Michigan Piracy Postcard: How scrappers stole a church congregation’s dream

Keith Hill had a dream for his church. Befitting a congregation of only 20 families, it wasn’t a big dream, but it was theirs – to find a permanent home for both the church and a ministry they hoped to start, providing job training for young people of the nearby neighborhoods of Brightmoor and Grandmont Rosedale in northwest Detroit.

And late in 2011, Pastor Hill thought the dream was in reach. He’d found the perfect place, the closed Vetal Elementary School on Westwood Street. The congregation would worship in the auditorium, and the students would study in the classrooms. It’s a big building. There would be room to grow for a good long while, with a kitchen, gym and more.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Bridge staff writer Nancy Derringer detailed the statewide scrap metal piracy– and state leaders’ inaction so far in addressing it – in July. Today’s follow-up story is but one sad postcard in how the problem erodes neighborhoods in cities across the state.]

Vetal is an older school, a place of blackboards and erasers and bells that ring. Most classrooms have built-in bookshelves and hardwood floors. A decorative tile alcove near the main office honors the building’s first principal. Bathroom plumbing is encased in marble. And it was pristine, Hill said. Perfect condition.

It took a long time to negotiate a purchase agreement, but by the winter of 2012, Hill felt things were falling into place. He was ready to take possession, but the neighbors had started to notice intruders had gotten into the building – tracks in the snow, people hanging around.

“The (Detroit Public Schools) police would respond if you saw something,” Hill said. “They still had cameras around. But you had to see them.”

What happened next has happened all over Detroit, as emptying buildings – houses, businesses, schools like Vetal – have become a source of quick cash for metal thieves looking to steal whatever they can. Many aren’t worth much to begin with, and stripped of fixtures, their value plummets even further.

Scrappers have a reputation as bottom feeders, but Hill believes at least some are skilled professionals. He doesn’t know how anyone other than an experienced electrician could get into the transformer room at Vetal Elementary and steal so much of the equipment without being electrocuted.

The plumbing went next. The Sloan valves – the flushing mechanism on institutional toilets – were taken off of every one in Vetal. Hill said they fetch a good price, used. At some point, the real disaster happened, when the damage to the plumbing set off the sprinkler system, which rained an ocean into the basement, the gym, and onto all those hardwood floors. With no electrical system to alert anyone, the water poured in, undetected.

By the time the flooding was discovered, the damage was done. The basement was a swimming pool. The hardwood floors buckled; some rooms look like wooden oceans, with waves of floorboards rising and falling. The rooms with linoleum fared no better, as each tile curled, breaking free of its adhesive.

The marble in the bathrooms was smashed, as scrappers broke it up in pursuit of the plumbing within. The industrial kitchen fixtures vanished. As Hill walks through the darkened school, he speculates on how it went: The pros took the best stuff first, followed by the cruder crews. In the fan room, parts of the building’s ventilation system lie in pieces around a bloodstained floor.

“Someone hurt himself getting that out,” Hill said. “They had themselves a party here. What they didn’t take, they busted up.”

Hill tried to protect the building, what was left of it. But he found that scrappers are like jackals. You can drive them back from a carcass, but as soon as your back is turned, they sneak back in. He can’t be there every single minute.

Hill will have to pay $8,000 just to get temporary power back on at Vetal. And he still, against all odds, has his dream.

It will have to change, he knows. “We’ll have to put in furnaces instead of using the boilers” ruined in the flood. But he thinks he can still partner with other agencies and set up a training center.

“If we allow that facility to fall, we will lose a major piece in that area,” he said. “The blight of a school can destroy a neighborhood. It becomes a haven for drug users, all sorts of problems. I know I can save it.”

The congregation is meeting in the auditorium, worshiping in the light that comes through the windows, even if no one can use a single bathroom. But he needs to get power and heat back on before the cold weather comes.

“We’re working against time,” he said.

Meanwhile, he’s doing what he’s done so much of since he identified Vetal as the venue for his dream – waiting. He visits often, because he knows his car and presence repels the few jackals still eyeing the place.

Certainly, the fence won’t keep them out. Silver posts stand around the entrance, supporting nothing now.

Thieves stole the chain link.

Staff Writer Nancy Nall Derringer has lived in Metro Detroit since 2005, working as a writer, editor and teacher. She worked for 20 years as a columnist in Fort Wayne, Ind. and was a co-founder of GrossePointeToday.com, an early experiment in hyperlocal journalism

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Jan of Mi
Sun, 08/11/2013 - 12:12pm
Calling them scrappers is not enough. It gives visions of "oh poor me" homeless people trying to survive. Every time a news story appears about these people they should be labeled for what they are; criminals. Trespassing on private property and stealing personal or business property they are committing felonies. Scrap companies need to be held more accountable to enforce the laws. Maybe the police should develop a "be on the look-out for" list of obvious items that have been stolen.