They are the vultures who feed on the carcasses of dying neighborhoods, the men (and occasionally women) who, armed with a few bolt cutters and screwdrivers and shopping carts, strip unoccupied buildings clean of copper wiring and metal pipes, aluminum siding and porcelain sinks, hot water heaters and gas furnaces. In Detroit, we call them "scrappers." And while I'm not sure of how much of a problem they present for other big cities, around these parts, the impact of these urban locusts can be seen in almost every neighborhood in the city.
Drive down almost almost any street in working-class Detroit and you're sure to see the scars of these people's handiwork on the abandon storefronts and homes you pass, right there in the pane-less windows and the siding-less exposed wood frames, in the sprigs of wires that jut from where electrical boxes used to be. Go inside these places and you'll find toilets and tubs missing, furnaces stolen, walls busted open by scrappers eager to rip out copper wiring. They feed on this city, decimating our housing stock, worsening property values, hastening the creation of eyesores and making it tougher for property owners to rehab, maintain and/or rent single homes, flats and even apartment buildings.
Popular perception is that these folks are dope fiends and bums desperate to feed their addictions or scrape up a few dollars to eat. And there's some truth in that perception. But as new charges by the city of Detroit suggest, it seems that the addicts aren't the only vampires feeding off of the desperation and desolation plaguing some parts of this city.
A representative of the owners of the decrepit Packard Motor Car plant has been charged after Detroit says inspectors found a crew removing structural steel without demolition permits.
Obviously, the Packard plant, which has been abandoned since the 1950s, needs to come down. But I'm tired of seeing miserable crooks turn fast bucks by feeding off the innards of this town. This type of infrastructural "cannibalism" has become a cottage industry in metro Detroit, from the shady storefront owners who pay firebugs to torch their properties to the drugged-up scrappers who move through this region like termites through a tree stump. It's a story I know well, too, because I lived it...
A few years ago, the Wife and I moved to a new home and did our best to hold on to our old one. I didn't even sleep in our new home for the first week my family was there because I was huddled on the floor in the old house, trying to keep the scrappers away until we could rent it out. Fortunately, we found a tenant quickly.
But several months later, I just happened to be driving past that old house when I noticed mail piled on the front porch and other telltale signs that house was now unoccupied. (I found out later that the young woman we were renting to had moved out weeks ago and hadn't even bothered to let us know.) When I realized our tenant was gone, I was instantly filled with fear. Damn, the scrappers done got me, I immediately thought.
I whipped out my spare key and went inside and nearly cried at what I saw. The home that my wife and I had worked so hard to care for was a total dump. Wires were hanging out of walls that had been hastily ripped open. The water lines to our toilets and sinks had been severed and water allowed to freeze in the pipes. A block of yellow ice sat in one toilet bowl. In the kitchen, the twin refrigerators we'd left in the home had been snatched out of place and left unplugged. In the basement, the lines to the furnace had been cut. A hot water heater had been disconnected. In short, the scrappers were prepping my house to be thoroughly stripped and dismantled.
However, they'd left before finishing the job, apparently figuring they had more time to come back and get me but good. That's where they messed up. I spent the next three days cleaning up — and clearing out — my old home. A few relatives helped me load the sinks and heavy appliances into a moving truck and drive them to a warehouse, where I kept them in storage until I was able to install them in a new home later. I also left a very vulgar note taped to a wall for any of the scrappers who might return.
But despite the sense of satisfaction I felt at not being completely victimized by the vultures, I also felt deeply saddened. I'd tried to hold on to my house even after leaving the neighborhood — despite the economy, despite the falling property values, despite the fact that I had something bigger, newer — and I just couldn't. Worse, I knew I wasn't alone. I knew there were hundreds of thousands of Detroiters fighting the same fight, well-meaning people who were trying like hell to hold fast whatever stake they had in this town, but who were no longer willing to be inundated by ridiculous odds.
Detroit, like the Packard Plant, has fallen on hard times. But unlike Packard, we can recover. First, though, we're going to have to figure out a way to stop feeding on ourselves.