The Next Page / Broken windows in the Motor City: A Detroit exit journal

You've heard of Detroit's travails. Ben Schmitt lived them. Now he and his family are starting over in Pittsburgh, his hometown.

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The front window exploded inside my Detroit bungalow.

Gunfire? A home invasion?

I didn't have time to process.

I bolted from the kitchen, grabbed the hands of my two pajama-clad daughters and yanked them off the couch, away from the "iCarly" show on TV.

"What's happening?" Jordan, my oldest, screamed as we ran out the back door.

I clutched their hands, noticing their stocking feet, and mine, as we sprinted into the dank air down the driveway to a neighbor's house. I peered at my home through the darkness, fearing an intruder had entered. I saw no one.

"Are you cut?" I screamed to my girls, then ages 9 and 6. "Is anyone hurt?"

I examined their arms, their legs, their feet.

Somehow not one shard of glass struck them.

"Daddy. Daddy," Chloe, my youngest, cried.

We banged on the door across the street.

"Help us, help us," Jordan shouted. A familiar face answered and the girls slipped inside.

Minutes later, Donna, my wife, returned home from an evening school PTO meeting as neighbors gathered in the front yard.

We crept back in the front door and saw glass covering the hardwood floors, end table and couch where my daughters had been sitting. We saw large pieces of flagstone, apparently taken from a neighbor's yard. The middle of three front windows -- smashed out, lead frame and all.

I stepped back outside and called my father in Pittsburgh, where I grew up. What did I expect him to say? What did I want him to do from Pittsburgh?

I hated his reaction.

"What are you gonna do?" he shouted, demanding answers I was unable to give. He said it again. And again.

"Dad, what the hell can I do?" I bellowed back.

I hung up on him, so angry because he was right -- I needed to do something.

It was Nov. 17, 2009.



Before I go any further about Detroit, its problems, the crime, the political corruption and the foreclosure crisis that had me trapped in a $140,000 home that couldn't sell for even $40,000, I need to say something positive.

Thirty minutes after the incident, several neighbors converged on my front porch with a table saw, drill, large piece of plywood and box of wood screws. A colleague from the Detroit Free Press showed up to help, as did the president of my neighborhood association.

We had the window boarded up by midnight.

I say this because it would be easy to sit here, now living in Pittsburgh, and bash the city that I called home for 11 years as a reporter for the Free Press. But there's no need: Those people who helped me that night, as we waited more than two hours for the cops to arrive, illustrate the fight inside many residents desperate to turn Detroit around.

For a while I believed in that fight. I purchased a home in one of the city's stable neighborhoods nine years earlier because it felt real. I scoffed at other colleagues and editors who drove to work on the freeways and never spent a minute in the city they covered.

But when I heard my daughters' screams that evening, I knew I was gone. No more compromises.

There had been the theft of our minivan at 10 a.m. on a Friday, a year earlier. I could live with that.

There had been the foreclosure next door and the towering dumpster sitting in the neighboring driveway for a month. I could live with that.

Things started turning for the worse in the summer of 2009 when an absentee landlord purchased the vacant house next door for $14,000 and turned it into a drug-dealing den.

After that happened, we'd watch the $50,000, tricked-out Land Rovers, Denalis, Mercedes Benzes and BMWs pull into the driveway and the apparent hand-to-hands all day and all night. My neighbor across the street started writing down license plate numbers.

We started calling the cops daily. Their response: "We can't bust the house without surveillance and an undercover buy." Translation: Too small-time for them.

Once, my wife and I woke at 3 a.m. to hear a man smacking around a woman outside. We called the police. No one came.

About a month later, we finally harassed the cops enough to raid the next-door house. We sent our daughters to friends and watched through a window shade as the narcotics officers charged in.

Two hours later, some of the people who escaped the bust were crawling back in through the windows. We called police again but fell asleep before anyone arrived.

I woke the next morning at 6 a.m. to find about a dozen young men on their knees with hands behind their back on their front lawn as police took them into custody.

