Detroit’s Core Thrives as Criminals Prey on Neighborhoods

After three years in a suburban house, Nathaniel Wallace bought a loft in Detroit’s midtown, where major crime has dropped 38 percent in three years.

The 32-year-old computer contractor paid less than $200,000 for the restored three-level building with stainless-steel appliances and a rooftop view of the Comerica Park baseball stadium.

“People see Detroit as the cool place to be,” he said.

Six miles north, state Representative Jimmy Womack, 58, was robbed at gunpoint July 8 near his Detroit home. He said three men stole $300 from his pocket after he refused to give them his 2011 Cadillac SRX, then laughed as they walked away.

“We’re falling apart as a community,” said Womack.

As small, safe enclaves attract residents -- midtown’s population grew 33 percent in 10 years as Detroit as a whole lost 25 percent -- cuts in police protection threaten to unleash more crime in outer neighborhoods that already lead the nation in violence. Spreading the core’s vitality may decide the fate of the near-bankrupt city.

Last year, Detroit’s 2,137 violent crimes per 100,000 people, including 344 homicides, led U.S. cities with populations of 300,000 or more, according to an FBI report. St. Louis was second, with 1,857 crimes per 100,000.

Organic Veggies

It’s a different tale in Detroit’s midtown, a hotspot for art and socializing. Midtown’s population grew to 14,550 from 10,900 from 2000 to 2010, according to the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments.

The area’s 5,884 housing units in 127 buildings are 95 percent occupied, and more are being built, according to Midtown Detroit Inc., a nonprofit planning and economic development organization.

The city’s first Whole Foods Market Inc. supermarket is being built in midtown. Vacant land is being prepared for redevelopment and old buildings have been restored for housing, such as Wallace’s loft. The district includes the Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Detroit Medical Center and Detroit Public Library.

Nearby Wayne State University’s 54 officers share patrols and investigations in midtown with Detroit police. The result has been a 38 percent decline in major crime from 2008 to 2011, said Captain Emery Burk.

It’s not the only livable and lively place.

Corktown Reverie

Nine large employers -- including two hospitals and closely held Quicken Loans Inc. -- pledged $2 million a year for four years to pay employees to move in and around downtown. About 380 have done so, according to Midtown Detroit.

Young inhabitants enliven Corktown, a square mile near downtown named for immigrants from Ireland in the 1800s.

“I feel very safe,” said resident Liz Alvarez, 32, as she pushed a stroller with her 2-month-old son, Call, on the street where she and her husband, Joe Klecha, 33, moved nine months ago from Novi, eight miles west of Detroit. They paid $132,000 for a 3,100-square-foot, renovated 1890s-era house and cut their commute downtown to five minutes from 45.

“It’s a great neighborhood with wonderful neighbors and everybody’s on the lookout,” Alvarez said.

Wallace said that when it comes to crime, “there are two Detroits.”

“The feeling in downtown Detroit is that we’ve gotten to the other side, we’ve gotten past a lot of the stuff that plagued us for a long time,” Wallace said.

‘State of War’

When Michigan intervened in April to fix Detroit’s finances, Republican Governor Rick Snyder said its salvation lies with attracting tax-paying residents and businesses. While security is essential, it remains an elusive vision in much of the city.

“There is a climate of violence where people believe that you can get away with stuff because you don’t have enough police officers to respond,” said Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon at a July 9 meeting with gas station and store owners. Napoleon has begun city patrols to help the understaffed Detroit police force.

Station owner Frank Dabaja said Detroit is in “a state of war.”

He told of 15 homicides in the past six months nearby, including a triple murder in which one victim ran into his gas station and died.

Terror Town

Crime makes it difficult to insure Detroit retailers, said Auday Arabo, president of the Associated Food and Petroleum Dealers, which represents 4,000 gas stations, independent supermarkets and convenience stores.

In 2011, Detroit ranked sixth in property crime among U.S. cities with 300,000 or more residents, according to FBI data - -6,144 per 100,000 people. Detroit’s 184 homicides as of July 15 compare with 189 at the same time in 2011, according to the city’s police department.

“It’s not only crime, but it’s the perception and fear that goes along with it,” said Detroit Police Chief Ralph Godbee in an interview at the forum. “Statistically we’re holding ground, but those statistics don’t mean anything to that individual business owner who had had an armed robbery or a gun shoved in their face.”

Godbee said he must trim 100 officers to bring his force to 2,533, already down from 4,000 in 2005. Mayor Dave Bing today imposed a 10 percent pay cut on most city unions, including the police’s. Top pay of $53,237 would be cut to $47,913, said Joe Duncan, president of the officers’ union.

Metal Strippers

Early news of the pay cut was dispiriting for officers Carl Mack and Everett Richardson as they patrolled the east side one recent afternoon.

“You want me to stay upbeat and deal with the most violent crimes here?” said Mack, 48, shaking his head.

Mack, a 13-year veteran, said break-ins, shootings and domestic assaults increased as the economy worsened. Thieves strip homes of copper pipes, furnaces, hot-water heaters and aluminum siding to sell for scrap, Mack said.

Police and neighborhood-watch groups say empty homes are havens for drug trafficking and other crimes. Detroit in 2009 had 125,015 vacant residential lots or vacant houses -- about one-quarter of all residential parcels, according to Data Driven Detroit, a nonprofit regional data-analysis firm.

Three miles west of midtown, on a street where no street lights function, Shellee Brooks, 34, is working to revive the neighborhood where she grew up. Brooks has overseen a $1.6 million rehab of three homes for multifamily use, using federal funds.

She’d like to live in a house she owns on her childhood street -- she spent a day planting flowers there -- but said she fears she’ll be targeted for robbery or worse, adding,“I can’t live here and not have a gun.”

Brooks lives in a downtown loft instead.

“My friends tell me I’m crazy,” Brooks said. “I believe God watches over me. I refuse to walk around in fear every day.”

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