Shootings Cast Pall Over Detroit’s Comeback Narrative

A breathtaking succession of murders and shootings are a vivid reminder that the city’s biggest problem is very much part of its present

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Joshua Lott / Reuters

The casket for 19-year-old shooting victim Renisha McBride is removed from a hearse before her funeral service in Detroit on Nov. 8, 2013

In a wood-paneled conference room in New York City earlier this month, several of Detroit’s blue-ribbon business leaders stood with Michigan Governor Rick Snyder to promote the long-awaited revival of their city and his state.

It was almost as if the dignitaries were touting a new stock in its initial public offering, creating buzz for a bright future. But as they were conducting their optimistic road show, the place they left behind was experiencing one of its worst weeks in recent memory.

In breathtaking succession between Halloween eve and Veterans Day, murders and shootings touched key corners of Detroit, from Wayne State University, an anchor of the city’s redevelopment, to a barbershop, from an important black church to a suburb seen by some as a haven from danger.

The wave was a vivid reminder that even as Detroit’s downtown swells with enough young, college-educated people to keep the vacancy rate around 1%, the city’s biggest problem, crime, is very much part of its present.

In 2012, Detroit had the highest murder rate of any major American city, according to the FBI, at 54.6 per 100,000 residents — 10 times the national average. A Detroit News crime map, tracking crime for the past 15 months, shows multiple shootings and homicides across its neighborhoods, although downtown, where much of Detroit’s recent investment has taken place, remains relatively safe.

Throughout the city, response times to 911 calls remain slow. It takes an average of 58 minutes for police to answer an emergency call, according to data from Detroit’s emergency manager, Kevyn Orr. That compares with response times as short as 11 minutes in neighboring suburbs. Unwilling to rely entirely on the police, a number of downtown companies and residential areas use private security.

The juxtaposition of the city’s potential and its difficult present illustrates the fragility of Detroit’s comeback — and shows how difficult the task will be for the elected officials, business leaders and others who hope to rebuild the city, which filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy this summer.

“The violence is out of control,” said Bishop Charles Ellis of Greater Grace Temple, who leads a 6,000-member congregation on Detroit’s northwest side. “We have to find a way to harness it, police it, all hands on deck. It is going to take all of us in the end to bring some sanity back.”

The violence hit home for Ellis on Nov. 4, when his brother-in-law Dwayne Green was found shot to death at his home. Green, 48, was the maintenance supervisor at Greater Grace, where he had worked for 15 years.

Ellis said he supports efforts to revive Detroit’s downtown, its theater district, and the arts and education quarter called Midtown.

“But I have been the one crying and shouting and screaming that you can’t have a first-class downtown and a third-world community and neighborhood,” Ellis said. “Otherwise, you might as well build a wall on East Grand Boulevard,” a major city street.

Midtown experienced its own brush with violence last month, when third-year Wayne State University law student Tiane Brown was killed. Her body was found Oct. 30, near the abandoned Packard Motors manufacturing complex, which looms as a symbol of the blight Detroit is trying to erase.

Brown, a 33-year-old mother of three, already had earned two degrees (one in biomedical engineering), started a nonprofit and was one of just six students in the inaugural class of the university’s patent-law clinic.

Detroit is the only city in the nation with a branch of the U.S. Patent Office, owing to its proximity to the car companies, their suppliers and the state’s major universities. Students in the patent-law clinic must be engineers and spend 130 hours per semester researching applications and advising applicants, said Professor Eric C. Williams, who oversees the project. “People like that stand out, they’re rare,” he said of Brown. “The city is the poorer for losing her.”

Detroit police chief James Craig said it was likely that Brown knew her attacker, but no one has yet been charged in her death. While her killing was a major local story, the fatal shooting of another Detroiter has commanded national attention.

Renisha McBride, an unarmed black teen thought to be seeking help after a car accident, was shot in the face and killed by a white homeowner in the early hours of Nov. 2. The apparent similarities to the cases of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed black teenager fatally shot last year in Florida, and of Jonathan Ferrell, an unarmed black man killed by North Carolina police in September following a car accident, thrust the shooting into the national debate over race and the criminal-justice system.

For nearly two weeks, anger and confusion swirled as details of the fatal encounter remained sketchy and the homeowner stayed free.

Tensions were calmed some on Nov. 15 when Theodore Paul Wafer, a 54-year-old maintenance worker at the Detroit airport, was charged with second-degree murder, manslaughter and firearm possession. According to prosecutors, a disoriented and bloody McBride, 19, approached the home around 4 a.m., roughly three hours after crashing her car nearby. A toxicology report revealed twice the legal limit of alcohol in her blood and traces of marijuana.

Prosecutors decided that Wafer, who shot McBride through an open front door and closed screen door, had not acted in lawful self-defense. He is free on bail awaiting a Dec. 18 hearing to decide if the case will go to trial.

The shooting took place in Dearborn Heights, a mostly white and Arab-American suburb just west of the city filled with modest, one-story homes. It is the sort of place where many have moved to avoid Detroit’s problems, though Wafer’s neighbors say they have recently had a rash of burglaries.

