Sign of the times
A Detroiter signals distress from a neighborhood under siege
Published: July 18, 2012
He spent six years in that neighborhood before moving to his current home near Eight Mile and Dequindre, to what he thought was a better neighborhood in which to raise his own three kids. It was worse.
"Just constantly under attack every day," he says. "I wake up every morning to see what I got left. They sneak in through every crack they can find. Cut all the locks I had on an $80,000 shop in a 16-foot box truck. Everything is gone. Just gone. My snowplow was piece by piece. They took the hydraulics, they took the switch controls, they took the plow, and then actually the whole truck."
He says he's lost $50,000 worth of tools and equipment since moving here. "All this shit just empties out. I keep filling it up, it keeps emptying out. They're like vultures. They sit there and watch, they'll put one on the corner or something, and they'll sit and watch and watch and watch until the second you get in the car and leave or turn your back."
Still, he tried contributing. He cleared mounds of trash from the city-owned corner lot next to his house, installed playground equipment and invited the neighborhood's children to play there. He opened a candy store in his living room for kids too scared to walk all the way to the store. He mowed the lawns on vacant lots on his street. But these gestures were just crumbs compared to the mayhem around him.
"There's hundreds of different explanations of why it's going on. Especially now, with all the people dropped off welfare, it's become more desperate, it's getting worse. But nobody's scared of the police. Everybody knows that nobody cares. There is no law."
City life began taking its toll. In his frustration he started leaving hand-painted signs all over the east side. "Where's 20,000 troops to protect our own children and communities?" one read. "Will the last person to leave Detroit kindly turn out the lights?" said another. "Does this place look safe for your child to play?" he wrote on a boarded-up abandoned house.
The signs got edgier as time went on and his nerves frayed. "Pedophiles' paradise, inquire within. Children wanted," he scrawled on a stubbornly enduring vacant house. "Free dopehouse kit. Start your own spot," one sign announced. And he nailed a rusty bucket to a picket fence in a high prostitution area with a sign that read, "Free used condoms." In his own yard he wrote simply, "Save Detroit, adopt a crackhead."
But until he put up the warning sign along Eight Mile, few people noticed.
Rudell Solomon noticed, though. The 70-year-old Army veteran has a community garden across from Ventura's house and the children's playground where the sign stands. "I told him, 'Why don't we just put up something positive?' Solomon remembers. "And he said, 'No, not until they do something.' So he got a right to his free speech. I can't argue that."
Solomon, who lives a few blocks over, is big, brash and intense. "You're looking at a black Rambo," he shouts. "I've done hand-to-hand combat, I've been stabbed. I've been shot. I've been fucked up. And I promised the Lord when I was in Vietnam if he'd let me get back I'd serve the community for the rest of my days. And I'm doing it, and that's the only reason I'm doing it."
The two former military men, both caught in the same neighborhood, became friends. The irony is that Ventura, the gentler of the pair, is the more militant, while Solomon, the fierier of the two, declares himself a pacifist — to a degree.
"Him and I work together, in conjunction," Solomon barks. "He got his thing, I got my thing. His thing is about crackheads stealing all his stuff, breaking into his house. I'm on the peaceful side of the community. I teach kids how to plant."
But Solomon has also driven drug dealers out of the neighborhood, he says, with a look suggesting it wasn't solely through persuasive words. And he's got nails poking upward from the top of his wood fence to keep out the waves of thieves that try to jump into his yard.
His first glimpse of Detroit was a stark one — he was with the 101st Airborne as they patrolled the city streets during the 1967 riots. He came back in 1972, moved to a house on the corner of Eight Mile, where he still lives. Things are so bad here now, he says, that everyone preys on anyone who has anything, a symptom of the worsening poverty out here.
"People got to feed their kids. That's why I'm trying to get these gardens, grow you some beans, man. I'm showing people how they can eat off the land. Somebody got to get in there and do something from the bottom up. I'm doing it working with the kids, he's working with the crackheads," he says, motioning toward Ventura. "He's fighting them motherfuckers. I told him I hope they don't blow his shit off the corner one day. But he's brave."
A story from his first years here tells a lot: Solomon was on National Guard duty one night up the street, and a neighbor called to tell him there was a pimp and some hookers working their trade in his front yard. He showed up with a dozen uniformed National Guard soldiers and absolutely pummeled the group. The incident made the neighbors terrified of him, just as he wanted. "They went and told everybody, and that's why they don't fuck with me," he says.
> Email Detroitblogger John