The incidents of scrap-metal thievery are great enough in number that they make a bona fide trend story, but I’m finding them lacking something, say, a sense of outrage. You can pile up the details all day, and there are scores — the theft of a green plaster statue of Jesus from the outside wall of a church, mistaken for copper; the stripping of a landmark fountain on Belle Isle, a six-figure repair for maybe $200 in scrap; the “NO METAL” signs on houses and commercial buildings around the city; the catalytic-converter gangs that can cut yours from your car without tripping the alarm — but still not get a sense of how bad it is.
A couple weeks ago, I heard an NPR piece on the theft of manhole covers in Philadelphia. A driver can hit an open manhole and do hundreds or thousands of dollars of damage to a car, but a cyclist can do the same thing and die. So you might say I paid close attention to this. The reporter interviewed a spokesman for a trade association of metal recyclers, who, in the tradition of weasel spokesmen everywhere, said scrap buyers bear no responsibility for this trend, and perhaps the cities most affected should work harder to secure the valuable ($20 in scrap, hundreds to replace) items, or maybe replace them with something less valuable, like fiberglas.
This being radio, and public radio at that, I waited in vain for the reporter to ask, “Are you telling me that a buyer has no obligation to raise questions when someone brings in five manhole covers reading ‘City of Philadelphia’ on them? Because I’d really like to get you on the record here.”
The linked story above has no scrap-metal spokesman — maybe he was busy doing a Black Mass or something — but it does mention the usual feeble effort of the city to crack down:
Last year, Detroit tightened its ordinance on scrap sales by requiring all dealers to produce paperwork and a video of all scrap sale transactions. “It has reduced copper theft in the city of Detroit,” said Bettison. “But now many of the scrap thieves go outside the city to sell their stolen metals.”
Well, that’s comforting.
As usual, Jim at Sweet Juniper has a beautifully written piece that captures the agony perfectly;
With China’s voracious demand for raw materials and the shocking increase in value of recyclable metals over the past few years, increased scrapping and theft are no surprise. But in places like Detroit the problem is so vast, fighting it seems almost futile, like those farm workers beating away the locusts in Days of Heaven. Occasionally a scrapper will die cutting a live wire, but six more step forward to take his place.
You see scrappers all the time in their beat-down old cars and trucks filled with metal: aluminum siding, radiators, steel fixtures, copper piping. I often see them inside Detroit’s wide-open and abandoned historic structures. Most artifacts of architectural significance have long been pillaged (for example, the terracotta lions from Lee Plaza that passed through the Ann Arbor antique market before being incorporated into new condo developments in Chicago). But there is still some rusty metal to be ripped away from the walls in most of these buildings. While showing that BBC documentary crew around a few weeks ago, we came across a mini van filled with metal driving around inside the old Fisher Body 21 plant. They are like maggots feeding on wounds; parasites devouring the viscera of this dying city.
We’ve already heard of aluminum docks around our lake place in south-central Michigan being stolen. Are scrappers taking your city apart, too?
No bloggage today — it’s already time to get changed for twice-weekly weight class, which recently went to a new teacher who believes it’s not weightlifting until the bar is sagging, apparently. Kill me now. If an open manhole cover doesn’t kill me first.