It is 6 a.m.
I am driving down Mack Avenue on Detroit's east side. The early morning sun is just beginning to dispel the darkness on this unseasonably mild fall morning when I see the woman thrust her head through the broken window of the abandoned, rusting Chevrolet.
Driving slowly by I watch transfixed as she squints into the growing light then reaches back into the shadows behind her, drawing out a brown quart bottle. She raises it to her lips draining its amber contents and lets it wet her mouth and throat. Throwing the empty bottle to the pavement with a crash, she stares back at me with glazed eyes as I pass slowly on my way to meet some friends at Belle Isle Park for a Sunday morning run.
Driving south and west along Mack Avenue from the Grosse Pointes into Detroit can be a frightening experience for the uninitiated. Like so many of Detroit's once proud thoroughfares, Mack is now a road leading nowhere. Lined with vacant, windowless buildings and peopled by the desperate and down-trodden, it is but one example of a disease for which rich America has yet to find a cure. It is a highway down which yet another generation of the underclass travel hoping, perhaps, to find a way out of the bleak landscape that is the inner city.
As I wait for my fiends to arrive, lace my running shoes, and stretch out my legs in a parking lot next to the Detroit River I recall the riots that shook the city in 1967. Detroit was the scene of the largest outbreak of racial violence in the history of the United States until the Los Angeles debacle in 1992. Forty-three people were killed, 14 square miles of the city were looted and set afire, and some 15,000 troops were eventually deployed to halt the rioting. And now, nearly 30 years, the potential for a repeat of that tragedy lies smoldering amid the ruins and beneath the rubble of crumbling neighborhoods along streets like Mack. Not much has changed.
Exit I-94 and head east toward the Detroit River you will drive through some of Detroit's most frightening side streets. You will see ghettos that are even more isolated today than they were at the time of the riots in 1967, after which more resourceful members of the communities, those who championed and then took advantage of the successes of the civil rights movement, largely deserted the neighborhoods where they once lived. While many of them gone on to become mayors, council members, civic leaders, and businessmen and have moved to nicer areas of Detroit or to its suburbs, they've left behind the disintegrating families, the fatherless children, the child mothers, and the homeless.
The poor are increasingly confined to pockets of despair and hopelessness. They occupy a forgotten battlefield and are left to pick among its scarred landscape. According to a recent study, almost 35 percent of all black children live below the poverty level and that number has increased dramatically in recent years. They live on the streets. They occupy deserted homes. And they find temporary shelter in empty buildings and abandoned cars along the road to nowhere.
As I circle Belle Isle on this Sunday morning, the cityscape glimmers across the river. Except for a handful of other runners and some fisherman, the island is empty and serene. By the time I am finished the sun is high in the sky and the day promises to be nice one.
Leaving Belle Isle I travel east on Jefferson Avenue. If I were to continue on I would eventually cross Alter Road where suburb meets city with an unreal abruptness at the border of Grosse Pointe Park. Instead, thinking about the woman I saw earlier, I turn north on St. Jean toward Mack Avenue.
Skirting the no man's land between Chrysler's Conner assembly plant and the neighborhoods lying beyond a bulldozed berm reminiscent of encampments I knew in Vietnam, I turn east again onto Mack and drive slowly through a landscape so different from the suburbs that I am a little frightened by the prospect of paying even a brief Sunday morning visit.
Crossing Conner, I approach the spot where the woman looked out at me earlier in the day from the junked Chevrolet. Pulling to the littered curb, I leave my car and warily approach the battered automobile. Broken glass scrapes the blacktop beneath my running shoes and I glance furtively at the nearby abandoned buildings from behind sweat stained sunglasses.
Bending slightly, I gaze inside. The car's interior has been gutted. The post-industrial room at the Chevy Hotel is decorated only with a few soiled rags, some cigarette butts and another empty brown quart bottle. Some maid service.
I cross the street again and get into my car. Shivering involuntarily, I drive east until the signs of decay are behind me. A few miles down the road in a different universe, I park along a tree lined street of manicured lawns and neatly trimmed shrubbery wondering whose home the rotting Chevrolet will be tonight.
NOTE: The author also wonders what a $22 billion investment in the City of Detroit-- the cost of three months of American occupation in Iraq-- could do to improve conditions in here and other American cities.