Getting Ghost: Two Young Lives and the Struggle for the Soul of an American City

Getting Ghost: Two Young Lives and the Struggle for the Soul of an American City

by Luke Bergmann


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"[Bergmann] chronicles the drug trading, the risks and rewards, and the demarcations between the city and suburbs even as he witnessed suburbanites come into the city to buy drugs."

"Not just illustrative and emotive, this pummeling, immersive social text is grounded in street-level reportage and seeded with wisdom."
---Kirkus Reviews

"In prose that is equally eloquent and enlightening, Luke Bergmann brings to the surface the lives of two young men living in a place that is regarded by too many people as a forgotten city."
--- Alford A. Young, Jr., Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and Associate Professor, Sociology and Afroamerican and African Studies, University of Michigan

"Luke Bergmann sometimes risks life and limb to bring us firsthand the lives of young people who mainstream media and academic research have ignored---except for the occasional crime story or impersonal policy brief. Getting Ghost is a journey worth taking . . . It sets a new standard for documentary reportage."
--- Sudhir Venkatesh, author of Gang Leader for a Day and Off the Books

"Postapocalyptic" Detroit---infamous for its abandoned buildings, empty lots, and blighted streets---may be the only American city to have earned such an epithet. As a teenager who frequently visited Detroit with his father, Luke Bergmann saw the devastation caused by the collapse of the automobile industry. Years later, he returned to the city as an anthropologist to study the incarceration of inner-city youth, and his research connected him with two teenaged drug dealers, Dude Freeman and Rodney Phelps. For nearly three years Bergmann lived on the city's West Side, hanging out with Dude and Rodney, driving around, hearing their stories and dreams, and witnessing the intricacies of Detroit's urban drug trade. Bergmann is soon more than an observer, as he intervenes with Dude's probation officer when he misses a hearing and becomes Rodney's only contact when he flees the city to escape criminal charges. Through it all, he strives to understand their lives, their families, and the neighborhoods they call home.

In an effort to break through the conventional wisdom about who sells drugs and why, Bergmann chronicles the unsettling alchemy of choice, force of habit, structural inequality, and political neglect that combine to restrict the horizons of too many young people in America's cities. As Rodney and Dude spin through the revolving door of juvenile detention, "getting ghost" becomes a rich metaphor---for leaving a scene; for quitting the trade; and, ultimately, for mortality. With stunning insight, courage, and even humor, Getting Ghost illuminates complex inner lives that are too often diminished by empty stereotypes as it reveals the common yearnings in all of our American dreams.

Luke Bergmann is a research director at the Detroit Department of Health and Wellness Promotion and an adjunct faculty associate at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan.

Cover photo © Simon Wheatley, Magnum Photos

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781595581396
Publisher: New Press, The
Publication date: 01/05/2009
Pages: 315
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Luke Bergmann is a research director at the Detroit Department of Health and Wellness Promotion and an adjunct faculty associate at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan.

Read an Excerpt

Getting Ghost

Two Young Lives and the Struggle for the Soul of an American City


Copyright © 2008 Luke Bergmann
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-472-03436-9

Chapter One


Many die too late, and a few die too early. The doctrine still sounds strange: "Die at the right time!" -Friedrich Nietzsche, Also Sprach Zarathustra

BIFF: He had the wrong dreams. All, all, wrong. HAPPY: Don't say that! BIFF: He never knew who he was. CHARLEY: Nobody dast blame this man.... Nobody dast blame this man. A salesman is got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory. -Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman

Having escaped the fires, they trudged in tattered, soot-stained clothing toward a busy street where they might find help. Somewhere, a keen-eyed photographer for the Detroit Free Press captured the young black family, the morning after the first day of rioting in the city, as they walked with their few salvaged belongings underneath a row of smoldering brick chimneys, which shot through the collapsed houses around them.

