'Nothing works here': Reality on the streets of a broken Motor City

After years of uncertainty, Detroit has finally filed for bankruptcy. But residents of the crippled former industrial powerhouse tell Nikhil Kumar the damage has already been done

“Has anyone liked the Detroit of five years ago, of 10 years ago, of 15 years ago?” Michigan’s governor asked yesterday as the city began to come to terms with the sorry result of decades of economic decline and financial mismanagement: bankruptcy.

Rick Snyder’s question underscored a reality residents have been familiar with for years. Officially, Detroit filed for bankruptcy protection on Thursday after Kevyn Orr, the emergency manager charged with overseeing its finances, failed to hammer out agreements with creditors to whom the city owes at least $18bn – and possibly up to $20bn in the long term.

While that filing was the subject of a legal dispute yesterday, the fact remains that Detroit has long been a broken city – a metropolis where buses seldom show up on time, police take an hour to respond to emergency calls and 78,000 properties lie abandoned.

About 60 years ago, nearly two million people lived in a manufacturing behemoth known as the car-making capital of the world. Everyone from Ransom Olds to the Packard brothers and, of course, Henry Ford, had come to Detroit. But today, the giant Packard plant on the city’s east side is slowly wasting away – a sad, rusting reminder of better times – and there are only two car factories within the city limits. One of those is partly in the neighbouring city of Hamtramck. Detroit’s population, meanwhile, now stands at around 700,000, the lowest it has been since 1910.

Financial mismanagement has made the city’s problems worse. Public services are near collapse because of repeated budget cuts. Crime has been at elevated levels for a prolonged  period. Recent figures show that about 40 per cent of street lights do not work. Only a third of ambulances are in service because maintenance funds have been slashed.

“Nothing – nothing works in this city,” said Sheila Cockrel, who spent 16 years serving on Detroit City Council. Since stepping down in 2009, she has been teaching at Wayne State University. “It takes 58 minutes for a police car to come if they accept your call,” she added. “The only calls they accept are if there’s a gun and they believe you’re not lying when you say it. In my middle-income neighbourhood, we pay a private security service ... Once I was in my house at three o’clock in the afternoon and three young men tried to break in. The first call I made? Threat Management.”

Ms Cockrel is referring to Threat Management Centre, a private security company which operates from a black building near the Detroit River waterfront. It is among the many private firms that some residents have  resorted to as the city struggles to provide adequate services. Founded in the mid-1990s by Dale Brown, known to his staff as “Commander Brown”, Threat Management’s client roster has 1,000 homes and 500 businesses.

Mr Brown’s men and women are  kitted out in military-style trousers, black T-shirts, protective vests and badges. The “Commander”, who began by training locals to protect themselves before founding his company, drives around in a black Hummer 4x4. Threat Management Centre’s personnel are known as “Vipers”, an acronym, Mr Brown told The Independent, for “Violence Intervention Protective Emergency Response System”. Some, but not all, are armed, often at clients’ request, although the entire force will shift to non-lethal weaponry by the end of this year. Mr Brown said that when his team respond to calls from clients such as Ms Cockrel, they are under instructions to call the police, even though residents often don’t bother. “It is an organisation that is driven by the mission, not the money. If there was no money, would [we] still do this? Yes, there would just be less of us, less often,” he said, sitting in an office decorated with framed testimonials and photos of Vipers in action.

But the breakdown of Detroit’s public services is not simply a result of  neglect. For years, it has been marred by what locals say is mismanagement in department after department. The police force, for example, has been under federal oversight since 2003 following allegations of brutality and other claims.

Earlier this year, more revelations about police conduct once again turned the spotlight on the force. In April, the Michigan branch of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) wrote to the police and filed a complaint with the US Justice Department over allegations about the illegal “dumping” of homeless people.

The ACLU claimed that, over the years, officers in Greektown, a busy commercial area of downtown Detroit that contains casinos, restaurants and bars, would approach homeless men, tell them they were not allowed to be there, order them into their vans and then drive them to a remote area before abandoning them.

Charles “E”, 58, is among those who allege such mistreatment. He says he was picked up with his brother and driven to south-west Detroit. “[We were] sitting in the van maybe 20 minutes and then they finally let us off on the freeway, not on the street,” he said. “When they let us off, they pat us down, take all the money ... so we couldn’t get back on the bus. So I ask the female  [officer], ‘How are we going to get back?’ She said, ‘The best way you can’, and they got in the van and took off.”

For many, the poor state of Detroit’s police force was emblematic of the city’s terminal decline. The same is true for other public services. Unfortunately for residents, those services are likely to worsen before they get better. Bankruptcy could mean laying off employees, selling off assets, raising fees and scaling back further on things like refuse collection and snow-ploughing, which have already been slashed.

But, though fraught with risks, the bankruptcy protection filing could help to solve the problem of shrinking budgets and the attendant woes by putting the city on a path to becoming debt-free. At least that is the hope.

As Mr Orr put it yesterday: “Does  anybody think it’s OK to have 40-year-old trees [growing] through dilapidated houses? Does anybody think our children should walk home from school through dark streets at night in October? Does anybody think they should call the police and [officers] not be able to come on time because they are already out on calls?”

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