The Detroit Agenda: Lighting Up Chaldean Town

May 14, 2014

By Travis Wright

"Even if they do break a window of a car, you can’t really see it, they get away with it, but light will prevent people from doing those kinds of things.”

-Dureid Kada

It’s one of Detroit’s smallest neighborhoods, just a mile-long sliver of Seven Mile Road between John R and Woodward Avenue. It's called Chaldeantown.

Chaldeans are Christian Iraqis who mostly hail from a village called Tel Kaif. They started immigrating to Detroit to work in the car factories during the early 1900s. Today, several thousand Chaldean families live just a few miles north, outside of Detroit, in suburbs such as Oak Park, West Bloomfield, and Sterling Heights.

“Most of the Chaldean they movin, okay? Everyone moving. They burn their house, they collect from insurance, they keep doing same shit. That’s why economy went down here, the business, everything going down. We used to have restaurant, four or five cafeteria here, everybody coming here. Sometimes they scared to come now. Everybody move to west side and eastside.”

That’s Harry. He’s a first-name only kind of guy. Harry’s a Chaldean business owner who operates Krytal Liquor in Chaldeantown. Harry moved out of the neighborhood in 1975 and says only few Chaldeans still live in the noticeably charred area nearby.

He says it’s a neighborhood on life-support. Just a few things are keeping it alive, including street lights.

“It’s important. We ain’t got no lights, the customer can’t come to the store, they scared, you know we got big problem, they stick em up, you know? Sometimes they scared to come to the store . If you go some streets, there’s no lighting there. Yeah, they scared.”

Indeed, they are scared.

Down the street, Marshell Wilson and his girlfriend Rudy Young wait at the bus stop on Seven Mile. Marshell says he’s here almost every single day. And, he says, the lighting situation overhead is unreliable.

“Basically, you’re in the dark, really, until you see something like a car go past, and that’s the only light you can get right now. Other than that, it’s dark. This one will come one, that one rarely comes on, so.”

An emergency vehicle wails down the street as their bus arrives. Rudy Young steps on, then turns around, saying there’s one thing everyone needs to know about this neighborhood:

“It’s dangerous! You better look out for cops. I mean, be careful, because people around here be shootin’ for no reason. Have a good one!”

It’s a high crime area, but Chaldeantown is also an insular, private community. Many of the pedestrians and business owners – even a representative at the Chaldean Center of America – are apprehensive when it comes to talking about public lighting. Most refuse to talk into a microphone, if at all.

But near the corner of Seven Mile and John R, Tom Shamoun is willing to chat. He’s on the sidewalk, smoking a cigarette. Shamoun says he’s spent most of his life living or working in Chaldeantown. These days, he lives in Macomb County and works security at the Arab American and Chaldean Council, a non-profit human service agency. He says the neighborhood is just now seeing long overdue attention from the city.

“Now we see a lot of improvements’, you know what I mean? They’re cleaning the street, they’re working on the light. You know, it’s not like before. The crime is going down, thanks to our new chief. James Craig is the best so far.”

Dureid Kada is a Chaldean butcher working behind the counter at S&J Meat across the street. He says he still lives in the neighborhood, just four blocks away, but he’d never consider walking to work, even on an 80 degree day like today; even if the street lights are working on Seven Mile.

“No, the lights are on on Seven Mile here, but mainly, the side-streets where we live, everybody’s concerned about the lights on our streets because, like I said, it’s pitch dark and you want to be able to see who’s coming down or if someone is tampering with someone’s house you want to see them.”

A woman who’s waiting for her order, enthused to see a reporter in her neighborhood, steps up to the microphone.

_ “Yes, we need more street lights! Microphone check on- two, one-two! Yes, my name is Karen and we do need more lights in the street at nights because it’s very dangerous for women and for children.”_

Kada, the butcher continues right where he left off.

“Four windows were broken on our block. One was my sons, one was my brother, and two cars down the street. Because like I said, when someone is walking, even if they do break a window of a car, you can’t really see it, they get away with it, but light will prevent people from doing those kinds of things.”

In a lot of ways, Chaldeantown could be considered a microcosm of Detroit. It has a deep history, bones to build on, and a sense of community. But it also continues to battle violent crime, mistrust of the police force, chronic de-population, and blight.

Most of these problems might be resolved, says Dureid Kada, by turning on more lights in Chaldeantown.

WDET’s news team took to the streets to talk to hundreds of Detroiters about their neighborhoods – asking what they wanted for their communities – and what needs to change. Learn more about The Detroit Agenda here.