It wasn't the daily raids on his yard by the neighborhood's thieves that did it. Nor was it the pyro who firebombed his equipment trailer. No, what drove Andre Ventura over the edge was the drive-by shooting that had kids on the playground diving for cover as bullets pinged off the swing-set posts.
When that happened, Ventura grabbed some paint and a brush, scrawled an angry declaration on a plank of wood and hoisted his homemade sign at the edge of his east side yard, leaving it to face Eight Mile Road and the thousands of commuters that pass by daily.
"Warning! This city is infested by crackheads. Secure your belongings and pray for your life. Your legislators won't protect you," the sign read. Then he raised several American flags up tall poles, but flew them upside down in the signal of distress.
Ventura had spent a decade living in Detroit's inner-city, fixing up old houses and helping open adult foster care homes, supplying truckloads of clothes for the poor, planting urban gardens and creating a playground for kids. He's a disaster relief worker by trade, and when he came to Detroit, he felt compelled to help because he'd stumbled onto a disaster.
As the years in the inner city wore on him, he'd channel his angst into little signs he left on abandoned homes and rickety fences, expressing concern about the condition of the neighborhoods, the threats residents there endure, the harrowing upbringing children face. The signs got little attention. But this time, people reacted.
Cops stopped by and voiced their support. Firefighters pulled up in rigs and got out to take pictures. Neighbors offered congratulations.
"I had signs up about children for years," the 41-year-old Ventura says. "I put up 200-and-something signs, and nobody reacted. I put up a crackhead sign up here on Eight Mile, I had cars stopping the next day, and within two weeks I'm on international news."
All because he said what he felt should be heard — that some parts of this city are blown-out combat zones where innocent people are under siege.
"I had a positive outlook on the city," he says. "I used to say nice things about Detroit. I said Detroit would survive as long as there was one person to love it. But I've had a complete change in attitude."
If there's one person in Detroit who would be least expected to lose his optimism for the city, it is the energetic man who came here to help rebuild it.
After a childhood on military bases in Europe, a stint of his own in the Army and a career in disaster relief, Ventura came to Detroit after a woman he met at a Home Depot invited him to help fix up some old homes on the east side. "Within the first three days, I seen a house blown up, two cars blown up in the streets, and you were hearing gunshots every night. It's nuts over there. I could've been in Iraq or Afghanistan. That's what sparked enough curiosity for me to try to figure out what was really going on, because before that I really didn't have any experience in Detroit."
He'd drive around the city, introducing himself to residents, touring the good blocks and the bad ones, finding out who were the killers and who were the thieves. Along the way he stumbled into the shadow economy that fuels the city's neighborhoods.
"I can get you anything you want, legal or illegal," he says. " Drugs, black market goods, anything. I can get you a helicopter. Guns. Grenades $5 apiece, real grenades. Anything that you want there's somebody willing to steal it. I don't care what you want. You want a tank? You can get it and probably for less than $5,000."
Alarmed by what he'd seen, he wrote impassioned letters pleading for help from the city's mayors and councilmembers, who dismissed him for living in a suburb at the time. "When I started tackling problems the first thing that came out of their mouths was, 'Well, you don't even live in Detroit,'" he says, "So, OK, fine, I'll move to Detroit."
He moved into a rickety old house at French and Gratiot, an intersection crisscrossing a wasteland. As a disaster relief worker he'd been to towns decimated by hurricanes or tornadoes. But he was stunned.
"I've been all over the world, all over the country," he says. "There ain't nothing like Detroit. There's really no way to describe it."
In his decade of inner-city life, he's amassed countless stories of social mayhem, snapshots of social collapse. Of hookers having sex on the children's playground he built next to his yard. Of looking out his window to see neighbors walking off with tools and extension cords in bright daylight. Of the neighborhood kid who's so well-connected he can get back just about any of your stolen things — for a price. Of tending to children shot by stray bullets while waiting for police and ambulances that sometimes don't arrive. Of the elderly woman across the street who won $6,000 in the lottery but was shot and killed the next night by a thief who wanted that ticket. Of that drive-by shooting that sent little kids running for their lives on a playground.
"There ain't no way you can fathom it," he says of his corner of the city. "There's no morals, ethics, standards. There's no connection between, basically, life that you see everywhere else."
He spent six years in that neighborhood before moving to his current home near Eight Mile and Dequindre, to what he thought was a better neighborhood in which to raise his own three kids. It was worse.
"Just constantly under attack every day," he says. "I wake up every morning to see what I got left. They sneak in through every crack they can find. Cut all the locks I had on an $80,000 shop in a 16-foot box truck. Everything is gone. Just gone. My snowplow was piece by piece. They took the hydraulics, they took the switch controls, they took the plow, and then actually the whole truck."
He says he's lost $50,000 worth of tools and equipment since moving here. "All this shit just empties out. I keep filling it up, it keeps emptying out. They're like vultures. They sit there and watch, they'll put one on the corner or something, and they'll sit and watch and watch and watch until the second you get in the car and leave or turn your back."
Still, he tried contributing. He cleared mounds of trash from the city-owned corner lot next to his house, installed playground equipment and invited the neighborhood's children to play there. He opened a candy store in his living room for kids too scared to walk all the way to the store. He mowed the lawns on vacant lots on his street. But these gestures were just crumbs compared to the mayhem around him.
