A few miles east of Detroit’s gleaming new ballpark and glittering new casino hotels, a few miles west of the sprawling mansions lining Grosse Pointe’s Lakeshore Drive, north of the General Motors assembly plant, south of the Daimler-Chrysler assembly plant, and just west of the regional airstrip known as City Airport, you’ll find a five-acre parcel of land known as Fletcher Field. At first glance, Fletcher could be pretty much any park in urban America: it has a baseball diamond in one corner, an asphalt basketball court in the other, a large swing set, and a bright-red jungle gym. It has two electric-blue plastic picnic tables and one spring rider, origin unknown, in the shape of a dolphin. As of last year, it has mowed grass. As of last month, it has a small garden of flowers and a few stalks of corn, guarded by a cheerful scarecrow salvaged from the wreckage of a nearby home.
Zoom out, and the perspective changes. Fletcher lies at the heart of what is perhaps the most dangerous section of what is perhaps the most dangerous city in America. Once a working-class neighborhood, its residents employed in those nearby auto-manufacturing plants, the City Airport neighborhood, as the area is known, has crumbled. As the plants closed—and as Detroit’s overall fortunes plummeted—residents (white, then black) fled the neighborhood. The exodus was under way before the 1967 race riots convulsed the region, but it accelerated in their wake, exacerbating the misunderstanding and mistrust between the two races that were trying, unsuccessfully, to share the city. Today, homes that haven’t been condemned or destroyed by arson have been left to rot, some of them transformed into drug houses—cocaine and, later, crystal meth. The neighborhood school has disintegrated from the inside out, its windows shattered by stones and the occasional bullet, its metal fixtures—pipes, doorknobs, screws—stolen for scrap metal. Residents often find themselves without phone service: copper is especially valuable on the black market, and it’s common to see phone lines slackened nearly to the ground, their rubber skins sliced open, the sparse remains of their inner wiring spilling out.
But it’s rare, these days, to see people out walking on the streets near City Airport, or to see children playing in the park. The few residents left in the area often stay inside their houses—the drug dealers to avoid the cops; the other residents to avoid the drug dealers. “It’s safer that way,” says Esther Etheridge, a longtime resident who is hanging on despite the dissolution.
Neighborhoods like City Airport’s often fall through the cracks when it comes to the journalistic record, victims of news outlets’ tendency to focus their reporting on those who can afford to pay for it. (Ask City Airport residents what they think about the treatment they get in the press, and you’ll almost always hear, after the What-treatment? laugh, “They only cover the crime.”) When they’re given attention, it often comes in the form of a “problem piece,” an exploration of crime patterns or public-policy concerns, or of a vaguely anthropological study of “the other America.” As reporting budgets tighten, though, and as reporters themselves get spread ever thinner, journalists’ ability to immerse themselves in communities, get to know their residents, and attune themselves to their nuances is a luxury few big-city papers can afford.