Though the riots of summer 1967 spread from one corner of Detroit's interior to the other, consuming building after building on the East and West Sides, and up and down some of the city's most bustling streets, the houses shown burning in the Free Press photograph, just off Linwood Street between Pingree and Blaine, represent the center of what would be the city's most devastating residential damage. Nearly the entire square block burned down after wind-borne embers from a nearby business landed on the roofs of several houses.

Over thirty years later, when I moved into the bottom floor of a two-family flat on Pingree, in one of the spared homes across the street from what had been this residential conflagration, the chimneys were long since toppled and cleared away, and a city park had been made of the vacant field left by the fire. Now, when I stood on the worn oak floor in my room and looked out the window, I could see chain-link softball backstops facing each other from the corners of the park and a wavy asphalt basketball court that had been built off to the side.

But despite the transformation of the razed block into a minimally functional playground, the neighborhood wore most of the changes of the previous half-century like a raised scar. The Linwood and Dexter area, on the near northwest side of the city, blocks away from the former headquarters of General Motors and the old Motown studios, was typical of Detroit in that its disjunctive history was plainly evident to the naked eye. The neighborhood's conversion from a middle-class Jewish enclave lined with delis and other shops into a symbol of the late-century urban crisis-vacant lots, abandoned houses, closed storefronts, and exclusively African American residents-had been less gradual than punctuated by episodes of extraordinarily rapid demographic, infrastructural, and institutional change. Even relatively young people in the neighborhood, none of whom had lived through the postwar transformation of the city, could recognize and would acknowledge this historical discontinuity. They knew that something cataclysmic had happened in their city. And they understood that Detroit had become an emblem of both the promise and disappointment of recent U.S. history-at the cutting edge of this country's successes and failures-and a cautionary tale in which they might figure as important players. More than this, young people in our neighborhood felt that dramatic shifts were still afoot, that with big developments downtown the city was tilting toward change again.

As the city around them was changing, young men and boys on the street where I was living were themselves elusive subjects, always "getting ghost" they would say, as they floated in and out of the drug trade and weaved their way through lives of economic enterprise and circumscribed opportunity. As young drug dealers strive to find ways toward "legal" jobs and straight lives, getting ghost is a rich metaphor-for leaving a scene, for quitting the trade, and for their own mortality. Despite their occasional bravado, all of the young people on the block were hoping to avoid the early and ignominious deaths of so many young black street salesmen-common but still extraordinary in Detroit's poor neighborhoods, which are populated both with the old ghosts of those who left long ago and the young ghosts of those more recently lost.

I was there among the ghosts of Detroit, sometimes seeing them, often being mistaken for one, trying to understand and write about the Motor City in the postindustrial age and the lives of young street drug dealers there with whom I lived, worked, and moved. And the more I learned, the more I knew that I would need to listen to the haunting voices of Detroit's past. For nothing more clearly illuminates and animates the social and symbolic significance of drug dealing on the streets of Detroit than the fiery, deadly, mortifying, and exultant history of the city's racial and class politics.

In matters of public policy and opinion, with startling and historically unprecedented rates of incarceration and undiminished social inequality, neither guilt-ridden apologists nor the admonishing bootstrappers currently holding forth are doing enough to help us understand the complex lives and self-reflective perceptions of young African Americans in our most destitute and devastated urban centers.

In a context shaped by the historical struggle over and for the soul of Detroit, I have tried to document something beyond the social mechanics of petty drug dealing in urban America, to look beyond the ordering or disordering function of drug dealing in black neighborhoods, or the moral liabilities and threatened masculinities that it is presumed to represent. Getting Ghost, rather, is about how the drug trade and the legacies of the city's postwar history become interwoven with the always emerging identities of young people in Detroit. It is about how the drug trade shapes the meanings that they ascribe to the lives and deaths in their midst, and the basic spaces that constitute their experience: their homes, their neighborhoods, and their city.

