Detroit skyline

“Liberty and Lawlessness in Detroit” is an excerpt from an unfinished book, Your Money or Your Life? What it Means to be Free in the Twenty-First Century. 


Detroit, MI., was once a superpower city, world-famous for its automobile industry and pioneering music culture. The legendary Motown record label was founded there in 1959, and it was Detroit – not Berlin – that served as the birthplace of techno music. For a while at least, when The D’s residents were not busy on the factory-floors, they could be found cutting loose on the dance-floors – enjoying what were sizeable pay-packets, envied by working-class Americans throughout the United States.

The booming car industry in Detroit created a near-constant demand for labour, and this, along with the emergence of a highly-organised labour movement produced higher wages, fuelling a staggering expansion in metro area’s population. When Henry Ford first set-up shop in 1903, the number of people living in Detroit stood at just over one-quarter of a million. By 1950, after Ford was followed by General Motors and Chrysler, the population was closer to two million. Detroit became the fifth largest city in America, trailing only the usual-suspects: New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia.

Comparable in its economic stature to a nineteenth-century Manchester, or a twenty-first century London, things were good in Detroit for a time. It had carved out a unique role for itself in the global economy, and when it came to producing cars, Motor-City couldn’t be matched. But the enormous growth in the automobile industry that provided many Detroiters with solidly middle-class incomes would also be the city’s downfall. An oligopoly formed in The D, leaving the area completely exposed to the shifting winds of the global economy.

Sure, the race riots of the 1960s pushed affluent whites out to the suburbs (taking thriving businesses with them), but Detroit was really a victim – perhaps the largest ever – of globalization. After union bosses succeeded in pushing up wages, the Big Three car manufacturers began building production facilities outside the central city; and as the twentieth century progressed, the automobile factories that would once have sat at the heart of the ‘313 were being build much far afield, mainly in Mexico and Canada. Detroit’s degeneration was caused by the same thing that prompted its short-lived period of preeminence: it was entirely reliant on one industry; an industry that moved on and left the city behind.

Today, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, the once-glorious Motor-City is widely considered to be an unmitigated disaster. Since the spike in 1950, the population of the city has declined by over one million, and after decades of corruption and foul-play the municipal government is legally bankrupt (the largest bankruptcy filing in U.S. history). At the height of the city’s urban decay there were 70,000 abandoned buildings in Detroit-proper, and in 2010 the Mayor set out plans to demolish one quarter of the city’s structures. In most years over the past three decades Detroit has placed number one on the list of America’s most dangerous big-cities – and if it weren’t for the war-zone in the south side of Chicago, it would have been at the very top every time.

The scale of Detroit’s decline is unprecedented in the modern world, and to many cities across the globe it stands as an ominous example of what could have been, as well as of what might be to come. Not surprisingly, it’s been studied intensely and the decline of the city has taught us a lot about the nature of our economies, the impact of globalization, the limitations of government, and the state of race relations in America. Moreover, it’s revealed important truths, both encouraging and dispiriting, about what humans will do in the face of the implosion of their communities. But one thing that hasn’t been sufficiently explained is whether individuals can enjoy freedom in this once-great Midwestern powerhouse.

Limitations and Opportunities

I was sat in the plush Renaissance Centre in Downtown Detroit, enjoying what would have been a terribly overpriced breakfast if it hadn’t been for the stunning view across the Art-Deco sierra that is the city’s largely-abandoned financial district. One of the quirks about The D is that rooms in luxurious hotels come cheap, and the security they provide make them essential places of residence for short-term visitors. My waitress that morning was a Polish emigrant called Arianna who still carried with her a strong and rather captivating east-European accent. She’d moved to the United States in the 1970s when she was just in her early twenties, at a time when Detroit’s population still hovered around the 1.5 million mark. For a number of reasons she’d chosen to stay in the area, resisting the mass migration that decimated Motor City’s population throughout the latter half of the twentieth century. She seemed friendly and liked my accent so I took the opportunity to ask her about the city I was trying to understand.

