We bought Detroit because even after buying ourselves new houses and cars, $253 million in lottery winnings left the four of us with a ton of leftover cash. Why specifically? One of our daughters found the ad on Craigslist: One city for sale or rent—slightly used; a fixer-upper; free from most city noise; lots of pretty, healthy trees and grass. The asking price wasn’t ridiculous.The mayor took personal checks. We wanted to be the first people who’d ever bought a city. Sure, important people sometimes got keys to them, but that’s not the same thing.
Before we won the cash, we worked on “the line,” an assembly line that made SUVs at a GM plant in Janesville, Wisconsin. No one gives a shit about how cars are made except engineers and all of us on the line, fighting for another buck or two per hour in exchange for burned-out knees, backs, ankles, all of it shot to shit from being fat men who stood up for ten hours a day for years lugging metal around. Oh, and everyone in Detroit. We couldn’t turn down the chance to own the city that dreamed up the cars we’d built. And we liked the fixer-upper part of the ad. We’d built things, so we could fix them.
We won the cash and quit our jobs in December ’08 and bought Detroit in February ’09 and left Wisconsin to take it over in March ’09. We took 90E to 94E from Janesville to Chicago to Michigan City to Benton Harbor to Ann Arbor to Detroit. Twenty minutes past the airport, we saw a chain-link fence straddling the city line and glowing blue. It stretched from the highway to the horizon.
“There’s no way it runs around the whole city, right?”
“No fucking way.”
“Nobody’d surround an entire city with a fence.”
“There’s no way it’s one of those electrical fences, right?”
“Why else would it be blue?”
“This is what happens when you buy stuff sight unseen. You show up and it’s got electrical fences all over it.”
“It’s hard to tell what the fence is protecting. This all looks really hard up.”
“It can’t all look like this. We’ll drive around after we see the mayor, take a look.”
“And if it does?”
“Then we’ll fix it up. It’s our city now.”
The mayor told us to take 94 past 10 to Midtown and meet him at a coffee shop called The Morning Hit. We found a parking spot right in front of the door. We ordered four cups of coffee from a bloodshot counter girl and sat down around the mayor, who looked destroyed, like he’d worked a triple shift that let out five minutes before we showed up.
“Here it is,” he said, slinging a key across the table.
The key came with a keychain with a remote control on it. The remote had three buttons: one red, one green, one blue.
“You saw the fence, right?” he said.
“Yup,” we said.
“The green button turns its electricity on. The red button turns it off.”
“And the blue?”
“I don’t know what it does.”
The mayor took the lid off his paper coffee cup and drank half his coffee in one gulp. The four of us watched steam rise up from what he’d left. He must have had a throat of steel.
“You got any other advice?”
“Don’t be afraid to turn the fence on. Or off. Or do whatever else you need to around here. Good luck.”
He got up. He didn’t even shake our hands. He nodded at the counter girl. She nodded back. We heard his car start and drive away.
We went back to our car to drive around Detroit and figure out what we wanted to do with the city, since we officially owned it.
“Shit, man, we never asked him what the key was for.”
“It’s probably just a key to the city.”
“Those are bigger. This is just a normal-looking key.”
“Then it probably fits a door.”
One of us almost pressed the red button.
“What you doing that for?”
“I don’t feel like electrocuting anybody.”
“We don’t even know if it’s on.”
“Why’s it blue, then?”
“People aren’t stupid enough to touch an electrified fence.”
We drove past another section of fence. Close up it made a sizzling noise like bacon on high heat.
We found one open library and asked the librarian about the fence. She told us that it sat just on the suburban side of the border and ran alongside Detroit in every direction. The first ring of Detroit suburbs built it six months before we showed up.
“Why?” we said.
She looked at us like we’d called her kid ugly.
“You’re smart men,” she said. “I bet you can figure it out.”
“But we don’t get it,” we said. “The only fence we know of that’s like that one in this country is the one that’s supposed to be keeping out all them Mexicans.”
