Scrap or Die: Metal Thieves Are Tearing Cleveland Apart Piece by Piece
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.”