The fatal encounter on Wafer’s front porch and the wave of other recent violence is a reminder that successful cities need to address current problems while they plan for their future, says Susan Silberberg, a lecturer in urban planning and design at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“It’s a multipronged approach, and a multipronged response,” Silberberg says. She believes city leaders must continue marketing the possibilities that Detroit offers, but at the same time, remember that the city has to serve citizens as well as investors.

“It’s really easy for these events to pull people off if there’s no sense of where we’re going in the long term,” she said of the crime wave. “People need to feel safe — that kids can play outside, that students can be safe, that people are safe in their homes and at their jobs. People need public places. It’s all those things together.”

Part of the challenge facing city leaders is convincing people that Detroit really is on the upswing. Each new round of violent crime makes that task harder, reinforcing the perception that Detroit is “down and sinking further,” according to urban-studies scholar Richard Florida.

“I think the comeback story is starting to make headway, but it has a long way to go,” Florida said.

— With reporting by Mary M. Chapman / Detroit

8 comments
JackieOrinda
JackieOrinda

Please tell the truth.  Detroit poverty is driven by crime - not by the abandoned Packard Plant.  Without being racist, the blacks need to embrace rule of law.  To accept 400 murders a year for 40 years running is appalling.  Most of the crime is black on black murder.  Stop all the killing and property crime and business people - both black and white, will move in and open new businesses.  

As a nation we also need to admit that having children out of wedlock and not raising them in a stable family is not a co-equal choice, no matter how many  reality TV shows say it is.  This crime is the bitter harvest of these thousands of poor personal decisions over the last 50 years.


Annes0411
Annes0411

I was born and raised through high school in the SE Michigan area. in the late 70s and early 80s we knew what had to be done.....Get out as soon as feasible. Find success somewhere else - Detroit, is NOT success. It is dangerous. My skin color is not important - I am a minority in Detroit - therefore, my heritage is NOT African American. I do not blame skin color or heritage....It has always been a fact - 50+ years.... as soon as you can, find a way to relocate somewhere else. Detroit is not conducive to success.

When you are at other major metropolitan areas - try to refer to yourselves as Michiganders - that way people will accept you. If you say - sure, my parents gave birth to me in the Detroit area - automatic disrespect. How am I to change my PARENTS LIFE CIRCUMSTANCES.  I should not have to endure degradation due to where my parents owned a home. The American Dream - a 30 year mortgage. Stuck in the muck.

It is sad to retell my life story. The White House hears some of it. Mr. Obama appears to care about what it FEELS LIKE TO BE USA....I do not do FREE-STUFF.... I work for a living - and yet.........................

TGeorgia
TGeorgia

I drove about my old Detroit neighbourhood in September with my husband of 40+ years as i wanted him to see where I grew up (for the first time as we live in another country). Never again. 

Gone were 100% of the small merchants that prospered along Grand River and in their stead were boarded up storefronts in a sea of neglect. One house I had lived in with my family was neat and tidy whereas around the block, the other was a weedy mess of neglect complete with three men giving us the evil eye for driving by - the menace was palpable. My grade school was abandoned and the school where I went to kindergarten, a rubble heap.

We stopped at Southfield and Grand River at a MacDonald's so my husband could use the washroom. I sat in the car with the door locked and watched a work crew of men from the local jail taking a coffee break from their 'community service' - the only other customers. We drove to Dearborn (to go to the Henry Ford Museum) via Rouge River Park and my husband commented that this would be a dangerous place come nightfall, and it did not feel much better in the light of day.  My family used to come to the park in the evenings for picnics.

The only place where we saw cars gathered was the Detroit Police shooting range. All along the way to Dearborn were nicely tended houses bracketed by ruined shells.

This is America the beautiful, 2013 style.



NamecNassianer
NamecNassianer

The Charles Ellis/Dwayne Green connection is a microcosm of a major cause of Detroit's demise: nepotism.


Openminded1
Openminded1

Detroit the worst run city of its size in the U.S. A corrupt ,filthy city with very little promise and lots of  black crime. they have a white mayor now who hopefully can help get the city turned around to its one time greatness. it is going to take a lot of work. The old city leaders were very much part of the problem. get rid of some of those moron racist city council members would help.

mrbomb13
mrbomb13

No, no, no...the media should STOP reporting on alleged "Detroit Resurgences" for the near and forseeable future.  That kind of headline is blatantly misleading and patently false.

Detroit is in a s*ithole - economically, socially, industrially, financially, etc..  It is over-run by violence (much of it minority-driven), abject poverty, and post-apocalyptic gloom.  The city is a shadow of its formerly resplendent self.  It's a terror, a nightmare, and so dangerous, that police now have to issue pamphlets to tourists saying that their protection cannot be guaranteed.

Here in New Jersey, we have Camden, Newark, Elizabeth, Jersey City, and Trenton (among other areas) to be ashamed of; those cities could disappear, and everyone would be happier to be rid of such eyesores.  Thank God we also don't have Detroit in our backyard.

mrbomb13
mrbomb13

I know a lot about Detroit from having been there before, reading about it, having friends from that city, and having family who live/lived near the city.  The common thread of each experience is just how low the city has sunk, and how it finds new ways to sink lower all of the time.