Shooting, Strolling, Rolling

On a late summer evening in the year 2000, I joined several boys from the block on Pingree, standing with them in a loose gathering against the chest-high fence surrounding the park. As on many nights during the warm months of the year, they were shooting dice against the street curb for small bills. I stood behind Juwan, a nineteen-year-old who lived in a room directly above mine in a house just a few yards down the block. He crouched at the center of the oval congregation and announced his intention to roll: "7, 11, baby! No 68s." Both the confident and more dubious members of the group dropped dollar bills on the ground with a kind of conspicuous disregard, until there was a deep pile on the street. Juwan shook and blew the dice in his loosely clenched fist and tossed them against the curb, snapping hard like he was striking a flint. Nothing. He lunged over them and swept his arm around, gathering the green plastic cubes in a single motion. They clicked against one another like marbles in a child's pocket. He threw again and again without winning or losing, as the others fidgeted and second-guessed, pulling up and putting down bills, always against round objections, with the waning and waxing of their uncertainty.

Finally, Juwan hit seven. The dice had scarcely come to a rest when the various bets on the ground had been collected. Juwan was $15 richer and ready to quit. He was supposed to go home to his two-year-old daughter and her mother, who had just returned from a class at a local junior college and was in no mood for dealing with the block craps game. Several minutes before, she had leaned out of a small square window on the second floor of the house, yelling up the street for him to come and help get dinner ready.

Before heading home, though, Juwan walked up toward the liquor store on the corner of Pingree and Linwood. The store is in a looming cinder block structure, painted bright white, with red and blue stripes wrapping around it like a birthday bow. It sits adjacent to the New Bethel Baptist Church, a gravitational center of civil rights activity during the 1960s, the site of a policeman's murder in 1963, and the place where Aretha Franklin first took the stage. There is a day care center across Pingree and an ice cream shop down the street. And the Shrine of the Black Madonna, another hub of political activity during the civil rights era, is just a few blocks to the south, near Grand Boulevard. Yet for most of its length through the near north side of the city, between Davison Avenue and Grand Boulevard, Linwood is block after block of empty, boarded storefronts; collapsed, charcoaled structures; and vacant lots.

Through the liquor store's double doors, a crowd of black customers waited in the aisles with bottles of beer and paper lottery numbers, loaves of bread, cans of beans, and cartons of milk to pay at the glass partition that spans the width of the store, sealing the owners and customers off from one another. Under fluorescent light, the Iraqi proprietors, the only nonblack fixtures in the neighborhood (besides me), looked past their own reflections in the glass. Juwan was there to pick up a Swisher Sweet, so he could roll a blunt for his girlfriend when he got home. In the vestibule, between two sets of glass double doors, a heroin addict leaning against the wall seemed to brighten with optimism as Juwan walked through. When he saw me he nodded and clicked his tongue with a polite, almost formal smile, and then looked out the door after us, as if he thought we were being followed. I was used to the inevitable, suspicious, sidelong glances that I'd get when walking around the neighborhood, even though many people there knew me by name. Though I tried to dress inconspicuously, with my jeans baggy and low and my shirts pressed and large, and though I kept my head shaved and hidden beneath a baseball cap a good deal of the time, being white in black Detroit gave me a visceral, stomach-churning sense for the intensity of racial politics in the daily lives of black Detroiters. This was especially true in the case of older folks, who were the only people ever to treat me with explicit hostility while I lived in Detroit. Even when driving around, I could feel the hot, worried stares of people in the neighborhood. "You got anything for me?" the addict asked Juwan. "I can get you, dog," said Juwan gently, without looking at him. "Oh, that's great," he blurted. " 'Cuz, you know, I was trying to get something this morning. And I couldn't find you; I couldn't find anybody out here. So I was glad when I seen you coming through." "Alright," said Juwan, trying to quiet the man's spasmodic expressions of gratitude. When we left, Juwan's customer followed us out the door and down Pingree, until Juwan reached into his pocket and pulled out a small paper pack of heroin and handed it to him, in exchange for $10. Juwan said that he was glad to have gotten rid of his last pack. He'd almost forgotten it was there.