“I love it here”, Arianna explained, “I’d never leave. My family say I’m crazy for staying, but this is my home. I love it”. And I could see why she loved it. It’s one of the those cities that demands respect and admiration – it’s been beaten into submission and wounded to a degree that might even be fatal, yet it continues, against all the odds, to retain its undeniably rich soul and compelling character. The buildings situated downtown rank among the very best in America; its history is world famous; and its inhabitants are refreshingly grounded and extraordinarily optimistic. It was clear that it wasn’t just nostalgia and inertia that had kept Arianna in “The 313”.

We carried on chatting as she took a seat at my table – either her shift was coming to a close or the city’s laid-back feel had permeated even this very ‘uptown’ establishment. I asked her whether she felt safe just walking round the city and using public transport – two simple everyday things that were still reducing me to nerves. “Yes”, she said, “I feel very safe in downtown, midtown, greektown and all those places, but there’s a lot of districts I can’t go to”.

“You can’t?”, I asked. “Oh Yeah, I can’t go to places where the police won’t even go. Those places are hell”.

For me, this was an inescapably important comment. Without necessarily knowing it, Arianna was touching on a problem in political philosophy that has long served as a fault-line in the debate over what freedom means. No one was physically blocking or impeding Arianna, yet she felt that she couldn’t travel to Detroit’s more hostile neighbourhoods. Something was stopping her, and that thing was her. It was Arianna’s own anxiety, fear, and intelligence that was stopping her from moving unrestrictedly around the city.

Put plainly, while Arianna may have the opportunity to go wherever she liked, that opportunity was meaningless in the absence of other conditions. Without the protection of the law, did Arianna really have the choice to pass through Brightmoor and Grandale.

Our conversation prompted me to think about the relationship between freedom and the state from a different perspective. I’d originally travelled to The D in search of what you might call unlimited freedom – a total absence of any coercion and interference. I’d surmised that if laws were the primary constraints on freedom then being in a ‘lawless’ area would maximise my liberty, irrespective of the consequences.

Before travelling to Michigan, I’d done some research about its largest city in an effort to find first-hand accounts from residents about what it was like in the lawless “Red Zone” neighbourhoods that sat to the north of the central business district. After a few fruitless Google searches I fortuitously ended up on Reddit, captivated by a thread entitled: “How dangerous is Detroit?”.

Most posters confessed that it was indeed an especially dangerous and violent part of the world and questioned the accuracy of comments that tried to play down the violence which clearly blights the city. There’s an enormous sense of pride among Detroiters and some, rather understandably, make great efforts to gloss over just how violent the city really is. But while those who emphasise the better side of The D usually shout the loudest, more realistic, and sometimes graphic, accounts of city life can be readily found. One resident of Southfield (a city that borders Detroit) wrote that:

“You will hear gun shots at night. You do not go out at night under any circumstances…They teach you in school that if your car breaks down in a bad area at night, do not get out of your car until it’s daylight…Also, when you hear those gunshots at night, they’re not followed by police sirens. Even the police are scared to go out at night…They go and check out the scene and pick up any dead bodies the next day.”

Another commenter said that while he felt “fairly safe” in Detroit, over his 10 years as a resident he’d been “held up at gunpoint, had my car broken into over a dozen times…had a stalker(s) on our block, seen many neighbors and friends be victim of burglaries, car theft, car jackings, muggins [sic], hate crimes, and general harassment”. Such a post didn’t take me by surprise, but what followed it did capture my attention. In reply, another Reddit poster (under the pseudonym “soul_clap”) proclaimed: “it’s worth it and always has been. we can do anything we want here, really. We’re completely free”.

“Soul_clap” knew that Detroit wasn’t some utopia – the freedom Wayne County accorded him had come at a price, but the price was, in his words, “worth it”. Implicit in his comment was the notion that without legal restraints, his opportunities were endless – and it was this sense that he was free.

Between Arianna and “soul_clap” I had two completely contrasting accounts of what it meant to be free in Detroit. For the former, the absence of laws and authority denied her personal freedom; but for the latter such an absence of rules was something that facilitated his seemingly unlimited freedom. It may well have just been a flippant choice of words on both their parts, but Arianna and the Reddit user had both entered into deep philosophical waters – waters that I myself was about to wade into.


