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A Rant About "Scrappers"

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.

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  • 1

    It's not just dying neighborhoods. These scavengers are bold enough to scrap upper middle class neighborhoods in the suburbs. The police can't be everywhere. People need to know their neighbors and call the police when they see suspicious activity. Are scavengers armed? I've no idea.

  • 2

    I'm sorry, Darrell. So very discouraging. It's disgusting, the way people can behave towards each other.

  • 3

    Living in Lafayette Park I have been involved with chasing thieves and police calls and stolen wheels and cars.

    Yup, it's universal... and Kenneth Cockrell had Chief Barron create a copper unit.

    It seems to me that there needs to be a thorough search and licensing of resale scrap yards... they are the real culprits, they promote the activity.

    Best to drive a foreign car here because the thieves won't touch them, no market for parts.

    Ken has an affair coming up exactly about this issue.

    When Dave talks about hell hole... this is what he means.


  • 4

    Lively discussion under way about this post at DetroitYes!
    [ ]

    . . . where SeaRay says some blame belongs to "the scrap yards when the same guy keeps coming back with wire, copper tubing and alike. Shouldn't that be a red flag? I mean there can't be that many people throwing out that stuff. Maybe you're a demolition crew -- well, where is your license?"

    . . . and where MikeM notes that your post coincides with a NY Times piece today on another city's brick thieves who often "deliberately torch buildings to quicken their harvest of St. Louis brick, prized by developers throughout the South for its distinctive character."

  • 5

    Last night at Detroit Works the issue was discussed.

    The new head of the Building and Safety Department indicated that she has positioned junk yards as the current domain of interest and is invoking the strong laws that can put them out of business.

    She mentioned that she looked at the gas stations in the city and some 40 out of some 400 so were the only ones complying with the licensure ordinance.

    The City was not in good stewardship and throwing away some considerable revenue.

    I think that this will be interesting to watch.

    Trying to restore an atmosphere of integrity is a difficult chore.


  • 6

    One of the disgusting things that I witnessed happened when we were helping the Police track and catch some young thieves.

    I walked over to the Police car as things were winding up and noticed an older man with his car parked in backwards and he was standing up watching.

    When the Police started leaving down Joliet he jumped in his car and followed.

    I took this to indicate that he was their teacher and coach and it upset me that I did not recognize that at first.

    Entitlement does not mean that you are welcome to take whatever you wish whenever you wish it.


  • 7

    It is true that sometimes the scrappers are not just drug addicts and bums. About 5 years ago I used to babysit for a guy who was a city inspector and he would brag all the time about bricks he took to use for his home and garden in a local suburb. When I would ask where he accumulated several things he would bring home, he told me that often businesses that were not likely to pass inspection would bribe him all the time with free gifts. Whether this being true or not is a whole different matter entirely. It was sketchy when he would bring home t.v. sets and other things, leading me to wonder if the property was illegally confinscated. I did not get a good vibe.

    Sometimes people from the suburbs also come into the city and disrespectfully take things from abandoned buildings and homes because they don't think it matters. I have heard of teenagers and adults alike stealing things in the past. These are people who think Detroit is worthless and a "free for all".
    It is important that we all keep our eyes and ears open for this kind of trouble and also to realize that there is no exact "type" or "face" for this offender. They are often ordinary people. (I am not saying all who are doing the scrapping are from the suburbs but there have been some and we should not just soley blame bums and drug addict "types")

    In this economy many are desperately taking advantage of our cities neighborhoods as an easy way to make some quick cash by scrapping and striping homes. For so long it has been easy, with little consequences for the perpetrators. With lack of enforcement we must continue to discuss solutions and form neighborhood watches for properties at risk.

  • 8

    I just wanted to inform you folks out there that there
    are "scrappers" that are doing it atleast with good conscience....Not unlawfully tearing metal out of buildings,Not leaking freon out of air conditioners into the air,Not scoping out houses or cars to rob,or doing curbside demolition to someones garbage by making a mess,and breaking stuff open,and then leaving without cleaning up what they messed up.
    I know this to be true because I myself have been out of work since last November,and I have become a "Scrapper". I am the curbside variety,local neighborhood type.I drive up and down streets on trash night,and pick up what metallic things of value I can find.
    If I see people in front of the house that I am in front of,I let them know that I am just looking for metal
    and I will be neat about it.....And I am just trying to stay off the welfare line.
    I have gotten all the way from indifferent nods,to people actually offering me metal directly.
    Scrapping is hard,dirty work,and at times rather humbling. But it is honest work that has heiped me make ends meet.
    It also makes me feel good that the items that I turn in
    at the scrap yard that i get money for will be recycled and reprocessed into usefull items down the line. instead of ending up in some landfill polluting the earth and being useless to anybody.
    On a ending note,There are "Scrappers" with conscience,and then there are "Scrappers" who have no concsience. Please don't lump them together and make blanket judgements about "Scrappers"
    I personally do not want make scrapping my lifes work,
    but whatever work I do,I do with dignity and honesty.

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