We continued down the street, passing about five houses and one vacant lot, and then loped up the stairs of the oblong two-family flat and went inside. Juwan followed me into the downstairs apartment, where his Aunt Esther had left a tray of barbecued meat for her nephews. With no children of her own, but two younger sisters, Esther is the matriarch of the family. An ordained minister and successful public health official for the city, she was a guardian angel of sorts for her youngest sister's kids, all of whom lived in the upstairs flat with their mother.

The house had been bequeathed to all three sisters by their parents, and most of the first floor had been left exactly as Esther's mother had decorated it many years earlier. The walls were painted in dark colors-maroons and greens-and were covered high and low with ornately framed paintings, prints, and old photographs from disparate eras and aesthetic sensibilities. Antique furniture and old clocks were piled up against the walls and seemed to defy gravity as they leaned out into the living and dining rooms. Aged copies of the Virginia Park newsletter, with articles written in the early 1970s about efforts to rehabilitate the neighborhood in the wake of the riots, were stacked on bureaus and bookshelves.

At the dining room table downstairs, several kids from the block sat around a Monopoly board and distributed slips of colorful play money. They were drinking beer and smoking cigarettes. Juwan sat down in an empty chair and demanded that he be dealt into the game. "Who's runnin' the bank?" he growled, with his elbows on the table. They were dropping $50, $100, and $500 bills, in orange, pink, and green; moving houses; passing go; and going to jail. The rapper DMX barked in the background.

A couple of hours later we could hear yelling upstairs. Juwan's mother, who weighed close to three hundred pounds and never had a difficult time being heard, was screaming at someone. And then we heard the muted thunder of multiple sets of feet across the length of the upstairs apartment. Dust sprinkled down from the ceiling as Juwan's mother's voice grew louder, and echoed into the stairwell toward the front of the house. Then, like the roll of a kettledrum, we could hear one set of feet tumbling down the staircase. Benjamin, her second-youngest son-twelve at the time-burst wide-eyed through the front door of Esther's flat. He looked behind him and rushed past us with his arms flailing, scattering Monopoly money on to the floor. He disappeared toward his Aunt Esther's room at the back of the first-floor apartment, with his mouth open, gasping for breath.

Benjamin's mother had caught him with a small, cloudy, crumpled baggie with several crack rocks inside, which he had been cavalierly tossing from hand to hand, trying to impress a couple of his older female cousins upstairs. Now, having escaped her clutches, he sought refuge with his auntie. But a few moments later, Benjamin came running through the dining room again, this time followed by Esther, who carried a looped belt in her right hand; her intense, angry eyes bulged from under her brow. "Oh, you can run, boy!" she yelled after him, as he slammed the front door and darted outside, only forestalling the punishment that would inevitably come.

While everyone supposed that Juwan was dealing drugs on the block, Benjamin was so young. His voice was still high, and his face was smooth and chubby; he would collect stray dogs from the neighborhood and bring them home, begging his mother and auntie to keep them, then crying when he'd have to let them go. That he might be embroiled in the neighborhood drug trade startled the elder women in the household.

But the crashing, stomping weight of his mother's response, and Esther's soon to follow, had other origins as well. Their ferocious reactions to Benjamin's transgression grew out of a deep reservoir of confusion and sorrow in which the whole family had been caught since the brutal murder of another of Esther's nephews the previous fall.

Last Fall, a Suit, and a Sermon

Esther's oldest nephew, Dwayne, had been a bit player in a small but lucrative neighborhood weed ring; he sold marijuana out of his upstairs apartment in a house immediately behind our place on Pingree. On the morning after Thanksgiving a young man broke into the house. The intruder found Dwayne in the stairwell leading up to his flat, and shot him nine times as Dwayne's body fell and slid to the bottom landing. Dwayne was twenty-two when he died.

