Tuesday, January 27, 2009


Three years ago, the Onion ran a perversely funny story, "Detroit Sold for Scrap." Now farce has become tragedy.

Last year, I visited the site of Detroit's long-abandoned and much picked over Packard Plant with a film crew from Britain. A half block away was a roving maintenance crew from Detroit Edison, replacing a hundred feet of power lines that had been stolen the night before by scavengers.

It's a sign of the times that scrap metal theft (even through metal prices have fallen in recent months) has become a boom business in inner cities. For a time here in Philadelphia, enterprising recyclers began stealing manhole covers--hundreds of them in a few months. Detroit, once the Motor City, is quickly becoming the Scrap Metal City. Everything is ripe for the plundering in a place with a record number of abandoned houses, skyrocketing unemployment, widespread poverty, and a thriving drug trade.

The metal theft business is not simply an urban problem. Like so many other social problems, it's rapidly suburbanizing. In 2008 alone, there were 145,000 foreclosures in Michigan, many in Detroit's suburbs. Thousands more houses are vacant, unsold in the bleak real estate market. Leftover suburban houses are a treasure chest of steel, copper, and aluminum. Air conditioners, gutters, doors, wiring, and plumbing fixtures are disappearing.

Chris McCarus, a Lansing-based journalist, recently ran an excellent three-part series on copper theft on his radio program Michigan Now. The epidemic of copper theft is a vivid example of the everyday devastation wrought by the current economic crisis.