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Travel

Four myths about Detroit

Danger, mayhem, borders and more

SEE ALSO
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Published 4/1/2009

THE MOST DANGEROUS CITY IN AMERICA

You may not have heard the news that Detroit last year was again declared the most dangerous city in America. That's because, compared to recent years, the rankings garnered a mere blip on the media radar screen. Which may be because the rankings themselves have been so thoroughly raked over the coals.

The most-dangerous rankings were created more than a decade ago by Kansas-based publishing house Morgan Quito Press. Rates for crimes in a number of categories — from homicide to auto theft — are mashed together by a proprietary formula to yield a numeric score. According to The Washington Post, in 2007 Detroit edged out St. Louis by a single point — 407 to 406 — for the most-dangerous title. Of course, since the formula for that one point is a secret, it's a little hard to evaluate.

Controversy sparked by the ratings seemed to reach a crescendo in 2007, with the American Society of Criminology labeling them "an irresponsible misuse" of crime data. One FBI official said these city-to-city comparisons are "comparing watermelons and grapes." Criminologists have pointed out that there's more variation in crime rates and danger within cities than between them, that crime is disproportionately concentrated in specific neighborhoods, and that an individual's risks are highly influenced by lifestyle and other factors.

The creators of the rating — now published by CQ Press — admit their tabulations don't tell the whole story about cities and crime, but they've maintained they're being assailed for compiling valuable information. And no city, they note, gets to No. 1 without having problems in all the crime categories considered.

Of course, if you didn't hear about Detroit as the most dangerous city last year, you may very well remember it from years past, since the same big cities basically jostle at the top of the list from year to year. Just like you probably remember something about Detroit as the Murder Capital of America, even though a number of cities, currently New Orleans, have topped the per capita murder rate over the years. But for big, bad Detroit the titles are hard to live down. —W. Kim Heron


WE BURN DOWN THE CITY EVERY HALLOWEEN:

Back during the 1980s, annual newscasts showing Detroit aflame on Oct. 30 — known as Devil's Night — made an impression around the world, the kind of impression that remains long after the reality changes. The night before Halloween and the two nights bookending it really were a hellish time, with arsonists torching hundreds of buildings. How much arson was caused by hooligans in neighborhoods littered with abandoned buildings and how much was the work of desperate property owners looking to pocket insurance money is anybody's guess.

The high point — or low point — came in 1984, when more than 800 fires were reported over a three-day period. Adding to the negative publicity was the 1990 book Devil's Night and Other True Tales from Detroit, which provided an account of the city's long decline. The city had, by then, begun mobilizing city workers and volunteers to curb the arson. But in 1994, fires spiked again, and the city and community activists set about creating a new reality, rechristening the eve Angel's Night. Nowadays, as many as 50,000 people turn out to keep the D as flame-free as possible. The number of reported fires, according to the Fire Department, actually drops below the average typically experienced on any given day. Oct. 30 has become a testament to Detroit's community spirit. —Curt Guyette


"DETROIT SCHOOLS HAVEN'T ORDERED NEW TEXTBOOKS IN 19 YEARS"

Or so we learned in a late 2008 article on the city in The Weekly Standard that also mangled details of the Kwame Kilpatrick saga (no, he didn't conceal the $8.4 million settlement from the city, just pertinent details about it) and strung together every downer Detroit trope known and invented at least a couple new ones. Not that the actual attributes of Detroit Public Schools are often uplifting, with headlines leaning toward budget deficits, dismal graduation rates and declining — oh, to heck with the alliteration, plummeting — enrollment.

Unlike the textbook claim, the "no toilet paper in the schools" story is a true one. Missing toilet paper for years has been the proverbial symbol of the district's financial and administrative woes.

But what happened this winter was a little different. There was a national response. Toilet paper drives as far away as Albuquerque, N.M., provided rolls to the district. At last check, the bathrooms were stocked. So the rumor was true but isn't anymore, district officials say.

However, if you've heard you can buy a school here, well, that is true. With enrollment falling and buildings being shuttered, there are about 30 empty buildings and some additional vacant school properties up for grabs throughout the city — a city that, indeed, has so much vacant land that the future of urban farming is a major discussion. With suggested prices ranging from $40,000 to $14 million, there are schools in a wide range of prices. If you'd like to lay claim to a piece of Detroit before you leave, these are just some of the deals available.
Sandra Svoboda


EIGHT MILE IS A TOURIST ATTRACTION:

One day I was giving a pal a tour of Detroit: Brush Park, downtown, Belle Isle, Hamtramck, Berry Gordy's Boston Edison house, Marvin Gaye's old place on Outer Drive, Mary Wells' near Midtown. But he went from awestruck to annoyed after awhile; eventually the pro-city tour guide sounds like some tourism bureau employee. Worse, my friend, a music writer, wanted to see Eight Mile, because, "8 Mile was a great fucking movie."

I'd forgotten t how the road itself once drew countless cars with out-of-state license plates, filled with hip-hop fans from Houston and slumming tourists from Sacramento. I'd forgotten about overseas journalists who'd phone asking me to show them the famous Eight Mile when they come to town, and if Eminem lived anywhere near it. "So Eight Mile's still famous?" I said. He put it up there with Beal Street or Abbey Road. I said, "It's not even Rue Morgue Avenue."

I explained the street as an archaic racial demarcation separating the mostly black Detroit from the mostly white suburbs, and how that idea was used symbolically for the movie. But there's nothing to see but another fading stretch of street — though it's wider than many.

We turned off Wyoming and headed east on Eight Mile. He saw a dispossessed strip of empty lots and used car dealerships. He saw beat motels and unnamed businesses with chain-linked yards littered with bald tires and rusted motor parts. As we headed east he saw more life, like fading 1970s storefronts selling discount furniture, check-cashing party stores and a Taco Bell. He noticed that the further east we went, the better quality the strip bar — or that's the illusion. It's the only illusion on a road that's otherwise absent of any Tinseltown artifice; there's no beauty, no sense of place, no culture. Even cops can have a hard time finding hookers here. There's no sightseeing, unless you count the 8 Wood's faded roadside-motel aesthetics, maybe circa World War II.

My friend ended up getting plowed at the Booby Trap, which might be, as he discovered, the best thing about Eight Mile. Other than the movie, that is. —Brian Smith


DWARFS LIVE IN SALT MINES UNDER THE CITY:

Call this the bonus myth, Myth No. 5. Someone mentioned it at a staff meeting as a joke, and it took on a life of its own at the office. Now you can spread it too. For the record, Detroit Salt Company mines rock salt on the city's southwest side. Some 100 miles of tunnel honeycomb 1,500 acres. As for the dwarfs, make the details as you like. Lots of folks do. —W.K.H.

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