Detroit: Closed for business

A weak police presence, high crime and ballooning insurance rates push mom-and-pop stores out of business

Simon Yono, an employee at Bellagio Liquor store on the east side of Detroit, serves customers from behind a thick sheet of bulletproof glass.
Greg Ruffing/Redux for Al Jazeera America

DETROIT — On his way to get me a soda from the coolers inside his family's liquor store, Maher Bacall stops, returns to his office and stuffs a 9 mm pistol in the waistband of his jeans. Then he walks out to the aisles of Bellagio Liquor where his customers are shopping.

"Never leave without it," he says.

Bellagio Liquor is on Detroit's east side, an area Bacall considers the worst part of the bankrupt city. Surrounding it are neighborhoods dotted with abandoned homes and stretches of tall grass where houses and businesses once stood.

Fires and decay have destroyed many buildings in Detroit, which lost close to a quarter million people in the 2010 census. The remaining 700,000 — a third of whom are living in poverty — are spread out across 139 square miles, an area nearly three times the size of San Francisco, leaving some blocks so sparsely populated that they look more country than urban.

Bacall, who is looking to sell his liquor store of four years and has been in training in the hospitality industry in the suburbs, says he feels trapped in a cage behind the five layers of bulletproof glass that separate him from customers, who visit Bellagio Liquor to purchase their alcohol and cash their checks at the check station.

His family objects to his carrying a gun, but Bacall feels he has no choice in a city he describes as a "war zone."

"I don't want to carry a gun," Bacall says. "But I value my life."

Independent business owners in Detroit have found it difficult to survive in a city that ranked second on the FBI's list of the most dangerous cities in the country in 2012. With a dwindling police force and climbing crime rate, Detroit storeowners, many of whom see themselves as lifelines in their neighborhoods, say their neighbors are fleeing to the suburbs and that police response time has slacked in recent years, leaving them in the center of what they consider a lawless environment.

Detroit, which filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy on July 18, making it the largest American city to have taken such action, could see more cuts in city services. The Detroit Police Department, however, sees it as an opportunity to invest more money in the police force once the city's $18 billion debt is restructured.

"We're not paying our bills for the most part to some of the unsecured debt," Commander Todd Bettison says of the city's debt obligations. "Therefore, some of that money that's going to be saved will be invested in hiring police officers and purchasing more cars."

Auday Arabo, president of the lobby group Associated Food and Petroleum Dealers, says Detroit's crime problem is "the number one issue" influencing the city's ability to attract new businesses and keep existing ones.

"If you talk to business owners and residents and ask them why they're leaving, they say they don't feel safe," says Arabo, whose group represents 350 independent retailers in Detroit.

Detroit's crime rate has been down compared to a year prior. On August 5, murders totaled 197, down from 209 at the same time last year, according to statistics compiled by the Detroit Police Department. Total violent crime in 2013, year-to-date, is down by nearly 1 percent.

Though there has been progress in numbers compared to last year, Detroit police chief James Craig, who took office in early July, says residents should be angry.

"What, over the weekend, 13 shootings? And nobody gets excited," he said in a media briefing on his first day. "There should be an outcry."

Craig says the city's 2,200 officers — down by 400 from the previous year due to cost-cutting measures by a beleaguered city administration — need to prioritize calls and educate the community on how the police respond to certain crimes.  

The average DPD response time to life-threatening emergencies in 2013 is 32 minutes, Bettison says. The average for non-violent crime is 50 minutes.

"What concerns me is when we have a shooting in progress," Craig says. "The victim's down. You think it's going to take 40 to 50 minutes for the officers to get there?"

The police force, Bettison says, measures itself against a national figure of 11 minutes average response time, nearly one-third the DPD rate, for life-threatening incidents. He did not have a national comparison for non-violent crimes, but says he would like to see it cut down to 30 minutes.

