Is Detroit safe?
Abandoned and neglected properties, police violence and surveillance, tainted drinking water, a homeless and mental health crisis on the streets - Is Detroit safe? | AP photos

One doesn’t have to travel far outside the corporate limits to hear the same questions over and over again about Detroit:

“What’s it like there?”

“Is it as bad as I hear?”

“Is it safe?”

Anxiety over safety in the city has a history all its own.

For those who visit Detroit, the city has places to go and things to do, and plenty of people feel comfortable coming to the city for a concert or to see the Red Wings or Lions play. Plenty of people descend upon the city for Tigers’ games, but it has been some years since anyone felt comfortable with how they play. People even come into the city for a night out at one of the many new restaurants that appear to open up faster than the previous business that occupied the space can even close its doors.

But that behavior hardly addresses how it is here and tends to say more about how boring it is elsewhere. Attempts to alleviate boredom rarely have anything to do with safety ,and the rate at which people arrive and then depart would suggest there are concerns over pushing their luck.

So, is Detroit safe?


Detroit is far from safe. It has not been in a very long time (if ever), but more important than the question of when is the question of how—which, ultimately, answers both.

The terminally ill are forcefully evicted from their homes. Meanwhile, houses are bought up in bulk by real estate and financial holding companies, or out-of-state investors in order to turn them exclusively into vacation rentals or multi-family rental units.

Blight removal and “beautification” projects appear in these same neighborhoods as a form of deliverance from public indifference, but they, in turn, force residents to participate in the process of gentrification. Whether this is all to the betterment or detriment of the people and places involved does not seem to matter.

People are not protected from water shutoffs even during a pandemic, unless they qualify for protection—which is to say, there exist those who are not allowed access to water. The water quality is also in question, containing 56 new contaminants as of last year, including PFAS, despite reports suggesting that our water is “some of the best in the world.” Such a claim can only be read as a cruel joke.

Power outages and failures do not take a season off, giving the appearance that the grid’s infrastructure is fragile, but we are told time and again that the problem (and thus our main enemy) is trees. As air quality gets worse in Detroit, we are left to “choose” which enemy is worse.

Simply moving throughout the city is both a concern and a warning of what’s to come: Pedestrian bridges are crumbling, and streets are buckling at best and collapsing at worst.

Billionaires like Dan Gilbert and the Ilitch family, despite already owning some of the most expensive plots of land in the city, are given tax incentives and abatements for new development projects (or, in the case of Gilbert, stagnant projects started years earlier). Gilbert’s Bedrock Management LLC was awarded $60 million in tax breaks late last year, and the Ilitches were given $1.5 billion in tax incentives.

As a population on the rise, the homeless are either sheltered or exceptionalized—i.e. through arguments like “they did this to themselves”—and yet, by either their absence or presence, we are reminded that being fully dispossessed and unhoused is only a matter of a few bad days.

The people of Detroit are constantly surveilled and watched, creating a level of paranoia that now acts as background noise to the everyday. Surveillance technologies like security cameras from Project Green Light or secretly placed ShotSpotter microphones listening for gunshots feed data back to Real-Time Crime Centers throughout the city, finding crime wherever it needs—for example, in areas with the most broken windows allowing municipal negligence to be compensated for by policing.

We’re told this is normal and for our protection, all the while any suspicious feelings of “being watched” are more clinical than actual.

The mentally ill are running rampant, armed and in uniform, shooting down those having mental health crises, sending the message: “Do not let your crisis appear as violent or it will cause us distress forcing us to pull the trigger!” Mental health professionals sometimes respond to such calls, but such measures have yet to address the problem of those with the warrior-complex who also show up in order to tase, choke, or shoot those in crisis.

ICE and Border Patrol are legally allowed to engage in warrantless searches within 100 miles of any international border—which covers the entire state of Michigan—leaving many residents vulnerable to deportation.

