Detroit Scrap City

A few entrepreneurs pick through the ruins for profit.

Matthew WolfeJune 8, 2011

In southwest Detroit, a scrapper coats a pile of copper wire in house paint and then set it alight to burn off the outer insulation. (Photo by Tom Stoye)

The Hen­ry and Edsel Ford Audi­to­ri­um is a white, wedge-shaped build­ing that fronts the Detroit Riv­er. Despite its ter­ri­ble acoustics, the Ford was home to the Detroit Sym­pho­ny Orches­tra for 33 years. After the orchestra’s depar­ture in 1989, the Ford sat emp­ty. Over the next two decades, plans to repur­pose the mod­ernist the­ater into a cor­po­rate head­quar­ters, a gospel music hall of fame and an aquar­i­um, respec­tive­ly, fell through. In 2010, the mayor’s office announced that the Ford would be torn down and replaced with a park.

Last year, in broad daylight, scrappers in Tom Fayz’s neighborhood pulled down two telephone poles with a pickup to get at the transformers, robbing residents of electric and phone service.

The city has bolt­ed plate iron across the Ford’s front doors, so Mo climbs in through a bro­ken win­dow. Stand­ing in an old dress­ing room, Mo dusts the snow off his cam­ou­flage pants and replaces the ply­wood board cov­er­ing the glass, for pri­va­cy. He is a short, agile man with a push­b­room mous­tache, a bald head and a quick smile. In the sack under his arm are a screw­driv­er, a hack­saw and a flash­light. Most scrap­pers car­ry small mag­nets to dis­tin­guish iron from alu­minum, but not Mo, who claims that after 25 years of scrap­ping, he can tell them apart by sight.

The lobby’s car­pet is coat­ed with refuse from sev­er­al gen­er­a­tions of squat­ters: soiled clothes, plas­tic vod­ka pints, cig­a­rette butts, pota­to chip bags, charred cans of Ster­no. Paint hangs from the ceil­ing in leaves, and the chirp­ing of a flock of small brown birds floats through the chill air. Mo lived here for sev­er­al months last win­ter, sleep­ing on a flatbed cart that remains piled high with quilts and emer­gency blan­kets. He makes his way up one side of the grand stair­case, which lacks one of its stain­less steel ban­is­ters. Mo says a novice scrap­per, mis­tak­ing the steel for a more valu­able met­al, stole it.

In the pro­jec­tion room, Mo works quick­ly, sep­a­rat­ing the coax­i­al from the audio-visu­al cables and spool­ing the bun­dled cop­per wire into plas­tic bags. His flash­light is propped on an old reel-to-reel, the beam just bright enough for him to see his own hands, which are gnarled and crust­ed with gray scars. Beside him, a line of diecast alu­minum pro­jec­tors are aimed over the rows of red vel­vet seats below.

If I were to get just one of these babies out of here I’d be doing good,” he mur­murs. But they’re too damn big.”

Wires are low-hang­ing fruit. The real mon­ey is in pipes, so Mo heads down to the base­ment. The walls and ceil­ings of the Ford’s old offices bear man-sized holes, knocked in with a sledge­ham­mer by some of Mo’s col­leagues. Along a cor­ri­dor, Mo spies a length of cop­per run­ning along a wall. The dark pipe is coat­ed in a pale asbestos sheath. Using his hack­saw, Mo cuts straight into the insu­la­tion. A cloud of chalky white fibers bil­lows into his face. He con­tin­ues until the pipe has been reduced to sec­tions small enough to fit in his bags.

After sev­er­al hours, Mo has col­lect­ed all the scrap he can car­ry. He hops on a bus to the west side, where a scrap yard weighs the met­al and hands him a check for $138. That makes about $700 for the week.

Rust Belt harvest

In the last decade, 250,000 peo­ple have left Detroit. An esti­mat­ed 60,000 build­ings sit aban­doned. As the city emp­ties, the mil­lions of tons of cop­per, alu­minum, brass, steel, iron and tin used to erect the Motor City are being shipped out, in the form of scrap, much of it to China.

As Detroit’s jobs con­tin­ue to dis­ap­pear and the fore­clo­sure cri­sis swells its ranks of vacant build­ings, an increas­ing num­ber of res­i­dents have turned to scrap­ping. For some, like Mo, scrap­ping is a pro­fes­sion. For oth­ers, it’s just anoth­er hus­tle, like col­lect­ing cans or pass­ing out hand­bills, one of the dozens of mar­gin­al occu­pa­tions in a city in which a quar­ter of the pop­u­la­tion has no job. 

