Hover over the image for navigation and full screen controls
ESSAY CONTAINS EXPLICIT CONTENT
Danny Wilcox Frazier
A Detroit Requiem
Detroit…the word alone incites many emotions within America’s conscience. Detroit was the epicenter for economic equality in the U.S., the home front for the ideal of well paying jobs for the masses and a political force behind a strong middle class. Henry Ford made Detroit a boom town. Five decades after he started, the boom began to bust. Many reasons are at the heart of Detroit’s decline: postwar industrial policies, urban planning, the 1967 race riots, UAW and auto industry management, Detroit’s political cronyism, Clinton era trade deals, and quit possibly the mobility of the automobile itself. It was the 1950’s when Detroit began the long decay that has brought the city to its present state, a time when Detroit, and America, was at its peak.
Today, Detroit is America’s poorest large city. To avoid being the nation’s perpetual murder capital, the police began cooking stats. In 2008, they claimed 306 homicides – until local reporter Charlie LeDuff discovered there were actually 375. He also reported that in more than 70 percent of murders, the killer got away with it. Detroit’s East Side is now the poorest, most violent quarter of America’s poorest, most violent big city. The illiteracy, child poverty, and unemployment rates hover around 50 percent. The shooting death of seven-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones by police on Detroit’s East Side brought national attention to this quarter. But as the spotlight faded, the killings continued.
Detroit seemed off everyone’s radar until the collapse of the Dow and bankruptcy of GM. As the nation and world looked for answers, Detroit came back in style. Instead of Motown, this go around Detroit is exporting its misery. Reality TV, television dramas, the movies – all selling Detroit’s murder and despair. The night Aiyana was accidentally shot by police, a film crew from A&E’s true-crime series The First 48 was along for the show.
Detroit is a city that still has much greatness to offer. That was not the story Charlie and I were assigned to cover for Mother Jones magazine. With 103 kids and teens murdered in Detroit between January of 2009 and July of 2010, Charlie and I were sent to cover the failure of political and civil leaders in Detroit, the failure of industry in Detroit, the failure of the federal government in Detroit, the failure of America in Detroit.
While I was in Detroit, 17-year-old Chaise Sherrors was shot and killed while giving a haircut on a porch. We met his mother, Britta McNeal. Britta was broken, often lost in memory while her eyes filled and sometimes tears flowed. From her porch, she stared across the street that ran in front of her humble one-story on the East Side. She stared at a half-burnt skeleton of a house, gutted inside and out, and a constant reminder of her misery. Britta’s grandson played in broken glass and garbage that littered the driveway of the abandoned house next door. Gang graffiti added the only touch of color to the black and gray left behind by a fire. Britta showed us the urn containing the remains of her 14-year-old son, De’Erion. He too was shot on Detroit’s East Side, killed a year before his older brother. After Chaise’s funeral, Britta will have two urns to decorate her mantel.
“I know society looks at a person like me and wants me to go away,” Britta said. “‘Go ahead, walk in the Detroit River and disappear.’ But I can’t. I’m alive. I need help. But when you call for help, it seems like no one’s there.”
Danny Wilcox Frazier focuses on issues of marginalized communities in the U.S. and abroad. He is a contributing photographer to Mother Jones magazine. His work has also been published by: The New York Times Magazine, TIME, Newsweek, Fortune, Forbes, Sports Illustrated, Der Spiegel, and Frontline (PBS). In 2006, Frazier was awarded the Center for Documentary Studies/Honickman First Book Prize in Photography. His book, Driftless: Photographs from Iowa, was published by Duke University Press and CDS in 2007. Frazier then directed a documentary that confronts issues highlighted by these photographs, premiering the film in New York in 2009. The film was nominated for an Emmy in 2010 and won a Webby for Frazier and MediaStorm that year. In 2009, Frazier received grants from The Aftermath Project and Humanities Iowa, an affiliate of the NEH. He was named a finalist for the W. Eugene Smith grant in 2007 and 2008. At present, Frazier is working on his next book, Lost Nation, a look at economic and geographic isolation across America.