The FBI and Department of Justice designate the city as a “hot spot” for crime when temperatures begin to rise in the summer, legitimizing its own increase in violence toward residents when it’s warmer out. The effects of climate change suggest a much more dangerous use of the law for Detroit in the years to come, especially as crime is tolerated (even promoted) as a necessary symptom for the normal functioning of a city.

What about the City with a capital “C”—the municipality, the bureaucratic departments, the public-private partnerships, the companies housed here, the ideology that sustains? Is the City even safe from itself?

The ongoing protests in Paris over pension reform are a concern for everyone around the globe. The sanitation workers’ strike left the streets of Paris covered in garbage mounds, with some crews going so far as to dump trash on politicians’ homes.

Detroit is just as vulnerable to such a garbage strike: Leaving trash in its place would make the Downtown, Cass Corridor, and Midtown areas absolutely disgusting. Wayne County—where Detroit is located—produced 11 million cubic yards of trash in 2018. Being the largest city in the county, it does not take much of an imagination to consider how terrible any fraction of 11 million cubic yards strewn about on the sidewalks and streets would be in the summer heat.

On top of this, what is to prevent the truck drivers from simply blocking highways, main streets like Woodward Ave., or even the bridge and tunnel traffic to and from Windsor? Such acts would certainly disrupt the day-to-day of a city that now depends so much on visitors from nearby cities.

The city’s garbage pickup is divided up by two companies—GFL Environmental and WM (formerly Waste Management)—and perhaps because these are private companies, residents do not need to worry about financial or departmental cuts triggering such a reaction as was seen in Paris.

But what about the panoply of public-private partnerships that the city has inked with corporations? Public-private partnerships are a two-way street, ensuring that finances and employees are subjected to decisions made in response to government officials. A public-private partnership may seem like an easier way to bring in higher finance to public projects, but they also add a layer of management—i.e. officials can cut services or fail to renew contracts which can result in employee layoffs.

Public-private partnerships do not ensure annual income for municipalities either, especially if the private company is not based in that city or receives tax abatements. In short, a public-private partnership doesn’t just subject public projects to profit planning and capitalistic tendencies, it also subjects the employees and customers of the company to the (punitive) power of the state.

Protesting workers and private-sector cuts are not the only concern for a city like Detroit. Many public and government departments are incredibly vulnerable to cyber attacks. Security in tech, in general, tends to often be underfunded, lacking the people to do the work, and is viewed as working in the opposite direction of business decisions. A mixture of outdated hardware, software, knowledge, and processes coupled with lagging security protocols is not only common but is an accepted “standard” in the public sector.

According to a report by KnowBe4, The Economic Impact of Cyber Attacks on Municipalities, denial-of-service (DoS) attacks are the most preferred types of attacks by hackers. Such attacks can result in unavailable services, data loss, extortion, downtime, and stolen (intellectual) property. Ransomware attacks are a type of DoS attack that will gain access to a system, encrypt the data, and offer the decryption key back to the target for a high fee.

Ransomware attacks resulted in $18.88 billion in downtime and recovery costs, affecting over 71 million people in 2020. Government tends to be the top industry targeted for such attacks, often focusing on law enforcement and utilities departments. 53% of government-focused attacks are geared towards cities and schools.

In 2021, the average downtime from such attacks was 22 days. Knowing where the City of Detroit has focused most of its budget over the last few years—police, blight removal, expanding internet service—it’s unlikely to be an exception to what the report has found, leaving the city as vulnerable to attacks from outside as residents are to the city.

So, is Detroit safe? No, most certainly not.

However, we may need to go back to the Detroit Water Quality Report and re-read its claim that the city’s water is “some of the best in the world.” Perhaps this is not just a hopeful statement that covers up its cynical content. Perhaps it is a claim that universalizes Detroit’s problem as the global problem. If that’s the case, then we need only to respond to our first question with a second: Where is it safe?

As with all op-eds published by People’s World, this article reflects the opinions of its author.

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Andrew Wright
Andrew Wright

Andrew Wright is an essayist and activist based in Detroit.  He has written and presented on topics such as suicide and mental health, class struggle, gender studies, politics, ideology, and philosophy.