First week of the month is always the slow­est,” says Stan­ley Beltz­man of McNi­chols Scrap Iron & Met­al, a scrap yard on the city’s east side. That’s when the checks come in.”

Free mar­ket prin­ci­ples apply as much to scrap­ping as they do to any indus­try. When scrap met­al prices shoot up, more peo­ple get into the game. In Feb­ru­ary, scrap cop­per reached $4.57 per pound, a 40-year high. At around the same time, Will, 49, found him­self fresh­ly out of prison and jobless.

I’ve been look­ing for work,” he says. I been to every restau­rant down­town, every park­ing struc­ture.” After a friend paid him to help haul some iron from a con­struc­tion site, Will start­ed scrap­ping on his own. Some days he’ll make $10, oth­er days he’ll make 10 times that. He acknowl­edges that it’s ille­gal, but not as ille­gal as oth­er things he could be doing. I got a D’ pre­fix,” he says, refer­ring to his four felony con­vic­tions, and I ain’t try­ing to go back.”

Much of the har­vest­ed scrap is stolen from homes and build­ings such as the Ford. Scrap yards are not legal­ly allowed to accept stolen scrap. All yards in Detroit require that scrap­pers sell­ing met­al pro­vide iden­ti­fi­ca­tion and the address from which the scrap came. Some demand more thor­ough doc­u­men­ta­tion or even fingerprints. 

Yet few scrap yards do much check­ing, and scrap­pers have ways of evad­ing reg­u­la­tion. For exam­ple, most yards only accept scrap deliv­ered by vehi­cle. So scrap­pers with­out auto­mo­biles hire vans or trucks – jit­neys” – to haul their loads. Dri­vers charge $35 to haul scrap across town, but only $20 if the scrap­pers have made it just out­side a yard. If all else fails, a scrap­per can sell his met­al to an unli­censed scrap bro­ker. Most of these bro­kers oper­ate out of their homes, using scales in the base­ment or back­yard. An ille­gal bro­ker will pay half what a licensed one will, but they’re open 24 hours and nev­er ask where the scrap came from.

Nation­al­ly, Detroit’s scrap­pers have a rep­u­ta­tion among secu­ri­ty experts for unusu­al orga­ni­za­tion and aggres­sive­ness. Vir­tu­al­ly every­one who lives in the city has either been the vic­tim of a scrap­per or knows some­one who has.

If [scrap­pers] see a house is unoc­cu­pied, with­in two weeks it’s stripped,” says Tom Fayz, pres­i­dent of the Spring­dale-Wood­mere Block Club, locat­ed in the city’s south­west side. 

Last year, scrap­pers in his neigh­bor­hood pulled down two tele­phone poles with a pick­up truck just to get at the trans­form­ers, rob­bing res­i­dents of elec­tric and phone ser­vice. The crime occurred in broad day­light, next to an ele­men­tary school.

None of the half-dozen scrap­pers I spoke with would admit to hit­ting hous­es. Mo claims to scrap only aban­doned big build­ings, for eco­nom­ic, if not eth­i­cal rea­sons. Hous­es just aren’t worth my time,” he says. Not enough met­al in em.”

Scrap­pers inspire a spe­cial loathing among Detroi­ters. Few things are more dispir­it­ing than watch­ing your city loot itself. The car­cass­es of two of Detroit’s once posh­est hotels, the Eddy­s­tone and the Roy­al Palm, loom over the city’s Cass Cor­ri­dor neigh­bor­hood like twin mono­liths. In the light of the morn­ing, the facades are pink and unnat­u­ral­ly smooth: scrap­pers hav­ing stripped them of their Beaux Arts ornaments.

Across the street is Link, thin and febrile, a human spark plug. His grand­fa­ther was a mas­ter car­pen­ter and a plumber. He boasts he can dis­man­tle almost any­thing. Today, he’s clipped down a length of chain link fence that, until last month, enclosed a fleet of taxi cabs. Link has laid the fence down and rolls it up like a car­pet. He says the own­er of the liquor store down the street put him onto the score.

I don’t see the harm,” he says, blow­ing New­port smoke through the gaps in his teeth. It’s all com­ing down anyway.” 

Editor’s note: This story’s orig­i­nal pho­to cap­tion referred to the man pic­tured as Tim­my.” The name was a pseu­do­nym that should not have been includ­ed with the sto­ry. We regret the error.

Matthew Wolfe lives in Brook­lyn, N.Y., and Detroit, Mich. He is cur­rent­ly work­ing on a book about felons.
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