Published: July 18, 2012
It wasn't the daily raids on his yard by the neighborhood's thieves that did it. Nor was it the pyro who firebombed his equipment trailer. No, what drove Andre Ventura over the edge was the drive-by shooting that had kids on the playground diving for cover as bullets pinged off the swing-set posts.
When that happened, Ventura grabbed some paint and a brush, scrawled an angry declaration on a plank of wood and hoisted his homemade sign at the edge of his east side yard, leaving it to face Eight Mile Road and the thousands of commuters that pass by daily.
"Warning! This city is infested by crackheads. Secure your belongings and pray for your life. Your legislators won't protect you," the sign read. Then he raised several American flags up tall poles, but flew them upside down in the signal of distress.
Ventura had spent a decade living in Detroit's inner-city, fixing up old houses and helping open adult foster care homes, supplying truckloads of clothes for the poor, planting urban gardens and creating a playground for kids. He's a disaster relief worker by trade, and when he came to Detroit, he felt compelled to help because he'd stumbled onto a disaster.
As the years in the inner city wore on him, he'd channel his angst into little signs he left on abandoned homes and rickety fences, expressing concern about the condition of the neighborhoods, the threats residents there endure, the harrowing upbringing children face. The signs got little attention. But this time, people reacted.
Cops stopped by and voiced their support. Firefighters pulled up in rigs and got out to take pictures. Neighbors offered congratulations.
"I had signs up about children for years," the 41-year-old Ventura says. "I put up 200-and-something signs, and nobody reacted. I put up a crackhead sign up here on Eight Mile, I had cars stopping the next day, and within two weeks I'm on international news."
All because he said what he felt should be heard — that some parts of this city are blown-out combat zones where innocent people are under siege.
"I had a positive outlook on the city," he says. "I used to say nice things about Detroit. I said Detroit would survive as long as there was one person to love it. But I've had a complete change in attitude."
If there's one person in Detroit who would be least expected to lose his optimism for the city, it is the energetic man who came here to help rebuild it.
After a childhood on military bases in Europe, a stint of his own in the Army and a career in disaster relief, Ventura came to Detroit after a woman he met at a Home Depot invited him to help fix up some old homes on the east side. "Within the first three days, I seen a house blown up, two cars blown up in the streets, and you were hearing gunshots every night. It's nuts over there. I could've been in Iraq or Afghanistan. That's what sparked enough curiosity for me to try to figure out what was really going on, because before that I really didn't have any experience in Detroit."
He'd drive around the city, introducing himself to residents, touring the good blocks and the bad ones, finding out who were the killers and who were the thieves. Along the way he stumbled into the shadow economy that fuels the city's neighborhoods.
"I can get you anything you want, legal or illegal," he says. " Drugs, black market goods, anything. I can get you a helicopter. Guns. Grenades $5 apiece, real grenades. Anything that you want there's somebody willing to steal it. I don't care what you want. You want a tank? You can get it and probably for less than $5,000."
Alarmed by what he'd seen, he wrote impassioned letters pleading for help from the city's mayors and councilmembers, who dismissed him for living in a suburb at the time. "When I started tackling problems the first thing that came out of their mouths was, 'Well, you don't even live in Detroit,'" he says, "So, OK, fine, I'll move to Detroit."
He moved into a rickety old house at French and Gratiot, an intersection crisscrossing a wasteland. As a disaster relief worker he'd been to towns decimated by hurricanes or tornadoes. But he was stunned.
"I've been all over the world, all over the country," he says. "There ain't nothing like Detroit. There's really no way to describe it."
In his decade of inner-city life, he's amassed countless stories of social mayhem, snapshots of social collapse. Of hookers having sex on the children's playground he built next to his yard. Of looking out his window to see neighbors walking off with tools and extension cords in bright daylight. Of the neighborhood kid who's so well-connected he can get back just about any of your stolen things — for a price. Of tending to children shot by stray bullets while waiting for police and ambulances that sometimes don't arrive. Of the elderly woman across the street who won $6,000 in the lottery but was shot and killed the next night by a thief who wanted that ticket. Of that drive-by shooting that sent little kids running for their lives on a playground.
"There ain't no way you can fathom it," he says of his corner of the city. "There's no morals, ethics, standards. There's no connection between, basically, life that you see everywhere else."
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