From the street, the two decomposing bodies were nearly invisible, concealed in an overgrown lot alongside worn-out car tires and a moldy sofa. The teenagers had been shot, stripped to their underwear and left on a deserted block.
They were just the latest victims of foul play whose remains went undiscovered for days after being hidden deep inside Detroit’s vast urban wilderness—a crumbling wasteland rarely visited by outsiders and infrequently patrolled by police.
Abandoned and neglected parts of the city are quickly becoming dumping grounds for the dead—at least a dozen bodies in 12 months’ time. And authorities acknowledge there’s little they can do.
“You can shoot a person, dump a body and it may just go unsolved” because of the time it may take for the corpse to be found, officer John Garner said.
The bodies have been purposely hidden or discarded in alleys, fields, vacant houses, abandoned garages and even a canal. Seven of the victims are believed to have been slain outside Detroit and then dumped within the city.
It’s a pattern made possible by more than four decades of urban decay and suburban flight. White residents started moving to burgeoning suburbs in the 1950s, then stepped up their exodus after a deadly 1967 race riot. Detroit’s black middle class followed over the next two decades, leaving block after block of empty homes.
“Detroit is a dumping ground for a lot of stuff,” said Margaret Dewar, professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Michigan. “There is no one to watch. There is no capacity to enforce laws about dumping. There is a perception you can dump and no one will report it.”
Detroit has more than 30,000 vacant houses, and the deficit-strangled city has no resources of its own to level them. Mayor Dave Bing is promoting a plan to tear down as many as possible using federal money. The state is also contributing to the effort.
But it’s hard to keep up. About a quarter-million people moved out of Detroit between 2000 and 2010, leaving just over 700,000 residents in a city built for 2 million.
Detroit’s reputation as a violent city with one of the highest crime rates in the country also works against it.