“You’re getting warmer,” she said.
“They hate us that much.”
She shrugged, but her eyes said yes. We left the library, fired up our car, and turned right.
“Why do we have the remote?”
“Because the mayor gave it to us?”
“Yeah, but we didn’t buy the suburbs. We bought Detroit.”
“Wouldn’t the suburbanites want to keep it? Keep us under control?”
“Maybe they think keeping us under control is too much work.”
“This whole place looks like too much work.”
“We’ve just got to start fixing stuff.”
“What the hell can we fix?”
We drove down a street filled with packs of kids shooting pop cans with real guns, not the BBs we used at their age. The cans didn’t plink—they flew. The kids gave us that “who the hell are you?” look, and we kept our speed and tipped our chins up to pretend they should know the answer. And thankfully they didn’t decide to shoot us.
Since we were car people, we went to go see all the open plants. Well, the plants’ parking lots, ’cause the guards wouldn’t let us inside, even when we told them we owned Detroit and we could go in if we wanted to. The open plants only had half-full parking lots. The closed plants had weeds growing through their walls, if the walls weren’t caved in. The empty houses that hadn’t been burnt down looked the same way, like they were getting it on with twofoot-tall clumps of grass. All the walkers walked like they had someplace to be in fifteen minutes, but we didn’t see a whole lot of obvious destinations.
“Evvvv-ryone else here is black too.”
“Heard it was like this, but seeing it’s something else.”
“Not sticking out’s a third thing.”
Janesville’s a white enough town that Detroit came off as the negative side of a photo.
“I saw some tan people back there. Arabs, maybe? Mexicans?”
“Some white people too. Not that many.”
We didn’t have a problem with Arabs or Mexicans or tan people in general. Given where we were, they were probably just light-skinned. The real question was what kind of white people were down with ninety-percent-black cities. Who’d want to be the last white person in Detroit? The candidates for that title wore plaid shirts and puffy coats and knit caps and big cameras around their necks. Sometimes they’d nod at us. We’d nod back out of habit and wonder when they got into nodding. In Janesville, white people didn’t nod at us. They stared.
Blacks and Arabs, or whatever other kind of tan people they were, sat in packs on the front porches of the houses people still lived in, looking at us hard in that “we know you’re not from here” kind of way. But mostly we passed nobody, because nobody lived on most of the blocks. We’d drive down a street full of burned-out and caved-in houses with two-foot-tall grass between them, turn a corner, and stare down a pack of people sitting on a porch drinking something yellow like lemonade and smoking pot we could smell from the car.
We crisscrossed the city for hours. It felt like we were looking for something at first. Then that feeling ended. So we drove along the Detroit side of the fence. We drove from the Canadian border to Eight Mile Road and through miles of empty land that overlooked suburban houses so new we could smell their paint.
It got dark. Real dark on the streets without streetlights. Sometimes we’d drive down a dark street and see a flash like someone had just taken a picture, and a house would light up in flames, and we’d hit the gas and take off. When we got tired, we drove to the other side of the fence. Our hotel was one of those long-term soulless corporate deals with a stove, an oven, a dishwasher, a plate, a saucer, a cup, a bowl, and two pots in every room. It sat almost directly under I-94 on a street with plenty of streetlights. We could see the fence from our rooms. It made everything around it the same color of blue.
The key fit in the mayor’s office door. His building didn’t have security, so we just walked on in. He’d thrown papers everywhere. Even formed a bunch of them into airplanes and aimed them across the room. We camped out there for three days with the door locked, reading through everything to see if he’d left us any useful information about Detroit. When people knocked, we’d all stop moving and ignore them until they went away.
When we ducked out to hit the bathroom, we never saw anybody or any other office lights turned on. All the plates on the doors listed names and titles, but we never found a single city council member or legislative assistant or mayor’s aide. They’d all left their doors unlocked. We opened them and found the same scene as the mayor’s office: lots of paper, no people, no real sense anyone had been there in the first place, which didn’t help us feel better about the knocking. We opened the mayor’s office door after the next set of knocks and didn’t find anyone on the other side.
