Thursday, May 14, 2009

Detroit Housing Crisis Illustrated in Charlie LeDuff Story

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Charlie LeDuff: Off Woodward, life hits a dead end

Charlie LeDuff / The Detroit News

Detroit -- If you are feeling confused or overwhelmed by the circumstances of our times, if you need a place to consider where we've been and where we are, make a drive to West Robinwood Street.

It is a haunted, damnable portrait of what we've become. The neighborhood is a burned-down ghost town of 56 raped and looted houses east of Woodward and north of McNichols. It is empty save for five elderly families and a middle-age couple who live near Woodward and refuse to open their doors.

Ironically, the neighborhood is just a chip shot from the elegant Palmer Park Golf Course and a one-stop bus ride to the grave of Rosa Parks. Robinwood is located along the stretch of Woodward that in 1909 became the first mile of concrete roadway in America. That was exactly 100 years ago.

The people of the Detroit Metropolitan region got a glimpse of the ruined block a few months ago when the police convened a press conference from the blood-stained porch of 654 Robinwood claiming they had rounded up 61 outlaws including the killer who assassinated the dope man at that address in broad daylight.

And then like quicksilver, the police and the press slipped away.

The six families remain. Trapped.

"Do I live in Hell? Yes I do and no I don't," said Jerry Williams, who lives at 666 Robinwood and spoke through a steel gate dressed in a bathrobe and dirty socks. "It would be Hell if I was dead, but I ain't. So that just makes the place ugly. The most ugly thing that human beings can create."

As you might guess, Williams used to work in an auto factory. And Williams got laid off. The rest of the neighborhood had little luck either. The neighbors to Williams' left were evicted and, three days later, somebody firebombed the house. The flames ruined Williams' car -- a Chrysler.

The dead dope man used to live to the right of Williams. To the right of the dope man's house lives Fatimah Muhammad, the only other house occupied on the north side of that block of Robinwood Street.

She bought the place for $60,000 eight years ago and can't get out unless she walked away from the mortgage. She figures she couldn't get $5,000 for the place. That doesn't stop the criminals from getting in. Last week, in broad daylight, three men forced their way into her house. One held her at gunpoint in her bathtub, while the other two managed to steal some sneakers. The police never took fingerprints, she said.

"I'm tired, I'm spent, I'm scared," Muhammad said. "And I'm stuck. Who would want to buy this house?"

Robinwood was an integrated and well-kept block just five years ago, the remnant people say. And then it was gone in the blink of an eye. It started at the east end of the block when a house was rented to 5 adults and 20 children. More families moved out. More renters moved in. The radios started. The brown bags. The gangs of young men. The gunshots. The dope houses. The fires. The insurance checks.

Durene L. Brown is the ombudsman for the city of Detroit. She has the endless and unenviable job of fielding complaints from city residents and the occasional question from reporters. She asked to see Robinwood Street, wondering if it were truly the worst in Detroit.

"Insanity," she said as she drove through and stopped to talk to Muhammad. The problems here are deep, Brown said. The last audit of the city's Demolition Division was conducted 15 years ago. Moreover, the city was granted $23 million in federal funds last year to tear down neighborhoods like this, but the City Council voted to give $9 million of that money to local ministers for neighborhood block programs. "Blight like this is caused by greed and ineptitude," Brown said. "If something doesn't change this is coming to a neighborhood near you, and that includes the suburbs."

Places like Robinwood are the epitome of Dave Bing's problem. The newly elected mayor says he wants to knock down shoals of squalor and relocate the remaining people to clean and coherent neighborhoods. But where would this money come from? Detroit is a city with tens of thousands of rotting houses and factories. Nobody knows exactly how many because nobody has ever bothered to count. And Robinwood is located on the city's main thoroughfare.

Lilacs and hibiscus still grow in this ghetto. But so does the malignancy. There were gunshots in the alley two Mondays ago. Three Mondays ago, someone packed the side yard of 598 Robinwood with old tires as high as the window sills. This past Monday two teenagers found a dead fighting dog stuffed in a box. On Tuesday, Brad Edwards of Detroit's Fox 2 News reported that an 81-year-old shut-in -- Marabel, of 461 Robinwood -- died the morning after Christmas and went undiscovered for days. Her body remains unclaimed at the county morgue.

On Monday, a police cruiser rolled through.

"I've never seen a place like this," said the white cop.

"Vietnam," said the black cop.

"Hard to believe this is America, but it is," said the white cop.

And with that, they were off.

Travels with Charlie (313) 222-2071

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