Story: Mark Lelinwalla
Photography: Andrew Link
A black 2013 BMW 528i creaks up a windy, gravel-strewn road on a hazy July day in Detroit. The driver shifts the car into park, emerges from the vehicle and flips up his pair of Ray-Ban sunglasses. He can’t believe what he sees across the street.
It’s the former Packard Automotive Plant…or what remains of it.
The sprawling 3,500,000-square-foot plant, once a powerful symbol of Detroit’s automotive industry, lies there absolutely gutted. It’s a structural skeleton of a five-floor facility that now resembles a war zone more so than any notion of a onetime bustling factory. What’s left of the building has been blown out as if bombs detonated and chewed through it. Vandalized with graffiti, left a dumping ground for garbage and housing for vagrants, its rubble bakes under the sun like a carcass left for dead just south of the I-94 and Mt. Elliott on Detroit’s East Side.
“It’s hard to believe any type of business was ever happening here,” the BMW’s driver says with a raspy voice that’s sure to be familiar to residents of the Motor City and hip-hop fans alike. “There’s gotta be one or two bodies in there—at the least.” The voice belongs to Obie Trice, Detroit native and veteran rapper once signed to Eminem’s Shady Records imprint.
If there’s anyone who is qualified to speak on Detroit—the auto industry being the lifeblood of the city, and where the D was and is today—it’s O. Trice. He is the embodiment of the Motor City, born and raised here, with the words “Detroit City” tatted on his forearms and a late mother who worked for Chrysler for 42 years. He has rapped for Eminem in Detroit, and he was shot in the head in Detroit.
Taking RIDES on a tour through the Motor City, Trice makes sure the Packard Plant is a stop on this particular afternoon. In many ways, the plant speaks to the story of Detroit—a once strong representation of the city’s automotive prowess that suffered a dramatic downturn, one that continues to sink today.
Though many national media outlets point to a revitalization of business occurring in downtown Detroit, past that pocket, most of the city is still in crisis. An overall fallout due to the Car Capital of the World’s auto-industry collapse and subsequent lack of jobs combined with the corruption of city officials—former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was sentenced to jail in 2010 on felony counts of perjury and obstruction of justice—are just a few key reasons the Motor City’s engine has sputtered, damn near on the brink of conking out altogether.
According to Reuters, the city’s population has dwindled in a mass exodus from a healthy 1.8 million to 700,000 in recent years alone. Of that, the city’s unemployment rate stands at 18%, which is more than double the national average. The city’s foreclosure blitz continues with Reuters estimating that as many as 42,000 Detroit homes could be auctioned off this fall. With Detroit in a whopping $18 billion debt, the city’s news is littered with daily reports about emergency manager Kevyn Orr flirting with filing for Chapter 9 bankruptcy.
Worsening matters, Detroit has announced plans for cutbacks of teachers, firefighters and police officers, the latter only enabling the city’s crime wave to intensify. (Detroit’s 9-1-1 line only operates during normal business hours due to cutbacks.)
This past June, the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report ranked Detroit as the second most dangerous city in America with 386 murders in 2012. That’s 10 times the national average per 100,000 people, and it’s Detroit’s highest homicide total in nearly 40 years.
“It’s like a third-world country,” Trice says of the violence and the reckless, unforgiving mood that the city’s streets have been entrenched in. “Like what’s going on in Syria—it’s just a melting pot of people who really don’t have nothin’ to do. There’s no opportunity, or not enough aspiration in individuals to try to further themselves. It’s just not a good look right now. It’s a lack of respect for human life.”
Trice’s own life was almost taken in a 2005 shooting on Detroit’s Lodge Freeway, where the Range Rover he was driving was sprayed with six bullets, one hitting his head, where it’s still permanently stuck today. Trice tells RIDES the investigation into the shooting never led to any arrests.
As Trice’s tour continues, he pulls up to Lauder Street, a desolate block on Detroit’s West Side, to show RIDES the house he grew up in. As he rides the brake slowly down the block, seemingly every other home is abandoned and boarded up with thin wood panels covering the windows. Trice’s childhood friend D. tells RIDES that it’s common for the most destitute in the hood to steal windows right out of houses, even stripping the aluminum linings they’re fastened by. The front doors of many homes are tagged with graffiti—either by the owners, as one door warns “Keep Out,” or gangs marking their territory. “For every 50 houses, only 15 have people living in them,” says D.
After a slow roll down the street, Trice stops on Lauder Street and removes the key from the ignition. He gazes over at the house he grew up in, and a long look of disgust comes over his face. “They done destroyed my mama’s house,” says Trice. “My mama had the best-looking house on this block. Now look at it! The awning is torn off, the fucking bathroom window is blown out. They done destroyed my mama’s house. Look at it.”
Trice’s mother, Elnora, took pride in the upkeep of her house. If it were up to her, Trice wouldn’t have been a rapper—he would have followed her footsteps in working on the factory line for Chrysler, helping to manufacture their seats and dashboards.
“She worked for Chrysler for 42 years,” Trice says, glowing while talking about his beloved mother, who lost her bout with breast cancer in 2011. “She missed 37 days of work in 42 years. She was like, ‘If you could get out of school, I could get you in Chrysler,’” he continues. “That was the plan. A young black dude coming up in the hood who had no plans of going to college—you make good money at the plant! Then you just work for the rest of your life.”
But Trice would find a different line of work, one he solidified in 2001 when he rapped for Eminem in a parking lot—a meeting Eminem’s D12 group member Bizarre facilitated—and later signed with Em’s Shady Records at the age of 25. (Trice’s mom would later embrace his artistry, even appearing in the video for his hit record “Cry Now.”)
Now, 10 years later at 35, Trice recognizes how he made most of that opportunity. He also recognizes that opportunity is what Detroit needs. “I think there’s a lot of people here that’s willing to work hard to get the whole American Dream way of life,” says Trice, who currently resides in the suburbs on the outskirts of Detroit. “We just don’t get the industry, but you could come to Detroit and find just as many people working hard as you would in New York. People just need the opportunity.”
Motor City residents might get that opportunity in downtown Detroit, a part of town that should benefit from financial support and subsequent activity. Quicken Loans is helping to finance a $140 million M-1 streetcar rail line there to improve transportation and promote tourism.
Downtown is also still home to the massive General Motors Building, the Chrysler Building and legendary Detroit fighter Joe Louis’s fist monument, all reminders of the blue-collar city’s former glory and fight to resurrect.
“I could see it slowly getting back to a good level,” says D12 member Swifty McVay. “It’s just going to take a lot of reconstruction.” Trice agrees.
“It’s going to take a lot of money and a lot of participation from residents to really be productive in the community, but Detroit can reach its full potential again,” says Trice, who’s working on his upcoming album and getting his Black Market Entertainment label off the ground. “The car industry gotta come all the way back, too. It can be done, but it’s gonna take a lot of time.”