Just a few days earlier, I’d arrived at the U.S./Canada border in Michigan after taking a short-cut through Ontario on my way from the east coast. Although I shaved six hours off my journey by going around, rather than through, Pennsylvania and Ohio, it was clear when I reached the immigration checkpoint that my decision to take a detour had been a poor one. My arrival in Detroit looked suspicious, and the agent at the border let me know about it in no uncertain terms. After looking through my papers, visa, and passport, he started with questions that I struggled to answer without coming across as either a liar or a reckless eccentric.

The interrogation began with a simple one: “where are you headed?”. I thought about saying “University of Michigan at Ann Arbor” – it would have made sense, but I didn’t want to go down the liar route. I was happy being thought of as a reckless eccentric. “Detroit, sir. Just downtown”. “And why”, he replied with frightening incredulity. “I’m here just to check out the city – that’s pretty much it”.

My response was vague but unprofitably honest, and I was possibly the first person to give this answer since the 1960s. For the border agent, the idea that a scrawny 20-something English student would drive 700 miles to “check out” the most dangerous city in the western world was wholly implausible. Fortunately, however, it was the truth and eventually, after a lengthy exchange in his office, he believed me.

But before letting me re-enter the United States, he offered some advice. His tone changed and it became clear that he was genuinely worried for me and actually wanted to help. “Listen, you seem like a nice guy so whatever you do, stay downtown. If you go four-five-six miles out of the central area, the police won’t come and get you, no ambulance will come get you, and triple-A certainly won’t come and get you”.

I suspected that he was right. The Detroit police department weren’t in any way negligent, but they were hugely understaffed and underfunded to degree far more acute than any other police department in the country. They had to prioritise, and they’d chosen to focus on the central business district. In fact, in 2012 the Detroit Police Officers Association even put out a warning to “out-of-towners”, that they were entering the city “at their own risk”. It was an unprecedented statement, and the DPOA attorney followed it up with an unsettling assessment of the state of the city:

“Detroit is America’s most violent city, its homicide rate is the highest in the country and yet the Detroit Police Department is grossly understaffed…The DPOA believes that there is a war in Detroit, but there should be a war on crime, not a war on its officers…The explosion in violent crime, the incredible spike in the number of homicides and for officers trying to work 12 hours in such deplorable, dangerous and war like conditions is simply untenable”.

The border agent had clearly heard the warning, and he took it seriously. “If you go to seven- or eight-mile”, he went on, “you’re really on your own, and you’re taking a huge risk. It’s lawless up there – you enter at your own risk”.

In entering a city like Detroit I was clearly out of my depth and this was made clear to me at the border. Though parts of the city seemed to be safe, this was in many ways a place in the midst of a complete social breakdown – one that its origins in the race riots of the ‘60s. But at the same time it was in some ways thrilling to image pockets of space in which laws were not enforced. To me, what it meant was that it was indeed possible to experience no formal coercion whatsoever, irrespective of what the price might be.


Roaming Free in the 313


After finishing my chat with Arianna over breakfast, I got in my car and against all advise drove north, away from downtown Detroit. The further one moves out from the city’s majestic, and from some angles monstrous, Renaissance Center, the more one is introduced to the city’s decaying buildings. It starts with old skyscrapers that sit empty, often with a few broken windows, and patchy spots of graffiti. Then, as you leave the downtown area, you’re exposed to half-demolished buildings, and huge, seemingly purposeless walls, covered in graffiti that conveys everything from the ironic (“Detroit: City of the Future”) to the painfully accurate (“Detroit: Murder City”). And eventually, after staying on the road for a couple of miles, you hit the wasteland. Acre after acre of total devastation – empty and half-burned houses; entire blocks demolished; and small forests springing up where buildings used to stand.


The city’s homelessness problem also becomes more conspicuous as you exit the downtown area. Many of the metro area’s 20,000 (and that’s a conservative estimate) homeless individuals are victims of the car companies’ mass exodus from the city, and they’re left to endure Michigan’s harsh winters (temperatures can reach the -20s), violent gangs, and the city’s almost-total lack of state-sponsored social care. The further I drove, the more emotionally drained I became. I’d never seen anything like the human devastation I was witnessing.