So Detroit needed a little fixing up, just like the mayor’s Craigslist ad said. We bought a house in Lafayette Park to sit in and figure out what to fix. Everything in our house was new. New counters, new appliances, new floors and walls, new fixtures. We told our wives about the house. Not one of them was willing to come out and live in it. Or tell us why. They’d say stuff like “You know, it’s Detroit.” We’d say, “But it’s ours now. It’s gonna get a lot better.” They’d sigh. One of our daughters came out and took pictures of dead buildings all day long. We looked at all the shots every day for a while. We told her to stop.
We stayed on our street all day for a couple of weeks, doing all the work we needed to do to convince people we weren’t a problem. We never got around to telling anyone that we’d bought the city, because we weren’t having the kinds of conversations where you’d bring that up. We told people we’d lost our jobs instead, that Detroit was cheap. They’d nod. We smoked up a lot and drank plenty of the lemonade stuff, which was yellow Crystal Light mixed with water and vodka.
“Looks like piss,” some of us said.
“Tastes like it too.”
“The woman next door said it was cheaper.”
The worst conversations had to do with the fence.
“They should leave it on,” our neighbors said. “That way we won’t be tempted to leave. It’s not like leaving solves nothing.”
We didn’t remind them they could drive under the fence whenever they wanted to. We made eye contact with them in a “and staying solves what?” kinda way before remembering that we were staying for now and snapping our faces back into shape. We were going to solve a lot.
After we got on speaking and waving terms with our neighbors, we moved into the next phase of our Detroit ownership: making a list of stuff to fix. It didn’t take us any time at all to come up with lots of things to fix. The highlights:
In the beginning we had a vision. Two million people living in a rebuilt city. Fixed-up houses. Fixed-up buses. Fixed-up streetlights. Brand-new businesses. Filled-up neighborhoods. All this fixing would fill the parking lots of all the open plants we passed with workers who caught a drink together after they left the line for the day and watched football on weekends, like we had when we started at our plant. It would put some light back in all the faces of the people we saw on the street.
Everyone we talked to added more jobs to our vision. Better-paying jobs. City jobs so they didn’t have to drive deep into the suburbs every morning. They did want new streetlights, new buses, and better-looking houses, but they wouldn’t talk about that stuff without talking about jobs. A couple people asked about schools, but since we didn’t know anything about schools other than that they should be good, we switched all those conversations back to jobs.
We did our research. We wrote to big companies. We made a ten-minute video about the city where we told companies the best version of the truth: Detroit houses were cheap; its people were educated and hardworking; it had good markets, parks, and bars. Yes, there was plenty of fixing up to do, but Detroiters knew fresh city jobs would help them do it. Our video Detroiters had bright smiles and big dreams. We ended the video with a bunch of ten-year-old kids who said, “Detroit built America. Let’s go build Detroit.”
We showed the video to Boeing, to Microsoft, to Nike. They came back a second time but not a third. They opened new factories in the middle of nowhere instead of the city. We banged our fists on walls, on our car dashboard, on broken light poles. We asked other big companies to come take a look at Detroit. They didn’t. The medium-sized companies wouldn’t take our calls. A couple people came and opened coffee shops, but it’s hard to rebuild anything on seven bucks an hour.
We drove past streets with two houses on them. One. None. Just dead buildings melting into the dust. We knew how big Detroit was, but every day it seemed bigger and emptier. We drove down blank streets and flinched when we heard a sound. Our neighbors refused to leave, but their neighbors packed up a couple of vans and drove to some suburb far enough out that it was practically in the woods.
If the big companies wanted to open factories someplace smaller, Detroit could be that place. Detroit was that place. Its bones said two million people lived here once, but its heart only stood 700,000 people strong. Habitat for Humanity called and called. We finally told them yes.
