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Required Reading

December 27th, 2008 - 11:43 am

Matt Labash once again stakes his claim as the best damn writer in journalism with this stunning requiem for Detroit. I’d like to break Matt’s fingers for being this good, but he’d probably just start dictating these stories out loud, and he’d still be better than anybody else in the business. A brief sample:

We tear through the ravaged east side–not to be confused with the ravaged west side. When he was growing up, Charlie’s mom had a flower shop down here, but there are almost no signs of commerce now. In my line of work, I’ve seen plenty of inner cities, but I’ve never seen anything in a non-Third World country like the east side of Detroit. Maybe the 9th Ward of New Orleans after Katrina. But New Orleans had the storm as an excuse. Here, the storm has been raging for 50 years, starting with the closing of the hulking Albert Kahn-designed Packard Plant in 1956, which a half century later, still stands like a disgraced monument to lost grandeur.

There is block after block of boarded windows and missing doors, structures tilting like the town drunk after a vicious bender. Some houses have buckled roofs, some have blue tarps, some have no roof at all. Which is not to say nobody lives in them. A mail carrier I see on the street says desperate squatters will frequently take up residence, even switching house numbers as it suits them. Not all fires are started maliciously. With no utilities, they’ll often make warming fires on the floor. At one point, we stop the car just to count how many burned-out houses we can see without moving. We count six, all from different fires.

We enter the firehouse of Squad 3/Engine 23, or the “Brothers on the Boulevard,” as they are nicknamed. It looks like a very orderly frathouse. There is Dalmatian statuary, in lieu of a real dog, a mounted swordfish, a photo of [recently killed in the line of duty fireman] Walt [Harris] holding a giant sub on the bulletin board. It is ordinarily a place filled with mirthful gregariousness, a place where new recruits might get dropped to their knees with buckets of water, or where middle-aged men play air guitar to Thin Lizzy solos coming from radio speakers.

But today, nobody’s in the mood to smile. In a 90 percent black city, a firehouse is one of the only truly integrated places. The photo that ran with Charlie’s April story contained white Sgt. Mike Nevin, smoking one of his ever-lit Swisher Sweets, clapping black Walt on the shoulder. They looked like ebony and ivory, living together in perfect harmony. They faced death together every day. When they call each other “brother” around here, they mean it.

Several wear shirts memorializing their fallen brother. A black wreath commemorates him on one wall. Charlie and I hang out for the better part of a day, and the stories come fast and furious. Firemen tell me that the safest time to be here now is Devil’s Night, the infamous night before Halloween for which Detroit earned its title as the arson capital of the world. With Angel’s Night counterprogramming, which sees more cops and neighborhood patrols on the street, they’ve managed to whittle the over 800 fires they suffered in 1984 down to 65 fires this October 30. Only in Detroit could 65 arsons in one night be considered a success.

Read the whole thing. Hat tip to Detroit native Michael Barone.

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