DETROIT – It looks like a ghost town, and Canadian oil helped build it.
The burned-out, abandoned parcels of property in a west-end Detroit neighbourhood are the reverse image of an oil boom town — a ramshackle yin to the thriving yang of Fort McMurray, Alta.
For three-quarters of a century, crude oil has arrived here at the Marathon refinery. Even as this once-bustling, blue-collar area became blighted by crime and neglect like so much of Detroit, the industry survived.
So when neighbours started complaining about smells and occasional explosions while the plant was planning a US$2.2-billion expansion to handle the influx of Alberta-type heavy crude, basic economics proffered a solution.
The business expanded, and the people were paid to leave.
Picture a block the size of a football field, once crowded with old working-class homes. Then imagine it razed into empty lots of grass and dirt, with nothing left standing except for one home and a couple more abandoned houses slated for demolition.
Then imagine five- or six-dozen such fields. That’s what happened in Oakwood Heights.
The company offered an average of $65,000 a house in an area where the standard home is pegged at $16,000 and some properties can be had for less than $5,000. People jumped on the deal. Ninety per cent of the 100-acre area has been cleared, with 275 homes demolished and more demolitions scheduled for this year.
But not everyone took the money. Some refused for sentimental reasons, others for financial ones. For Mary McKenzie, it was both.
The retired school secretary has 19 grandkids. They gather here for holiday dinners, she says, reminiscing about one Christmas when they began decorating the house with an angel collection and lit statues.
She also did some math and figured the $64,000 being offered wouldn’t last very long. McKenzie concluded that once she repaid some credits for renovations, and the remaining mortgage, and the loan to add a new roof, porch and windows, she’d have lost the place with the memories without much to show for it.
“I wouldn’t have had anything,” McKenzie said.
“I kept thinking, ‘Where am I gonna go? I’m not going to have any money to buy a house, I’m not going to have money to rent a house.’”
But what about pollution? Her family wants to plant fruits and vegetables on the vacant land next door, but they have their doubts — a recent study pegged this zip code as the dirtiest place in all of Michigan.
McKenzie shrugs off the risks.
“I figure if Marathon hasn’t killed me yet — I mean, I’m 71 years old,” she said. “Let’s face facts, I’m not gonna live forever.”
She doesn’t really have any complaints about the company, whose trucks help patrol what’s left of the neighbourhood. She simply says it would have to double its offer to get her to consider moving.
Her family figures the money’s out there.
A very rough calculation based on the average offer per house, excluding demolition costs, suggests the whole relocation program might have cost the Marathon Oil Corp. less than one per cent of the overall price tag for its $2.2-billion plant renovation.
But the company won’t reveal the total budget for its relocation program.
Nor will it disclose the volume of Canadian oil in its Michigan plant, saying only that its renovation was designed to handle heavy crude and that an unspecified amount of the new supply comes from Canada. More than one-third of U.S. oil imports are from Canada, and that ratio is growing.
What the company will say is the relocation offer has expired.
“We recognized from the beginning that not everybody would find this an attractive offer, for whatever reason,” said Marathon spokesman Jamal Kheiry.
“And we are happy to remain neighbours with the folks who have chosen to stay, whatever their reasons might be.”
McKenzie acknowledged that the neighbourhood had deteriorated over her four decades there. When she moved in, it was a blue-collar Italian area. When the former residents moved out, she said, slumlords moved in.
There were crack houses to her left, a couple more down the street to her right, and a few in the back.
Occasionally, a drug den would be sprayed with gunfire from a rival gang. There were also arsonists, and the neighbourhood was densely populated. So McKenzie said she used to worry around here — but not so much any more.
Her grandson, David McKenzie, has mixed feelings about his grandma staying.
He wishes she could move to a vibrant neighbourhood, if only the company would offer more. He says when her house was robbed a while back, the police didn’t even show up.
But the 32-year-old is attached to this place. Even in its roughest days, he says, nobody messed with his family. Anyone who tried would have come face-to-face with a grandson who’s a robust 6-foot-5, sporting a tattoo collection that’s about 1-foot-6.
He describes new and unexpected charms in the area.
In this industrial heart of Detroit, on the footsteps of petroleum-coke storage facilities and the Marathon and Ford plants, there’s a bit of an inner-city wildlife ecosystem developing — think Mad Max meets National Geographic.
“There’s foxes, possums, raccoons, groundhogs, rabbits. I’m waiting for a deer to walk through here,” David McKenzie said.
“I had a hamburger the other day, and (a fox) was coming down, and I threw a hamburger to him, and he looked up at me and gave me a nod…. He looked at me like, ‘Where’s the rest of it?’”
Now the sound of gunshots is gone. Mary enjoys sitting on the porch, reading, and it’s quieter. In some ways, she says, it’s a bit more like the old days.
“There was no place in the city of Detroit, I bet, as quiet as this was (last) New Year’s Eve,” the grandmother says with a chuckle.
“It was wonderful. No gunshots, no nothing.”