"There's hundreds of different explanations of why it's going on. Especially now, with all the people dropped off welfare, it's become more desperate, it's getting worse. But nobody's scared of the police. Everybody knows that nobody cares. There is no law."
City life began taking its toll. In his frustration he started leaving hand-painted signs all over the east side. "Where's 20,000 troops to protect our own children and communities?" one read. "Will the last person to leave Detroit kindly turn out the lights?" said another. "Does this place look safe for your child to play?" he wrote on a boarded-up abandoned house.
The signs got edgier as time went on and his nerves frayed. "Pedophiles' paradise, inquire within. Children wanted," he scrawled on a stubbornly enduring vacant house. "Free dopehouse kit. Start your own spot," one sign announced. And he nailed a rusty bucket to a picket fence in a high prostitution area with a sign that read, "Free used condoms." In his own yard he wrote simply, "Save Detroit, adopt a crackhead."
But until he put up the warning sign along Eight Mile, few people noticed.
Rudell Solomon noticed, though. The 70-year-old Army veteran has a community garden across from Ventura's house and the children's playground where the sign stands. "I told him, 'Why don't we just put up something positive?' Solomon remembers. "And he said, 'No, not until they do something.' So he got a right to his free speech. I can't argue that."
Solomon, who lives a few blocks over, is big, brash and intense. "You're looking at a black Rambo," he shouts. "I've done hand-to-hand combat, I've been stabbed. I've been shot. I've been fucked up. And I promised the Lord when I was in Vietnam if he'd let me get back I'd serve the community for the rest of my days. And I'm doing it, and that's the only reason I'm doing it."
The two former military men, both caught in the same neighborhood, became friends. The irony is that Ventura, the gentler of the pair, is the more militant, while Solomon, the fierier of the two, declares himself a pacifist — to a degree.
"Him and I work together, in conjunction," Solomon barks. "He got his thing, I got my thing. His thing is about crackheads stealing all his stuff, breaking into his house. I'm on the peaceful side of the community. I teach kids how to plant."
But Solomon has also driven drug dealers out of the neighborhood, he says, with a look suggesting it wasn't solely through persuasive words. And he's got nails poking upward from the top of his wood fence to keep out the waves of thieves that try to jump into his yard.
His first glimpse of Detroit was a stark one — he was with the 101st Airborne as they patrolled the city streets during the 1967 riots. He came back in 1972, moved to a house on the corner of Eight Mile, where he still lives. Things are so bad here now, he says, that everyone preys on anyone who has anything, a symptom of the worsening poverty out here.
"People got to feed their kids. That's why I'm trying to get these gardens, grow you some beans, man. I'm showing people how they can eat off the land. Somebody got to get in there and do something from the bottom up. I'm doing it working with the kids, he's working with the crackheads," he says, motioning toward Ventura. "He's fighting them motherfuckers. I told him I hope they don't blow his shit off the corner one day. But he's brave."
A story from his first years here tells a lot: Solomon was on National Guard duty one night up the street, and a neighbor called to tell him there was a pimp and some hookers working their trade in his front yard. He showed up with a dozen uniformed National Guard soldiers and absolutely pummeled the group. The incident made the neighbors terrified of him, just as he wanted. "They went and told everybody, and that's why they don't fuck with me," he says.
He's older now, and uses the garden as a means to teach kids not just how to grow food for themselves, but also to give them lectures that hopefully stick with them a little, telling them that the life they're surrounded by isn't normal life, that they shouldn't get sucked into the madness, that there are ways out. But he's retired, and he's not getting out, and he's determined not to accept how things have become.
"You walk down the street you might get shot just for the hell of it, but I'm committed to this," he bellows. "I don't give a shit how crazy these people are. I love Detroit. It's a hell of a place, man."
It's Ventura's birthday, and he's put a keg of Budweiser in the yard to celebrate. It has drawn the neighbors to the playground, and now a half-dozen adults drink beer from plastic cups as their kids play on the swings.
Ventura dispenses the beer from the shade next to his house. He's made the place bulletproof — the siding is concrete board, the door is a thick metal mesh that bends to absorb bullets, and the rest of the facade is fire-resistant composite, in case anyone tries to torch him out of the neighborhood.
Thieves just hit his yard again the other night. Aluminum ladders this time. And like every time something else gets taken from him, he says he's on the verge of just giving up and bailing from the city, from his self-appointed mission to help fix things.
Yet just like every other time, he's still watching over the playground whenever kids are there, he's still helping tend the community garden even after people from the community came and smashed its watermelons and cantaloupes on the sidewalk. And he's still firing off letters to the mayor and council accusing them of incompetence and negligence for presiding over collapsing neighborhoods. Despite his frustration, he's a disaster relief worker, and his days are based on helping people struck by disasters.
"I can't walk away from these children, but I ain't got nothing else to give," he says. "I'm broke as hell. I can't afford to stay, and I can't afford to get out."
Cars passing by slow down and look as they spot the sign. Ventura said he'd take it down days after it went up, but here it stands a year later. Its message still applies because little has changed.
"I don't want to be popular, but at this point somebody needs to put their foot down," he says. "Something needs to be done. This has gone too far. Somebody at this point needs to take some kind of grasp of this reality and figure out some solutions. Something has to happen."
Detroitblogger John is John Carlisle. He scours the Motor City for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]