February 26, 2009 at 1:00 am

Charlie LeDuff on Detroit

Putting faith in a Bible -- and a gun

Lifelong Detroiter Paulette Bouyer, 61, is fed up with the city and wants to move, but says her home is "worthless. I can't get out." (Ankur Dholakia / The Detroit News)

DETROIT -- Paulette Bouyer is a member of a peculiar little sorority in this city; a church lady who keeps a loaded pistol.

Once a rabid booster of living in Detroit, Bouyer's home was broken into in broad daylight two weeks ago. The interlopers even made it through the iron gate that covers the door. Now, Bouyer says, she is so afraid, she is prepared to break the Sixth Commandment -- thou shall not kill -- by virtue of her Second Amendment right to bear arms.

"If I could get a covered wagon and a mule and a piggybank, I'd get up and ride out of here tonight," she said. "Because if somebody walks through my door uninvited, somebody else is going to have to carry him out. Is that any way to live?"

She spends her days locked in her house of bars on Greenview Street on the city's west side. She watches the street suspiciously through a peephole covered by the metal security gate. In her window facing the street is a Bible opened to the book of Job.

Bouyer said she wishes to leave today. But she cannot leave today or tomorrow or next week. Who would buy her small three-bedroom bungalow?

"It's worthless," she said. "I can't get out."

It is a sentiment that stretches far across the metro region, from Sterling Heights to Warren to Redford. People trapped on an economic roller coaster, unsure where the bottom is, stuck in a declining neighborhood, chained to an aging house worth less than they owe.

Bouyer's neighborhood was one of those coherent places that city boosters liked to point to as a wholesome, functioning district where good people lived and children thrived. But the decline has come sharply and swiftly, people like Bouyer say.

The home next door to Bouyer's is boarded up. The house next to that is a charred ruin. The home across the street a victim of foreclosure. There are six houses on the block in similar disrepair. At the bottom of neighborhood on Seven Mile squats the abandoned Arnold Nursing Home, a hulking eyesore in the Greek revival style that has no windows and a sagging pediment. It has proven to be the millstone that has pulled the once thriving neighborhood down. At the top of Greenview Street on Eight Mile the story is the same: strip clubs and empty storefronts where small businesses once prospered. A student was recently shot and killed in a drive-by at nearby Henry Ford High School.

"I loved this city and I committed my life and my money to it," Bouyer said, on her way to cast her vote for mayor Tuesday. She is a brassy and well-put together woman, a 61-year-old grandmother with swollen joints and sensible shoes. She is prone to charming little turns of phrase such as "fantabulous." She keeps a neat home with cream carpets, a Bible on the table and the six-shooter next to that. Bouyer is president of her block association, a single mother who put two boys through college while working on the factory floor at Fisher Body.

When she bought her home 23 years ago, hers was a thriving, integrated community, she said. People kept their lawns cut. Children were in by dark. The future seemed bright. Then the future arrived.

"This neighborhood has become a desert of nomads," said Bouyer, a native Detroiter. "Older people take their garbage out once a week and lock themselves back in. People are moving out and it seems like nobody cares."

Bouyer committed her life to Detroit, preferring to see the glass half-full. She endured the bad times: the riot of 1967, the murder of her husband in 1977, the crack epidemic of the '80s and '90s, the blight of the abandoned nursing home in 2002, the drug addicts who moved into the foreclosed house next to hers in the middle of the night along with their children. The wild nights ensued. The loud music. The liquor in paper bags. The strange men.

But two weeks ago, while she was away at the store in the middle of the day, somebody pried through the bars and kicked the front door in. For whatever reason, they made off with nothing. But they had unlocked the windows, perhaps to return at another hour.

"I told her to get out, just walk away," said her son Chris, who lives in another state. "It's not normal that a church lady needs to be packing to go to church."

Bouyer cast a cynical vote for mayor at the Calvary Presbyterian Church at 10:30 a.m. on Tuesday. By that time, just 16 others had voted.

"People have given up," said Johnnie Wilford, a friend of Bouyer's and a member of her church sorority. "We've been forgotten out here."

Felix Seay said as much: "I'd sell my house and leave to another state if I could."

Even Pastor Kevin Johnson said he sometimes fantasized about acquiring his own handgun to stop the thieves from robbing his church. But the problem is much bigger than that, he said.

"With the decline of the middle class, the lack of jobs and the schools deteriorating, it is a perfect storm and we are in the eye of the hurricane," he said. "One day I'm getting out of here too, Lord willing."

Bouyer's choice for mayor did not place in the top two of Tuesday's primary. Even so, she said she would be willing to stay in Detroit with a few provisos.

"I want to see the police," she said. "I want to see the abandoned buildings torn down. I want to see something for these kids. That's not too much to ask, is it? To do right? Is that too much to ask?"

You can reach Charlie LeDuff at (313) 222-2071 or charlie@detnews.com">charlie@detnews.com.

Because robbers broke in two weeks ago, Bouyer now guards her home with a ... (Ankur Dholakia / The Detroit News)
Bouyer wants to leave Michigan and settle near her sons, if only she can ... (Ankur Dholakia / The Detroit News)
"People have given up," says Johnnie Wilford, hugging her friend ... (Ankur Dholakia / The Detroit News)
It was a thriving neighborhood when she moved in 23 years ago. Now six ... (Ankur Dholakia / The Detroit News)