CHARLEVOIX, Mich. — Over the holidays, a retired couple who had a home next to where we were staying in this small northern Michigan town had us over for a little holiday cheer.
They smiled warmly. “We knew right away you weren’t from here,” they told us. “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 no one in any metropolitan area today would leave his doors unlocked, any more than he would run to the grocery store naked.
The next morning, I went to a convenience store to buy the Detroit newspapers. A man asked: “You from there?”
Yes, I admitted, adding that I had an office in Detroit. “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.
This is how outstate Michigan and the rest of the world see Detroit. Not that any of this is new. In the late 1980s, I was riding an exercise bicycle at a gym in Memphis.
“You’re not from here,” a man riding next to me said. “Where are you from?” Detroit, I told him. His eyes shone in wonder.
“Hey, I’m not going to disrespect you,” he said. “You must be bad.”
He was only half kidding. He had muscles 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.
That’s what you heard whispered last July, when two suburban white teenagers disappeared after they went for a drive in Detroit. They were wearing expensive tennis shoes, and driving a car with an expensive sound system.
Eventually, their bullet-riddled shoeless bodies were found in a deserted field. The crime hasn’t been solved.
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, in which family members murder each other.
Statistically, there’s far more truth in this line of thinking, one I find appealing.
I have worked in the heart of Detroit for more than 20 years. In 1991, my car was stolen. Years later, my car window was smashed one night, and someone grabbed an old trench coat and a briefcase holding a mass of unreadable papers.
Otherwise, I’ve never felt threatened in the least.
Yet the real truth is felt and known only by people who live in Detroit. Chester Logan is not a household name in the city yet. He’s been interim Detroit police chief for the last three months, since his predecessor was forced out over a sex scandal.
Two weeks ago, Chief Logan gave a little-noted speech to friends and family members who lost loved ones to violence. The chief knew what he was talking about.
His wife’s nephew was shot to death last October; his brother, in 1968. Mr. Logan joined the force the next year.
He told the crowd the problem was 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,” he said. “And that’s just in the city of Detroit.”
He estimated the city death toll during 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. That makes him angry.
“I have nothing against gay marriage,” Chief Logan said, “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.”
Whether the chief’s appointment will become permanent isn’t clear. Nor do I know whether he has any answers. But he has his finger on a problem that must be solved, if Detroit is ever again going to be a place where middle-class families willingly live.
Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade’s ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org