Shorty Rock on the streets of Central, the neighborhood that is the epicenter of Cleveland’s scrap trade. All photos by Peter Larson.
One sweltering afternoon in July, I found myself breaking and entering into a derelict warehouse on the east side of Cleveland. I was in the middle of a crash course in metal theft from a man named Jay Jackson. Dressed like a plumber with a crumpled blue baseball cap on his head, Jay’s muscular physique belied the fact that he was once a crackhead. These days his life still revolves around illegally acquired goods, but not ones smoked, snorted, or injected: Jay makes his living stripping copper and steel from abandoned buildings like the one we were sneaking into, selling his yield by the pound to scrapyards for quick cash.
“Scrapping is just like being an entrepreneur,” he said, leading me toward a gaping hole in one of the warehouse’s walls, which we then scurried through. “It’s just a job, and you can make as much money as you put into it.”
Earlier that day, I’d used Google Street View to map out our jaunt through the epicenter of the city’s thriving scrap trade, the neighborhood known as Central (counterintuitively located on the east side of town). But the building Jay and I broke into looked completely different from what I had seen on my computer screen. The photos on Google, taken in 2009, showed a tidy vacant office building with nearly all of its windows intact and sturdy wooden boards blocking off its many entrances. But now it looked like the aftermath of a drone bombing in Afghanistan: every window was blown out, every orifice torn open. The stinking carcass of a rodent was splayed on the floor. The drop ceiling had been ripped down, revealing empty tracks where ventilation, piping, and wires once snaked through the building. I couldn’t believe that we were only a ten-minute drive from the stadiums, skyscrapers, and fine dining of downtown Cleveland.
The place may have looked like a dump to me, but to Jay it was a treasure trove of unknown proportions. “I could bring my torches in here and cut that steel box right over there,” he said, tiptoeing as he critiqued the work of the scrappers who’d already hit the spot, rattling off a litany of different ways to dissemble the building “properly.”
Jay and his cohorts, he explained, didn’t do hit-and-runs; they worked in teams, living in an abandoned building like this for weeks while meticulously taking apart every square foot for all it was worth. A scrapper like Jay can earn a couple thousand bucks on a big haul. Metal thieves with his approach are so good at tearing things apart, in fact, that sometimes the City of Cleveland has had to replace support beams and girders of buildings after they’ve been gutted so the huge structures don’t just collapse. Jay, by his own reckoning, told me he was in the “deconstruction business”—and in Cleveland, business is booming.
Like many tangential commodities in this tumultuous economy, the good fortune of Cleveland’s scrappers is a direct result of the misfortune of the city’s home and business owners. Between 2000 and 2008, Cuyahoga County, which encompasses Cleveland, racked up the most foreclosures per capita in the country—a whopping 80,000 houses were repossessed by banks, or about one out of every eight homes. Entire blocks were abandoned or sold to financial institutions, which have in turn left these homes sitting empty.
The east side of the city, the heart of the scrapping industry and the hardest hit by the recession, in many places brings to mind the rotten mouth of a meth addict, with decaying structures in every direction and great, gap-toothed spaces where homes and businesses sheltered and provided livelihoods for thousands of Ohioans. Today there are more than 16,000 of these empty properties, each stocked with lucrative goodies that can be scrapped, such as aluminum siding, metal-laden appliances, copper wire, and plumbing, all just waiting to be ripped out of the walls.
Jay Jackson walks down a secret path to Wilkoff and Sons, one of Cleveland’s largest scrapyards. They buy most of their metal from smaller operations, shred it up, and ship it across the US and overseas. Jay said he frequently steals metal from this yard and sells it to other yards.
Due to the combination of the 2007 mortgage crisis and a roughly simultaneous rise in metal prices worldwide, scrapping has exploded in cities across America. And nowhere more so than in Cleveland, which has the highest number of reported metal thefts per capita in the country. As a result, Cleveland has become the sort of city where ten to 20 manhole covers go missing in one night and a toddler falls into one of the pits left behind; where people joke about getting electrocuted just walking down the street because the ground wire has been plucked from all the telephone poles; where copper statues downtown honoring important figures in American history have been replaced by composite ones painted to look like copper to deter thieves. The scrappers, in other words, are everywhere, boldly tearing away at the city’s infrastructure in broad daylight like vultures hovering over a pack of lemmings that followed one another over the edge of a cliff.
So it wasn’t surprising when Jay and I, after snooping around the warehouse for a bit, bumped into another scrapper on the ground level. Filthy and sweaty, he said his name was Sean. We caught him sizing up some heavy beams that Jay believed could fetch about $300 per ton at the yard. Naturally, Sean refused to be photographed and didn’t seem too happy to see us—he wanted this spot all to himself. Trying to spook us, he told what sounded like a tall tale about how he was working for the building’s owner, who was trying to salvage the place before turning it into a fish farm. “He’ll probably be here in about an hour,” Sean said. Jay didn’t think he was very convincing.
It was obvious that Sean didn’t want to talk to me, but when I asked him how much he could score in an average haul, he couldn’t pass up the chance to brag: “I’m living in a nice-ass house. You could look at where I live and you’d never think I scrap. To be a scrapper, you’ve gotta be a hustler by blood. I make money—about $200 a day. I know how to get it.”
Jay and I left Sean to his work. As we stepped out of the decrepit warehouse and into the sunlight, I turned to Jay and asked why he scrapped instead of finding a job that people might find more respectable. He looked at me like I was an idiot and flashed me a receipt for $511.
“This right here,” he said, “some folks don’t even make this in a week. If I’m working a minimum-wage job, I’m not getting this. I’m going to get maybe $300. What’s $300 gonna do you? How can you provide for your family or put a roof over your head with $300?”
I didn’t have an answer.