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In Detroit's poorest neighborhood, I sat with a man as he cried

Jun 16, 2016

Reporter's Notebook

I watched an old black man cry today.

Sitting at a picnic table in Chandler Park, by census estimates the poorest area of the city of Detroit, John Henry Irelang talked about poverty in his neighborhood. But, empathy for his neighbors was not the only reason he cried.

He cried because of lost opportunity.

“I put in 89 days,” he said. That’s one day short from transitioning from a temporary worker to a full time worker. “I was paid $5 an hour while the guy working next to me doing the same job was making $11.”

The last time the minimum wage was about $5 an hour was in 1997. It was $5.15. That, apparently, was the last time John had the opportunity to work.

That's 16 hours to work an eight hour a day job at $5.15 an hour. Forty dollars and twenty cents before taxes for 16 hours worth of effort.

He told me the bus ride and its multiple transfers took four hours to reach his job. Then it took nearly four hours to get home. That’s 16 hours to work an eight hour a day job at $5.15 an hour. Forty dollars and twenty cents before taxes for 16 hours worth of effort.

He was promised bus fare. He says it was deducted from his pay. He complained.

He was let go on the 89th day.

“Eighty-nine, then they never want to see you,” he told me. If the company would have let him work one more day, he would have had a full-time job. Ninety days meant he was permanent, as permanent as an “at will” state allows. Without union representation, you can be fired without reason in Michigan.

He would have made more money as a permanent employee. He would have made the same wage his colleagues did. He would have made $11 an hour. He didn’t.

He told me he left his work gloves and hard hat at his work station when he was told he did not have a permanent job. The next day the company notified him he would be docked for the cost of the gloves and hard hat. He told them he left them at his work station. No matter. He didn’t properly turn them in to the company.

The next day he spent four hours on the bus. He retrieved the gloves and hard hat from his work station, turned them in, and then spent four hours on the bus to get home.

I was in John’s neighborhood to ask about access to jobs and poverty. Most people wouldn’t talk.

I approached a group of men playing dominoes in Chandler Park. They kidded and laughed. “We’re all retired, enjoying the sunshine,” one man told me. “You need to talk to some younger guys, but you might get robbed,” he said, his friends laughing. I didn’t know whether they were teasing me – a white guy wearing a suit and tie -- or whether they were serious. In Detroit it’s not always clear.

John’s story is not an extraordinary story in Detroit.

Unemployment is typically double that of the state average. Michigan’s unemployment rate often is higher than the national average (just recently it became lower).

John cried. He kept crying throughout the rest of the interview.

To him, that job was apparently his last opportunity. No, I haven’t verified it. I’ve heard similar stories too many times before to not believe him.

Before we parted, he wanted to shake hands.

Grasp, brotherhood shake, and then it got confused. That is, I got confused. I’ve spent time in Africa. I thought he was going for the western African businessman shake. I was wrong. He grabbed my forearm. “No. Like this.” We shook, brotherhood shake, slide up the forearm, grasp, pull back and slide your fingers. No snap of the fingers as in Africa. I awkwardly tried and failed.  He patiently showed this clumsy white middle aged man again.

When you hear about Detroit's newest resurgence, keep in mind that resurgence is largely fueled by suburbanites commuting to Detroit for high-skilled jobs.

When you hear about Detroit’s newest resurgence, keep in mind that resurgence is largely fueled by suburbanites commuting to Detroit for high-skilled jobs.

In one of America’s largest cities, the poverty rate is nearly 40%. People in the neighborhoods are not getting these jobs. Most can’t afford the downtown parking rates for the service-sector jobs. Downtown jobs are out of reach for many. When you visit a restaurant or bar in downtown Detroit, chances are the person serving you lives outside of the city limits.

Detroit residents don’t feel an affinity for the new Detroit in downtown. They can’t afford to shop there. They can’t afford to eat there. They can’t afford to park there.

Often the skills they learned, they learned in a devastated school district. It’s a school district which is about to go bankrupt. Every year it’s worse. Ten years of state-appointed emergency managers have done nothing to help. In fact, it’s worse. Charges against administrators who allegedly cheated the school district for their own gain have sullied the district’s reputation further.

In fact, those who are charged with embezzlement are easy targets for legislators who were looking for a reason to dismiss Detroit Public Schools altogether. It fits nicely into the belief that nothing good comes from Detroit.

Detroit residents suffer from the stereotypes set up by term-limited legislators who are often biased against Detroit or biased against the residents of Detroit from the beginning.

The people of Detroit, they go to school.

They do the best they can with what they’re offered.

They start their careers at a disadvantage.

Unless something drastic changes, their kids can look to more of the same. That should give anyone a reason to cry.

(You can see all of our Detroit Journalism Cooperative coverage here.)

Support for the Detroit Journalism Cooperative on Michigan Radio comes from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Renaissance Journalism's Michigan Reporting Initiative, the Ford Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.