Our city-shrinking plan moved everyone who still lived in Detroit to the East Side and Downtown. It demolished their old houses and built them new ones. We’d shrink water lines and power grids and bus service. We’d add a light rail, build a couple new parks in some of the blank space. We looked at other cities’ layouts. We tried to rebuild Seattle. We saw the new Detroit, small and shiny, cheaper to run, less creepy to drive, mostly bordering Canada and Belle Isle. Our neighbors frowned, nodded, said “I get it” over and over again when we told them what we’d do.
They agreed to move into the first house.
Habitat for Humanity built them a lovely two-story sky-blue house in a month.
We wrapped it in a big yellow ribbon for the crowds that would show up for the next day’s ceremony: the official kickoff to all the rest of the city-shrinking we’d do.We drove to our house. We knocked on our neighbors’ door, wished ’em good wishes for the next day, looked at all their stuff packed into boxes with pride. They smiled, and their smiles looked tired, because it was late. We were too damn excited to sleep, so we watched old action movies in the living room until we weren’t awake anymore, and then we were, because something that sounded like a bomb woke us up right at dawn.
We knocked on our neighbors’ door, busted right on in when nobody answered, didn’t see a single box. We drove down to the house, which was on fire. All that new blue paint gone black. We knew we were supposed to leave, so we drove as far away as we could and still see the house to watch it burn. The paper said it was a car bomb, but we never found the car. It looked the same as all the other fires. The kind little kids started every day with a couple of gas-soaked rags and a match.
Just because we couldn’t shrink Detroit didn’t mean we couldn’t clean it up enough to get the big companies to come to us. The Mauritanians sent us some old streetlights. All we had to do was figure out how to install them and keep them running. Hugo Chávez cut us a deal on some oil, saying he wanted to support the rest of the third world. All of us poor states were like brothers, he said. We didn’t want to be called third world, but we got over it, ’cause we didn’t want to say no to cheap oil either. A few cops offered to move back into town from the suburbs. We fixed up a house for them so they could live together, like firefighters, ’cause they said they’d be safer that way.
You know who didn’t want to help? Contractors. We’d offer them months of work putting up streetlights and knocking down dead buildings and get hours of fence-related excuses why they couldn’t do anything. Some contractors swore they got itchy and swelled up if they came within fifty miles of an electric fence. Others had to spend two days laying down and puking if they touched one.
We learned how to get government cash. We stopped talking about our “low income residents” and checking boxes for “underserved-community assistance” and asked for “anti-terrorism funding” to protect Detroit from Canada. On the phone, the government people couldn’t stop talking about Canadian strippers and gamblers. A twenty-four-seven threat, they’d say. “Debaucherous,” they’d call them. We’d remind them about the cash we needed to protect ourselves from all this “debauchery” when they finished their speeches. They’d send it to us in a hot minute.
The Canadians claimed we weren’t doing anything with Detroit. They said they’d buy it off us for a great price, raze it, put in the world’s biggest hockey rink, and plant new maple trees. They sent us a mock-up full of fake ice skaters. We sent a copy to Homeland Security, who got red hot and sent us more cash. But most of the new money could only be used to build a taller electrical fence between us and Canada. We told HS we were adding height to the fence and offered the contractors more instead. Lots of them kicked their fence allergy and started showing up.
Were we doing anything with Detroit? Of course we were doing stuff. It took a while to survey everything, figure out what the problems were and how we could try to fix them. We had to buy ourselves those six chalkboards to brainstorm fix-it ideas. Our thinking sessions didn’t go so well without steak. Later we had to add asparagus to that, but asparagus didn’t grow anywhere nearby, so we spent a couple weeks working out a deal with a group of Chileans willing to ship it to us direct. When our contractors refused to put up any more streetlights unless we doubled their pay, we put up three streetlights ourselves. You’re really going to tell us we didn’t deserve that two-month vacation to the Bahamas after all our hard work? Well, where else should we have gone? The D.R.? Jamaica?