Three days later, on the morning of his funeral, the autumn sun shone through the tops of the buildings on Linwood, casting a sepia light over the New Bethel Baptist Church.

As were so many in the neighborhood and throughout Detroit, this was a young person's funeral, and the mourners looked like lost children as they congregated in clusters outside and stood somberly in the antechamber of the church. Most of the young guys wore gaudy gold-framed, tinted glasses and were lavishly dressed in colorful leather jackets over their starched white shirt collars and pressed black pants. Juwan was in a circular gathering with his brothers and others from the neighborhood, leaning against their Aunt Esther's black truck. They were crying, some with their heads bowed, wiping their eyes with the backs of their hands. They passed a bottle of Hennessey Cognac, pouring some on to the ground to honor Dwayne and others whom they had lost.


Excerpted from Getting Ghost by LUKE BERGMANN Copyright © 2008 by Luke Bergmann. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Dramatis Personae....................xiii
Chapter 1: Introduction....................1
Chapter 2: Detroit Revisited, Revisionist History....................33
Chapter 3: Renewal, Relocation, and Riot....................43
Chapter 4: Called by a Holy Name....................59
Chapter 5: Families and Fortunes, Spots and Homes....................79
Chapter 6: The Thickness of Blood....................111
Chapter 7: Playgrounds and Punishment....................147
Chapter 8: Across the Street....................173
Chapter 9: Neighborhood Watching....................197
Chapter 10: Of Hot Dogs and Heroin....................223
Chapter 11: Being Seen....................258

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Getting Ghost: Two Young Lives and the Struggle for the Soul of an American City 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
DHealy on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book is well written both as a scholarly anthropological-sociological study of the street drug culture in Detroit and a compassionate story about the young men involved in it, particularly two who befrinded the author. This book provides an unsentimental and unpatronizing glimpse into not just what's happening in Detroit, but also into the alternative universe that's expanding throughout the U.S.
DMB62 More than 1 year ago
This is a tough read because it's all too real, but it's a must read for anyone interested in the challenges and opportunities in contemporary urban America. Luke Bergmann's first-person account of the lives of African-American youth in inner-city Detroit is as illuminating as it is troubling. These young people, and especially the young men, lead lives so far out of the American mainstream as to be virtually unrecognizable to most, yet they have effectively created their own urban culture. It is a depressing place, constrained by poverty, lack of education and participation in the illegal drug trade, to name a few. But the two protagonists do share the American Dream in a way - they want a better life, but their means of achieving it differ greatly from what most of us consider "normal." In fairness, most of the book isn't particularly compelling, largely because the lives of its subjects aren't. Frankly, it's depressing and dreary being caught in the urban drug culture most of the time. The "thug life" just isn't that interesting because there's just not that much to it. And the choices that are made have a way of boomeranging back in ways that compound rather than alleviate problems. Also, Bergmann can get a little too esoteric at times with the sociological techno-jargon. But after you get through it, you will be haunted by its truth. It is an unspairing, unflinching look at an urban subculture that is all too prevalent in the major cities of our country (and, perhaps, being "perfected" in the most post-industrially apocalyptic city, Detroit). It leaves one wondering exactly what holistic set of policy prescriptions could address this situation (a subject that Bergmann only alludes to occasionally but does not address). One thing is clear - this has to be addressed, because failure to do so will only encourage its spread. It is like a societal ebola virus eating away at our country's future from the inside, specifically from inside its major cities. Bergmann's portrait is superb if troubling, rich in insight if occasionally boring due to the banality of its subjects' existence and fascinating and horrifying. It is like watching human train wrecks, and yet it is hard to turn away because you know that seeing the whole picture matters. What remains is for us to use Bergmann's insights to address the situation effectively, though this may be the even tougher task....