'The Murder Cup' Returns to Detroit

Nov 11, 2014 at 4:22 pm

According to newly released statistics from the FBI, Detroit is, once again, the Murder Capital of the United States. It stirs a collection of unusual feelings to be so distinguished. I recall that, in my childhood in the 1980s, we used to joke about it, saying that our city won "The Murder Cup," as if the city were awarded some actual trophy for having the most bloodshed per resident. I know it's wholly inappropriate and tasteless, but we chose not to despair over it but turn it into something that suggested toughness instead of violence and stupidity. I think it was Dostoevsky who said children joke about things that would turn soldiers pale.

But, nationally speaking, murder was something that, back in the 1980s, Detroit was synonymous with. I recall that when I lived briefly in New York in the late 1980s, I heard a joke about a fight brewing in a bar that went something like this:

Belligerent No. 1: I don't have to take this from you. I'll shoot you where you stand. I'm from the SOUTH BRONX! Where the hell are you from?
Belligerent No. 2: I'm from Detroit.
Belligerent No. 1: [pause] Mexican standoff. Buy you a beer?

Truth be told, humor is a way to deal with such dubious honors, although it's fine and dandy to joke about your own problems, and less so when other people are laughing. As Detroiters, we've had to deal with comic barbs from Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker (again and again and again) to the South Park guys to even the Simpsons. Sometimes, it can get a little hard to take.

But what are we supposed to take away from earning this dubious honor again? Maybe it's just that I'm older or that I'm more embedded in the city than ever, but it's hard to flip this kind of news into something irreverently upbeat. 

Maybe instead of just reporting the grim facts and moving on, we should ask how it's even possible that Detroit has the highest murder rate and the highest violent crime rate in the nation, even as surrounding communities, such as Sterling Heights and Ann Arbor (as pointed out by The Detroit News), can have some of the lowest crime rates? Look deeper into the statistics and you'll see why. 

It's poverty. Areas with high concentrations of poverty breed the conditions that lead to high rates of murder and other violent crime. And poverty is something our development policies leave in their wake. For going on 70 years, our local solution to social ills has been to move away from them. Having a tough time in the old neighborhood? Developers are building new homes for you just five miles away. Sell your old home and move to a brand-new home with all your neighbors and take your money with you. It will be very profitably flipped to a poorer family. The real estate agents profit, the developers profit, and the new exurbs see their revenues rise.

Unfortunately, the old neighborhood will have to be discarded, much like the same way a bank draws a line around bad assets and writes them off. The people there will be the most likely to shoot it out with each other, and the people who left may conveniently blame the poor for "ruining the old neighborhood."

Until that cycle is stopped, you may expect the "Murder Cup" to return here year after year. Why? Metro Detroit didn't just win it.

Metro Detroit earned it.