We came back from the Bahamas in late August. We landed at DTW, picked up our car from long-term parking, and got on I-94E.
“Between the new streetlights and all the dead buildings that cleanup crew should have razed by now, it’s gonna look fantastic.”
“I was getting sick of the Bahamas anyway.”
“Me too. Who really gives a shit about all those beaches and the fuckin’ pink drinks after, say, a month?”
We passed the first section of fence visible from the highway.
“We gotta do something about that fence.”
“It’s so damn ugly.”
“Who would ever want to live in a city with an electrical fence around it?”
“People probably think it’s keeping down property values.”
“Everything keeps down property values. Somebody paints their house a nasty color. A jail moves in seventy-five miles away. The property value survey guy has eggs for breakfast instead of bacon.”
“Again, why do we have the remote?”
“Bet the suburbs want us to feel like we control the fence, even though it’s on their side.”
“What’s the point of that?”
“Why don’t we go over there and ask them?”
“Whatever. Let’s tell them to take it down.”
None of the mayors of the suburbs with the sections of fence in them were ever in. They never picked up their phones. All their assistants had the same voice, all stiff and shit, the same sentence to say about the mayors not being around and how we could leave a voicemail. We left a couple dozen voicemails. We went on a suburban tour, found the right doors, knocked on ’em. Even when their assistants told us not to. One of the assistants stood up and waved her arms at us the whole time, like she was having a seizure. We kept knocking anyway. We opened that door and found nobody. A couple of the mayors showed up on TV. Apparently going to parades and cutting ribbons off new buildings was way, way more important than calling us back.
“Let’s turn it off and hire some people to take it down ourselves.”
“Can we do that?”
“Like they care enough about this to stop us. If they did, they’d be in their
offices once in a while.”
“It’s a deal.”
First we called the contractors that said no because they didn’t have any experience taking down electrical fences. Then we called the contractors that didn’t like taking down electrical fences and wouldn’t tell us why. The next set said we didn’t pay enough. We paid too much, which meant taking down electrical fences must be more dangerous than they thought. The pay wasn’t the issue: taking down an electrical fence would take forever. They didn’t have enough guys to put on the job. They had too many. How could we use 120 guys to take down a fence? What would each of them possibly do?
We got sick of hearing all the contractor shit. One of us pressed the red button. We drove over to the section of fence closest to our house to take it down ourselves.
The fence sat there like it always did, next to tall grass on the Detroit side and short grass on the suburban side. We walked right up to it and started yanking. One of us fell down. One of us shook our fallen buddy. Another grabbed his wrist to check for a pulse. Nothing. We called 911, but the ambulance didn’t show up for fifty-five minutes. We pressed the red button a bunch more times. Not that the fence seemed on. When we showed up, we’d checked for the blue glow and seen nothing, and it didn’t come back while we stood there. Three hours later we learned that heart attacks don’t need electricity to get started.
The three of us hauled in photographer daughter to write a Craigslist ad. We told her what to say: City for sale—low price; fixer-upper; free from most city noise; lots of pretty, healthy trees and grass. She agreed not to mention just how much fixing-upping the next buyer would probably want to do. We gave her the key, told her to use the mayor’s office until she made the sale. Someone made an unfunny joke about all the film she could take from his desk drawers,
and she laughed anyway. She asked some questions about the electric fence, but all we felt like telling her was what the buttons on the remote did. We took her out to lunch.
We ate, took off, found a parking spot right in front of the mayor’s building. One of us pressed the blue button. Everyone else yelled, as if we could get loud enough to unpress it. Unpressing never happens. Unexploding either. Sounded
like somebody’d laid down on the same bass note for twenty seconds. A line of dust rose up in the distance in all directions. Dust didn’t strike any of us as a big deal. It died down. We waved goodbye to photographer daughter and
left. We passed the city limits. It took us fifteen minutes to realize what wasn’t there anymore and another twenty to decide we weren’t going back anyway.