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