It’s always sad to read about anyone dying. It’s particularly tragic when the person or persons in question are young. On the night of the 16th April 2011 two young British men, James Kouzaris (24) and James Cooper (25) were shot dead in a district called Newtown in Sarasota, Florida, USA. A notorious place, known to be the stomping ground of a vicious gang known as the Second Line, the Courts area of Newtown where the men’s bodies were found, is a place that local people avoid in the daytime much less in the middle of the night. Their killer, thought to be a sixteen year old with special needs may well have killed them by way of attempting to impress and consequently join the Second Line. That his life is now effectively over too, is also deeply tragic
Nobody, as yet, really knows why the two James’s went from drinking in smart bars in downtown Sarasota out to a place like Newtown, but one theory is that they were attempting to be ‘ghetto tourists’. This is a phenomenon I had heard about before but it wasn’t something I knew a great deal about. I started reading up. Apparently ‘ghetto tourism’ is a very popular pursuit and can even involve large numbers of tourists in big buses touring the districts where notorious gangs are said to rule the streets via a combination of gun terror and narcotic supply. People pay handsomely, apparently, to see places where famous rappers like Tupac once lived and organisers arrange truces with local gangbangers in order to make all this comfortable and possible for them. James Kouzaris and James Cooper were not part of such a tour and may have felt, being young, that they were somehow going to ‘get away with’ roaming in the ghetto in the middle of the night.
Having not long come back from Detroit this is all very piquant as far as I am concerned. Albeit for the purposes of writing a very unromanticised book, I too could be ‘accused’ of ghetto tourism. Not that people in Detroit talk about ‘the ghetto’ as such. There is just the city and the suburbs and there are places, like the Cass Corridor, that have a certain reputation. As a middle-aged foreigner in Doctor Marten’s boots, I roamed alone with no problem at all. I am not easily frightened and indeed in some senses I’ve already faced my worst fears and, if not overcome them, I have managed to at least live through them. I have also worked with mentally disordered offenders and so I am practiced in holding my nerve. Not that I had to in my solo wanderings around Detroit. Even in places that had some notoriety, I only ever experienced kindness and friendliness. But then I didn’t visit at night and I didn’t go to any of the really dodgy places without a local insider by my shoulder. When it came to investigating the side of Detroit that is really dark, I got help.
My guide doesn’t own a tour company or advertise his services in a conventional manner. This is a guy you have to find out about by making your interest in the city public. He loves Detroit and its people and he is not about to parade it, warts and all, to those who seek to just look and not learn. I visited the kind of places and the sort of people that the two James’s probably wanted to contact. James Kouzaris was actually an urban planner interested in improving poor neighbourhoods and so they were not just gawpers. They were intelligent young men who had a genuine interest in where they were going, but they had been drinking, it was the middle of the night and they were alone. Had they not had a drink, then maybe things would have been different. Beer can sometimes embolden (I know it does that to me!) and it probably seemed like a good idea at the time. Young people do that kind of thing and it’s usually Okay. But I also wonder how much the commercialisation of ‘the ghetto’ influenced them too.
Is it right for tourists to look out of bulletproof bus windows at streets where people have to steal and sometimes kill in order to get money to feed their addictions? I’ve worked with people addicted to heroin and crack and I know that their lives are hard, that they are not happy with their lot and that, in most cases, they do not see themselves as anything even close to glamorous or interesting. An addiction is an illness which most societies also criminalize – in my opinion a dangerous mistake – and which brings with it all sorts of hazards Mr Joe Public doesn’t really (yes, really) want to think about. For every blinged up 50 Cent there are a hundred kids who will live fast and die tragically young in pursuit of the vague notion of some sort of meaning in their lives. The gang can be your family, your drug of choice can be your whole life. Make films about ‘the ghetto’ and write books about it, but don’t stare at it for your entertainment, don’t get hooked into the ‘romance’. There’s nothing ‘sexy’ about someone dying from a heroin overdose, trust me.
That said, there is always hope and in Detroit it comes in the form of community initiatives, like the urban farm run by the Georgia Street Collective. This is an organisation that was set up by a local man called Mark to promote good neighbourliness and good nutrition. It helps anyone and everyone and is a real force for inclusion and positivity in a deprived area of the city. If tour buses are to go anywhere then places like Georgia Street should be their destination. Mark will readily tell anyone about the dark side of his part of town but he will balance that with the good stuff that goes on too. I just hope that as an author I do all of the city justice as well. There’s much more to ‘the ghetto’ than guns and drugs – you just have to find the right people.