember was that it seemed like every 6:00 news show started off the same way - with a reporter standing in front of a run-down house with yellow tape around it. People from Sarnia talked about the place as if it were on a different planet, and in some ways I suppose it was.

When I got a bit older I took a few trips down for events aside from Tigers or Red Wings games and started to learn about the city's amazing history (especially the music), but it was already obvious that Detroit had seen much better days. It's a shame. Thanks for the post.
posted by The Card Cheat at 2:36 PM on January 20, 2009

Great post. Also: I think this is the first thing I've ever read in The Weekly Standard that didn't suck.
posted by sy at 4:00 PM on January 20, 2009

Also on this topic: Detroit Wildlife, a "taster video" for a proposed documentary, which plainly and rather poetically lays out what is happening to large swaths of the city.
posted by underthehat at 5:11 PM on January 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

As bad as things are in Detroit, it (and, for that matter, Flint) look pretty good compared to Gary.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 5:45 PM on January 20, 2009

Gary, THAT'S the town that knew me when. You have to appreciate a town with its own distinct odor.
posted by leotrotsky at 6:35 PM on January 20, 2009

There's got to be a market for someone to set up an "Urban Decay" type of tour for Detroit. I'd love to visit myself with someone who can give me the real nitty-gritty on just how bass-ackwards that place has become.

And I actually liked Gran Torino. Is that wrong?
posted by bardic at 8:02 PM on January 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

That article really impressed me. As I was reading, I realised the phrase, "the hulking Albert Kahn-designed Packard Plant in 1956, which a half century later, still stands like a disgraced monument to lost grandeur." meant nothing to me, so I thought I should look it up. Flickr has this set I found, which is all very arty and there are some very nice images of decay, I'd thought, which has always been an obsession of mine. The majority of the photos are all well-framed, and were still meaningless. Ok, a quick websearch brings up this link, and the photos get worse - that is to say the decay is long and huge, and a real mess. Yeah, Virtual Earth - that shot is, what? Evil? Sad? Ballardian? Pripyat? I don't know, but it goes on for blocks, North and South and all the houses look like they're infected by it. Ok, now I can understand why the author would write something like that. But I still don't know what to say...
posted by Zack_Replica at 9:05 PM on January 20, 2009

It's interesting to call a city "dying" when there are 900,000 people living there. Maybe it's not the place to force someone else to live, but as this story attests, these are 300,000 families who will never get a proper education for their kids because the teachers have moved somewhere more hopeful. Detroit's residents are truly the invisible class of Americans.

Not sure if I'd want to help fix it, though. I'm imagining The Wire times two or three.
posted by shii at 9:43 PM on January 20, 2009

I've lived in this area for more than a decade (Howell, Warren, and Windsor). This is just another someone flies in and writes a laundry list of Detroit's failings article. Nothing new and no insight. It's not a bad bit of writing but it's not good either.

Charlie LeDuff is worth looking up though.
posted by arse_hat at 10:40 PM on January 20, 2009

And I actually liked Gran Torino. Is that wrong?
I enjoyed it, too, but it was set in Highland Park, which is a smaller city within the City of Detroit. Interestingly enough, Highland Park is known for an even higher rate of crime and decay than Detroit (a common joke in the area is that even Detroiters won't go to Highland Park), and there are very few neighborhoods left like the one portrayed in Gran Torino. In addition, at the end of the film it shows police cars marked "Highland Park" reality, Highland Park went bankrupt many years ago and has no police force of its own. It relied upon the Wayne County Sheriff's Department for law enforcement.

This blog has some great photos and stories of the ruins of Detroit as seen by an urban spelunker, and also some very interesting accounts of some citizens who still try to live, work and survive in the city.
posted by Oriole Adams at 10:57 PM on January 20, 2009

This is a great article, with all sorts of amazing detail. I have to say, though, Charlie LeDuff sounds like an amazing character, I'd love to hang out with him some time.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 11:48 PM on January 20, 2009

Charlie LeDuff is worth looking up though.

Start with this awesome piece of work.
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 12:46 AM on January 21, 2009

I really don't understand why anyone who doesn't have to stay in a place like Detroit does. The economy's dead, the school system's a ruin, the social services are a joke, and the crime rate is insane. RUN, YOU FOOLS.

Maybe if the place is emptied out for a while whatever disease afflicts it will die off and it'll be reinhabitable someday.
posted by Mitrovarr at 1:20 AM on January 21, 2009

That was really a powerful story. Thanks, chunking express.
posted by malocchio at 9:42 AM on January 21, 2009

Thought-provoking stuff, especially now as I recently read James Howard Kunstler's The Long Emergency, and just started The World Without Us by Alan Weisman. Thanks Zach_Replica for the Pripyat link, which got me looking at Robert Polidori's photos of Chernobyl and post-Katrina New Orleans.

Might we soon have to stop thinking of Detroit as an aberration, where something has gone freakishly awry, and instead recognize the natural process of decomposition that applies itself to human material culture as to any other substance? What will happen to our other populated regions if we can't conjure up another gigantic economic boom?

It's hard to reconcile this with yesterday's soaring rhetoric as Obama invoked our spirit, ambition, and innovation.
posted by maniabug at 11:15 AM on January 21, 2009

Yeah, it's a good piece, but all the same if I were from Detroit I'd be getting pretty sick of this sort of thing. It's basically poverty porn. And the unsympathetic comments are just the icing on the cake. Yeah, all the unfortunate people who actually have to live in that dump should move somewhere else or just be happy to witness such an amazing turnabout in American urban history.

Easy to say from a comfy chair in a warm room.
posted by Afroblanco at 12:36 PM on January 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I suspect if people could move they would move. I'm guessing everyone who could move did so a long time back. If you are poor, and have a family, I suspect moving would be all the more difficult. (You'd need to find new work, a new home, etc.)
posted by chunking express at 12:47 PM on January 21, 2009

Charlie LeDuff article, on finding a corpse iced into the bottom of an abandoned elevator shaft...and having to report it to police himself after "urban spelunkers" ice skating on site (!) and at least one homeless guy declined to do so themselves.
posted by availablelight at 7:44 AM on January 29, 2009

An udpated link to the article since the one in the original post no longer works.
posted by Tomorrowful at 1:36 PM on January 29, 2009

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