An employee at Bellagio Liquor store on the east side of Detroit shows one of the guns that they keep behind the counter to protect themselves from crime.
Greg Ruffing/Redux for Al Jazeera America

Bacall says it took officers close to an hour to respond to an incident at his store in June in which a man displayed a gun after attempting to shoplift. (DPD did not reply to a request for the official response time to Bacall's phone call.) One of Bacall's employees walked around the counter to escort the twenty-something out of the store, and the man flashed his gun, at which point the employee returned behind the bulletproof counter space. Bacall, who had his gun on him but did not draw, called the police to give them the man's identification information, which was stored in his computer system for check cashing purposes. But it was too late. The man had left, and the officers weren't interested, Bacall says.

Bacall says he hasn't carried a gun on him since he started training at a hotel in Plymouth, Mich., in early August.

"You can't do anything about it," Bacall says of the city's crime problem, "so you leave."

Loving life, leaving Detroit

Ma'at Saba, 55, manager of the family-owned Loving Life Health Food and Healing, says she sees no need to relocate the health store she runs on the city's northwest end.

Many storefronts on her stretch of 7 Mile Road appear vacant, burnt or empty, but the tree-lined side streets branching off the thoroughfare are populated with well-maintained brick single-family homes.

"It's changing slowly [for the worse]," Saba says. "But it's still stable. As long as you have home renters and owners, you stay stable."

Detroit's high crime rate, Saba says, is a symptom rather than the cause of a larger problem facing the city she grew up in. Things weren't so bad when there were factory jobs and enough tax revenue for investments in public services.

"They've taken away the playgrounds, the basketball hoops, so what else are the children to do?" she asks, lamenting the cuts the city has made.

Saba, whose customers come in for jugs of alkaline water and vitamin supplements, says part of the responsibility is on the storeowner to ensure that their business is part of the neighborhood and not just a corner store that profits off of it. Some residents, Saba says, see her store as a respite from the dangers outside. Many hang around inside for two or three hours, without speaking or even making a purchase. And Saba is OK with that. More stores, she says, need to create an atmosphere of respect and be part of residents' lives beyond their shop doors.

"If you can fix your area, then you fix your area and spread it out," she says.

The costs of crime

Storeowners in Detroit worry about the direct and indirect costs of crime — everything from the price of covering theft to rising insurance rates, something Detroit's state-appointed emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, highlighted as one of the deterrents to economic progress in a June report

Operating a store under these circumstances in a city with a weak economy can be frustrating, says Jacklin Fakhoury Zeidan, a 50-year-old mother of three who sold her gas station on the city's southwest side this past January.

The BP station — which she had owned for a quarter century — used to be a place where neighborhood children competed in Easter egg hunts and students brought in A's on their report cards in exchange for candy bars. It is now a Shamrock pump. Youths still hang around outside the store, which faces two other gas stations — one still in business, the other abandoned.

By the early 2000s, as high crime and a sinking economy plagued the city, the neighborhood had deteriorated badly, Fakhoury Zeidan says. The seats outside the gas station entrance where a group of older customers used to sip coffee and share stories on Saturday mornings would remain unclaimed. Students at McKinsey High School down the street began skipping class or dropping out. Lifelong residents started moving to other parts of the metro area to escape the violence of two local gangs that Fakhoury Zeidan says were "driving everybody crazy."

"These groups were just relentless," she says. "They would walk in and just take what they want."

Like many of Detroit’s small business owners, Fakhoury Zeidan found herself contemplating leaving the city for the suburbs. The police department was cutting staff, the price of gas was fluctuating, and the insurance premiums kept on rising.

So she sold her gas station to a local petroleum dealer who could afford the costs of operating the business. Although Detroit has seen an increase of 35 new businesses in 2013, it’s mostly been big-name retailers, not small-business owners like Bacall, Saba and Fakhoury Zeidan.

"When you walk in as a company like that," Fakhoury Zeidan says of the big-name retailers, "you have a little bit of weight in comparison to one individual who has one or two companies here and there."

The $10,000 price tag of insuring her business in 2012 was nearly double the $5,600 she paid when she first opened. Fakhoury Zeidan found it especially unfair considering she had filed only two claims since she bought the station in 1988: one for a fight inside the store, the other when a customer threw a metal object at her husband’s head. For everything else, the deductible — also a staggering $10,000, and 10 times as much as she initially paid — was too high to kick in for small claims such as theft or minor property damage.