To add to my nerves, the ‘check engine’ light on the dashboard of my hire-car had been flashing since I hit Buffalo, NY., about half way through my journey. I called the rental company to tell them and they assured me that the car had recently been serviced and should be ‘just fine’. I couldn’t bring myself to tell them that I’d be taking the car to a place where gas stations are frequently commandeered by gangs, and consistently avoided by locals.

As I drove further into the decaying suburbs, one thing that struck me was that this place used to be affluent. It’s clear that the streets used to contain nice houses, built presumably for middle-class families enjoying the prosperity generated by Detroit’s car giants. It’s difficult to conceive of what must have happened for large houses in formerly buoyant neighbourhoods to be selling for as little at $1.


But for me, at least, things were going well as I moved closer to the Red Zone. Everywhere was deafly quiet and I’d experienced no problems – in fact, by this point I was actually feeling fairly confident, and not to mention rather free. After spending some time on the historic Woodward Avenue, I turned onto the notorious 8-Mile Rd. It’s one of these typically American roads – wide, and dominated by overhanging electricity cables that dangle from wooden poles that look apt to collapse in a strong wind. On either side of the 8-Mile Rd there are stores of which some are still in business – albeit only just. In addition to the deserted gas stations, there’s a plethora of liquor stores and adult-entertainment venues, as well as a series of shabby motels used mainly by prostitutes and the type of men who come out to the city-limits looking for a good time.

After checking out some of the ruined back streets around the 8-Mile area, the turn for Detroit’s toughest and most dangerous street – the 7-Mile Road – was coming up. In the knowledge that I’d be placing myself firmly within the brutal Red Zone, I decided that I was going to take the turn – after all, it was a Sunday morning and most of the people I’d seen so far appeared to be on their way to church.

As I turned onto 7 Mile, two young men were crossing the street. They immediately stopped in the middle of the road. One tapped the other on the shoulder and pointed at the car. I froze for a second. They stared at me and one reached into his pocket before extending his arm back out – I didn’t quite see what was in his hand, but it didn’t take a Rhodes Scholar to work it out. I swung the car to the left and put my foot down. Hard. Driving on the pavement, I didn’t care. No laws, remember. I kept going and going. Fast. And took the next turn to reach a busy intersection. A car pulled up beside me containing a mother and her children, and for some reason it was a deeply comforting sight – they were laughing and joking about something and the atmosphere in her vehicle couldn’t have been more different to that inside mind. I was shaking. A straight-up fool, not a reckless eccentric.

I managed to get back on Woodward Avenue, somewhere near the Detroit Golf Club. I had a cigarette and tried to calm down. I kept thinking about the crime statistics and couldn’t help but consider what could have happened.

Carjackings are incredibly common in Detroit (there were 720 in 2013 alone, down from 1200 in 2008) and victims often lose more than their motor. Now, months later in the calm of my study as I reflect back on my morning in Detroit’s suburbs, I’m sure one of those young men had in his hand a gun, and strangely, I don’t blame him – it’s tough in The D, and you’ve got to make a living somehow.

Even now, I sometimes play out the alternative scenario in my head. Suppose they’d just taken the car and left me on 7 Mile with little more than a bruised ego – even that not-so-bad outcome would’ve placed me in an exceedingly dangerous situation. No police to call; no help whatsoever. Just as the border agent had warned me: “the police won’t come and get you, no ambulance will come and get you, and Triple-A certainly won’t come and get you”. I’d have been left entirely exposed in America’s most dangerous neighborhood, forced to make my way back to the gleaming Renaissance Centre via streets that consistently produce the worst crime statistics in the developed world.