The ordeal finally ended about two weeks later when police pulled a stolen Dodge Magnum from the garage next door and took two unregistered handguns from another car in the driveway.

The house sat dark and empty for the next few months. I raked the leaves, cut the lawn and picked up the random flyers and junk mail off the front porch -- common activities for Detroiters battling to save their neighborhoods.

I talked to my real estate agent about selling. His assessment confirmed what I already knew: With the foreclosures and short sales, houses were selling for less than half their value. I learned the true meaning of "being underwater." And I learned what a short sale meant: the bank takes a low offer and forgives the rest of the debt, while the seller takes a credit hit.

To gain approval of a short sale, one generally had to convince the bank of hardship. Living in a deteriorating neighborhood didn't qualify.

We were trapped.

"If we can't deal with crime and improve the quality of life, no one will stay here or come here," says John Bennett, a Detroit cop, who also runs a local watchdog blog, detroituncovered.com.

He's right.



The November 2009 evening was my turning point. Mortgage be damned, I was getting my daughters out.

We never really figured out the motive behind our broken windows: Was it payback for the drug house months earlier? An article I had written? Or just random punks?

Detroit police were so undermanned and overworked that many people in my neighborhood and others felt helpless. I can't describe the feeling of calling 911 and knowing that the chances of prompt response, or response at all, are slim.

As residents, we attended neighborhood association meetings, stayed in touch through e-mails, texts and phone conversations and chipped in for our own security patrol service.

One neighbor became angry after I reported on a weekend fatal shooting and subsequent arson fire five blocks away because I mentioned the neighborhood's name (East English Village) in the article. I walked to and from the scene, filing my story on a home computer. It happened on a Saturday, and I was no longer the police reporter, but I wanted other residents to know about the plight of our neighborhood.

The lifers had true love for the city, love I wasn't willing to give as an outsider. They believe, as do I, that things could be turned around. I just didn't have time to wait it out.

They embrace ideas of shrinking the city and urban farming. They hope new Mayor Dave Bing will finally root out the pay-to-play political nightmare that has dragged the region down for years.

They're people like Dan Austin, a 30-year-old Detroiter, known for his love of spelunking in abandoned city buildings.

Austin wrote "Lost Detroit: Stories Behind the Motor City's Majestic Ruins" because he wanted to tell the tales of the vacant buildings throughout the city.

"The idea for the book came about partly from how I grew tired of the national news media showing all these abandoned buildings but never telling the story behind them," says Austin. "And I think if people knew the stories of their pasts, ensuring they have a place in our city's future might seem more important."



Working in a struggling industry made the decision to leave Detroit a little easier. I watched good friends get laid off from the newspaper.

I agreed, as a union member, to take a one-week pay furlough and knew more salary cuts were on the horizon as our contract came to a close. The staff agreed to 6.5 percent pay cuts in October.

During my furlough in April, I interviewed for a marketing position in Pittsburgh. After a second interview in May, I was hired.

I called the mortgage company. I explained the situation, said the apparent magic word, "Detroit," as my address. They agreed to work with me after learning that I had a job offer out of state.

The short sale, after five months of wrangling, went through in November.

My credit is shot for a year or two.

My chosen profession is a distant memory.

My former beloved colleagues are 300 miles away.

But my daughters can run down the street from our rented home in Edgewood to play with newfound friends.

Their grandparents are 10 minutes away in Highland Park and Friendship.

I'm 40 years old and starting over.

And I can still hear those words.

"What are you gonna do?"




Ben Schmitt (bencschmitt@gmail.com) graduated from Peabody High School in 1988 and Michigan State University in 1992 with a bachelor's degree in journalism. He worked as a reporter at the Concord Monitor, Savannah Morning News, American Lawyer Media and the Detroit Free Press and won a national Emmy award in 2008 for two video stories about pit bulls. He also helped report on the downfall of former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, which earned the Free Press a Pulitzer Prize in 2009. He is now a marketing specialist for Chorus Call in Monroeville, assigned to help build a new social networking site, concert-oh.com

nation - opinion_commentary - intelligencer


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