Benny Napoleon peered out of the window of a silver SUV and shook his head.
“This should never happen,” the Wayne County sheriff told me, pointing to a west-side street made impassable by discarded tires, mattresses, couches and black garbage bags. “People should not have to live like this.”
Napoleon, who is running for mayor of Detroit, wanted to show me how his plan, One Square Mile, would reduce crime and improve long-neglected neighborhoods.
The idea is to assign a police officer to each of Detroit’s 140 square miles. That officer would get to know the residents, business owners, faith-based leaders, school principals and troublemakers. The officer also would notify city hall of malfunctioning street lights, gaping potholes, missing manhole covers, broken fire hydrants and clogged storm water drains.
During our one-hour drive through one square mile on the west side (boundaries pictured to right), we saw scrappers, suspected drug dealers, a loose pit bull, gang-related graffiti, wide-open abandoned homes, dilapidated businesses and yards covered in trash.
“Look at this,” Napoleon said, visibly irritated. “It’s outrageous.”
The SUV stopped in front of an abandoned bungalow overcome by brush. The windows were broken, and the front yard was covered by dead trees and garbage bags on an otherwise tidy block.
Napoleon got out of the SUV and talked to a few neighbors, who said the city has ignored their complaints.
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“All they need is a Dumpster,” Napoleon said a few minutes later. “People want to take control of their neighborhood; they just need the resources.”
As we turned the corner onto Prevost, Napoleon pointed out a suspected drug house and lookout car. A few houses away, a truck was filled with what looked like stolen scrap metal.
Under Napoleon’s plan, he said, “an officer would knock on the door and tell them, ‘I’m here, I’m going to be here everyday. You have to be a good neighbor. If you don’t, there are going to be consequences.'”
Napoleon said city hall shares the blame for Detroit’s dramatic population decline because irresponsible homeowners and landlords have been permitted to neglect their properties.
“We’ve allowed people to disrespect our neighborhoods,” Napoleon said. “If you don’t cut your grass or clean up your property, you need to get an ordinance violation.”
During the drive, Napoleon was sincere and passionate. He didn’t discuss his opponent, Mike Duggan, or talk about politics. He was openly frustrated with the condition of the neighborhoods and the failure of city services.
Napoleon said the city has all but abandoned its neighborhoods, doing little to curtail the abandonment.
“People need to feel like they can make a difference,” he said. “My plan can get that done.”
Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.