For whatever reason – perhaps because I’d driven 700 miles to get there – I didn’t end my excursion after my close-call in the Red Zone. I made my way to Michigan Central Station, an abandoned 18-story Beaux-Arts monster that sits entirely alone to the west of the financial district. It’s a bizarre site. Easily one of the largest abandoned buildings in the world, it exists as a shocking symbol of Detroit’s cataclysmic downfall. After playing a prime role during the war-effort of the ‘40s, the station fell into a steep decline as passenger numbers tumbled and the building’s amenities were shut one-by-one. In 1988, Amtrak decided to close the station permanently, and each of the subsequent efforts to find a use for the building have ended in failure.


Strangely, Michigan Central Station remains an important landmark, and something of a morbid tourist attraction. Visitors tend not to leave their cars, but they drive as close to its gates as possible, before taking a few photos and speeding off into the distance. After getting there, I parked up the car and proceeded to walk around this old giant. The atmosphere is difficult to convey: that chilling feeling – which we’ve all had at some point – of “being watched” was so powerful that I felt I was losing my mind. It was as if someone was constantly just inches behind me – that’s the only way I can describe it. Moreover, the fear I was experiencing was exhausting to the point that my legs were growing weaker and weaker with every step I took.

When walking around the wasteland that surrounds the station, I was completely exposed. The Detroit skyline is so far off in the distance that you can cover it with your thumb – and this meant only one thing: no laws, no police. ‘Free’ maybe isn’t the last word I’d use to describe how I felt when walking around Michigan Central, but it certainly wouldn’t be the first. Philosophically speaking, I was in a jungle. Without the protection of the laws (a condition made worse by being without the protection of my car), I had only my wits and my rather limited physical attributes for my security. At this moment, everything Arianna had said over breakfast now made sense. If we’re not protected, how can our freedom be in any way meaningful?


Locke Returns


For most of us, though we might cherish our autonomy and rights to non-interference, the idea of lawlessness carries with it only negative connotations – you don’t have to travel to the Red Zone to figure out that being in a space without laws can induce the most pervasive paranoia. The coercive power of the state is something most of us are prepared to put up with, simply because without it we might find ourselves at the mercy those who wish to do us harm. On this micro level, laws act as protective buffers that sit in between us and those by whom we are surrounded – in their most basic form, they ensure that if someone wants to physically harm us, they’ll have to price-in the likely punishment and everything else that comes with breaking a law. To imagine what our lives and communities would be like if those buffers suddenly vanished can be a distressing thought experiment.

Regardless of background and political outlook, many of us discount the idea that we could continue to enjoy peace and order in the absence of law, and for some this conclusion is axiomatic and incontestable. It could well be that we’re exposed to so much in the way of negative ‘news’ that we’ve come to view the world from a cynical perspective – one that emphasises humanity’s capacity for evil. But it could also be that we’ve developed this view simply though logic: in holding that we’re naturally individualistic, and born more or less equal, some of us deduce that in the absence of laws our competitive drive could easily spill over into vicious hostility – and the example of Detroit’s Red Zone seems to lend weight to such a deduction.

But some of the more optimistic among us might even find ourselves in agreement with John Locke, the philosopher who suggested that in the absence of government, our reason alone could be capable of steering us away from harming others. Many of us would like to think that we behave well, and treat others with respect, not because of the coercive power of law, but instead simply because we’re good people.

But whatever our inclinations are on the subject, there’s no hard and fast rule to explain the relationship between laws and the maintenance of peaceful co-operation between individuals. Most of us will arrive at the broad conclusion that the imposition of some laws is necessary in order to guarantee our freedom, but from there all consensus ceases. Thus, determining the extent to which laws serve a guarantees of our freedom is ultimately a subjective pursuit, and each of us is likely to arrive at a unique conclusion.

Visiting a city like Detroit can be enriching in that it provides us with the opportunity to see for ourselves what its like to exist under no laws at all, and from there we can identify what we think is missing – allowing us to develop a picture about what, at an absolute minimum, the government ought to be doing. If we want to produce a beautiful drawing, we can either begin with a blank canvas or instead chip away at an already formed image until we arrive at the painting we wish to see before us. Invariably, the first method will be the preferable one, and it’s exactly the same with trying to establish what we need the government to be doing. By starting with nothing and building our way back up, we can ascertain what laws we really need to be free.



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