Traverse City Record-Eagle

January 6, 2013

Lessenberry: An 'outstate' view of Detroit

By Jack Lessenberry, Columnist

CHARLEVOIX — Over the holidays, a retired couple who had a home next to where we were staying had us over for a little holiday cheer in this small northern Michigan town.

They smiled warmly. "We knew right away you weren't from here," they told us. Why was that? "You lock your doors when you go out."

They weren't kidding, and they weren't surprised to learn we were from the Detroit area. To us, this seemed like something out of rural Kansas in 1920. My guess is that virtually no one in any metropolitan area today would leave their doors unlocked any more than they would run to the grocery store naked.

The next morning, I went to a convenience store to buy the Detroit newspapers. "You from there?" the man said. Yes, I admitted, adding that I had an office in Detroit itself. "Aren't you scared?" he asked, waving at a story about the soaring murder rate.

Not in the slightest, I told him, adding that I often am there late in the evening. "Do you carry a weapon?" he asked. Not unless my two-inch-long penknife counts, I said. He looked at me as if I'd said I was a tightrope walker who refused to use a net.

Welcome to how outstate Michigan and the rest of the world see Detroit. Not that any of this is new. Back in the late 1980s, I was riding an exercise bicycle at a gym in Memphis, Tenn. "You're not from here," a man riding next to me said. "Where are you from?" I told him Detroit. His eyes shone in wonder. "Hey, I'm not going to disrespect you," he said. "You must be baaad!"

He was only half kidding. In fact, he had muscles roughly the size of my waist at the time, and could have squashed me like a bug. But the very word Detroit changes things.

Last week, Detroit was finally in the news for something other than the craziness of its city council, the failure of its public schools, the criminal activities of a former mayor, or the constant threat that the city is about to go bankrupt, be taken over by the state, or both.

But the news wasn't good. Detroit was getting attention because Michigan's largest city is, once again, Murder City USA, running just behind New Orleans. Final figures won't be in for the next few days, but it appears that there was at least one homicide in Detroit last year for every 2,000 residents.

That's 10 times the rate in New York City.

There are two common ways to think about what that means, both partly right and mostly wrong. One view, common in some circles, is that Detroit is a festering hellhole inhabited by murderous psychopaths, nearly all of them black.

The other theory, more common among those who care about the city — but don't live there — is that while there are a lot of murders, most are gang- or drug-related, or domestic killings, those in which family members murder each other.

Statistically, there's far more truth in this line of thinking, one this columnist finds personally appealing. I have worked in various places in the heart of Detroit for the last 20 years.

Yet the real truth is something felt and known only by people who live there. Chester Logan is not a household name in the city yet. He's been serving as interim Detroit police chief for the last three months, since his predecessor was forced out over a sex scandal.

Two weeks ago, Logan gave a little-noted speech to the friends and family members of those who have lost loved ones through violence. The chief knew what he was talking about.

His wife's nephew was shot to death in October; his brother, in 1968. Logan joined the force the next year.

And he told the crowd the problem was this: Black-on-black violence. "Since I have been a Detroit police officer, more black men have been killed at the hands of other black men than have been killed in every conflict this country's been involved in."

"And that's just in the city of Detroit," he said. He estimated the death toll in his time on the force was nearly 15,000.

The chief noted that a popular black entertainer had said that gay marriage should be the next civil rights movement, something he said made him angry. "I have nothing against gay marriage, but "¦ why don't we make the next civil rights movement the reduction of black-on-black violence in our major cities? That should be almost our singular focus, to stop this madness that is going on."

Whether Logan's appointment will be permanent isn't clear. Nor do I know if he has any answers. But he has his finger on a problem that has to be solved, if Detroit is ever going to be a place where middle-class families willingly live again.