But when she tried negotiating, her insurance agent told her the city's crime rate was too high and that he couldn't afford to take a risk.

Yemen over Detroit

If there was work in his native Yemen, Mohammad Al Azani would probably return home. Despite the armed conflict, he'd feel safer there, he says, than at the Mobil station and mechanic shop on Detroit's western outskirt where he works.

During the day, the shop is filled with people dropping their cars off for repairs and stopping in the store to purchase lottery tickets, tobacco or snacks. At night, during the shift Al Azani normally works, customers affiliated with gangs are bolder and sometimes hang around outside the entrance, waiting for him to leave.

Gang members extorting stores and threating employees' lives are among the top complaints Arabo's lobby group receives from city storeowners.

Did Al Azani fear for his life working in the store?

"How can we not?" responded the 43-year-old father of four. "But I need work. If I didn't need work, I wouldn't work here."

Frank Dabaja, Al Azani's boss and the station owner, has two friends who were shot at their convenience stores. He, too, has been frustrated with what he considers slow police response and lack of police presence in his city. To combat the crime surrounding his store, he learned to rely more on the Wayne County sheriff's office, which holds the entire city of Detroit under its jurisdiction.

The sheriff's department launched a satellite station program a year and half ago in which officers check in at convenience stores and patrol a four-mile radius for eight hours twice a month. The patrol areas are based on districts with the highest crime rates. Those include the east side, southwest Detroit and the west side, where Dabaja's store is located.

"When they come in, it's a different world," says Dabaja, who wishes Detroit had a police department as responsive as the sheriff's office.

Frank Dabaja outside of the gas station he owns and operates on the west side of Detroit.
Greg Ruffing/Redux for Al Jazeera America

But the sheriff recently cut the number of satellite patrol areas to three, from 10. A reduction in personnel — down to 900 from about 1,100 due to budget cuts and attrition — made it difficult to staff all the areas, Deputy Chief Mike Jaafar says.

"Without police, they can forget about it," Jaafar says of storeowners' safety.

DPD chief Craig is trying to get more police offers on the ground in an effort to curb crime. He aims to move some plainclothes officers who work desk jobs to on-duty positions, and since he took office in July, the number of officers per shift has increased from 140 to 200. The DPD is also planning a massive hiring campaign, Commander Bettison says, looking to add about 100 new officers each year. In July, there were 22 new officers in training.

"Our crime rate is still too high, but we also have to address the issue and perception of crime so that folks feel safe," Bettison says.

Dabaja, who opened the gas station in 1984, says it was safety concerns that drove many of his customers out of the neighborhood. Maurice Jones, former president of a local community organization that looks after Dabaja's neighborhood, says the remaining residents consider Dabaja a pillar of the community and an advocate on their behalf for basic services such as lighting and policing.

"If Frank weren’t here, that gas station would be gone. That's the problem with Detroit: We won't work with the business owners," says Jones, a 63-year-old retired Vietnam veteran who has lived on the west side for 40 years.

The census tract that includes Dabaja's business is nearly 20 percent vacant. The number of empty properties might be higher than that, says state demographer Ken Darga, because the census does not record condemned lots and non-habitable houses in vacancy data.

As Dabaja walks down the block where his gas station sits, he points out the abandoned homes, broken windows and rubble from house fires.

He stops at a boarded-up redbrick home with pink roses out front and trees growing around it.

"What kind of city would allow people to live like this?" he asks.   

The migration out of the city has also directly affected the value of Dabaja's business.

He was offered $1.5 million for his business in 2006 but he didn't sell then. Now the station is worth $300,000, just a fifth of what he could have gotten in 2006. Selling it for a profit will be difficult.

Dabaja wishes he had sold the store when the selling was good and focused his energies on his other businesses — two shopping plazas and a credit card processing center — in the Detroit suburbs of Canton, Livonia and Westland, where there are fewer problems with crime.

Dabaja says the condition he's in with his Detroit gas station — the first business he launched in the area and one that helped him branch out — is not where he dreamed he would be in 30 years.

"It's like we're living in the wild out here," he says.

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