Posted by jdg | Wednesday, July 16, 2008 | , ,

Every time I turn on the radio, someone is talking about the housing crisis, the price of crude oil, the auto industry in peril, or the general downturn in the economy. I know things aren't great right now, but with the media's perseveration on all this doom and gloom, I can't help but wonder if we aren't talking ourselves into an actual depression instead of just letting the United States slide slowly towards Europe where it belongs on the less relevant part of the world stage. I just saw Ted Koppel interview a Chinese peasant working three jobs to send his son to college, where the bespectacled moppet studies 10-12 hours a day so as not to dishonor his parents. I pictured the whooping and hollering kids I went to college with and moaned, "Oh we are so fucked." I have been teaching my daughter Mandarin so that one day she might properly welcome her new Chinese overlords.

And yet despite the barrage of bad news, I can't help but feel buoyed by what's going on in our neighborhood. More and more people our age are moving in. There are several more babies now than when we first arrived. In a month or so a full-service grocery store is set to open a block from our front door---we won't even have to cross a street to get there. Our family has survived two years now in the Motor City with one compact car, and soon we won't even need to drive it to get groceries. And perhaps the most exciting development of all is the opening of the Dequindre Cut, a new below-grade biking/walking/jogging path that bisects our neighborhood and connects Eastern Market with Detroit's jewel of a riverfront. I've been taking the kids running 3-6 miles every weekday since my wife returned to work, and I am so excited about this new jogging path. For the last few weeks, all the news on the radio has been bad news, particularly here in Michigan. But everywhere I look around me all I see is this myopic vision of hope.

So here I've been, humming along with the hubris of optimism in a city where humming and optimism are more offensive than perjury. It was only a matter of time before the gods punished me. I was with the dog about to cross Gratiot. I went to push the button to activate the walk signal at the crosswalk and realized the metal pole that held the button and the traffic signal was missing. Someone had simply ripped it out of the ground. Goddamn scrappers.

After crossing the street, I took the dog on our normal walk across the highway from the Brewster Projects, the nondescript mid-century towers where Diana Ross and Smokey Robinson grew up. I could have sworn at least two of the buildings were still occupied a few weeks ago, but halfway across the pedestrian bridge over the highway I could hear scrappers pounding the aluminum frames from the windows and tossing them several stories to the ground below. All four buildings were already in ruins:

I poked around a little inside the buildings and considered how different life was here compared to my own neighborhood across the highway. When I got home, I read in the paper that a few weeks earlier, police on patrol took fire from one of the high rises. Probably scrappers.

I heard on the news yesterday morning that Flint has more than 200 missing manhole covers. Scrappers get about $20 for the heavy iron discs, but the city must spend $200 to replace them. A month or so ago, scrappers stole an 8-foot statue of Jesus from a Detroit church. The plaster statue had just been painted green to resemble tarnished copper. So they dumped Jesus in an alley. With China's voracious demand for raw materials and the shocking increase in value of recyclable metals over the past few years, increased scrapping and theft are no surprise. But in places like Detroit the problem is so vast, fighting it seems almost futile, like those farm workers beating away the locusts in Days of Heaven. Occasionally a scrapper will die cutting a live wire, but six more step forward to take his place.

You see scrappers all the time in their beat-down old cars and trucks filled with metal: aluminum siding, radiators, steel fixtures, copper piping. I often see them inside Detroit's wide-open and abandoned historic structures. Most artifacts of architectural significance have long been pillaged (for example, the terracotta lions from Lee Plaza that passed through the Ann Arbor antique market before being incorporated into new condo developments in Chicago). But there is still some rusty metal to be ripped away from the walls in most of these buildings. While showing that BBC documentary crew around a few weeks ago, we came across a mini van filled with metal driving around inside the old Fisher Body 21 plant. They are like maggots feeding on wounds; parasites devouring the viscera of this dying city.

While parasites, they are undeniably intrepid and hardworking parasites. They climb up on skyscraper rooftops to rip off sheaths of copper. It is not easy or particularly lucrative work. Still, it is almost impossible not to wonder what all these men working independently could accomplish if you replaced their sledgehammers with clawhammers and paid them to build something together rather than destroy everything piecemeal.

* * * * *

The great cities of Europe, like the great city of Detroit, were all built when labor was cheap. Put a hammer or a trowel in a man's hand today, and you have to pay him a union wage. Thus, a new world of steel, glass, and concrete. The first time I saw London I said, "Big deal." I'd been studying post-colonial theory in the comparatively dirty, depressing little hamlet of Dublin and when I looked at those big impressive buildings in London all I saw were the fruits of empire and the blood from the backs of those who'd been whipped into submission. Everywhere I went in Europe I had this chip on my shoulder when facing criticism of contemporary American policies paired with the expectation that I kowtow to the historical and cultural supremacy of the locale. Europe was the bitter old man touting the accomplishments of a bygone era, dismissing the morals of today's youth. "Your time has come and gone," I wanted to say. "Just as ours now is passing."

In Rome, one of the greatest pleasures is discovering the stones of the classical city incorporated into the fabric of the modern metropolis: the wall of a lost temple to a lesser goddess supporting a sixteenth-century apartment building; ancient masonry relegated to new use in a medieval bakery, now a shoe store. The abandoned buildings of that once great empire served as the quarries of states that emerged centuries later.

Try telling a man whose children are starving that the damage to the building he's ripping copper from far outweighs the value of the metal in his arms. You can't assume any scrapper has such a noble heart: perhaps he is just looking for that next hit of crack, or the payment for last month's cell phone bill. These men have minds like locusts. They see a city abandoned, with cash just sitting there, waiting to be harvested.

Myopia is not just a luxury of the privileged.