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The story of the Chambers brothers’ crack cocaine empire and the city that made them

Table of contents

Cast of Selected Characters
Introduction: Homecoming
Chapter One: Land of Cotton
Chapter Two: Washing Windows in a Blizzard
Chapter Three: Heaven Dust
Chapter Four: “BJ, Why Don’t You Start Selling Crack?”
Chapter Five: Cool Hand Larry
Chapter Six: Moving Like Lightning
Chapter Seven: Marlow’s One-Stop
Chapter Eight: “Good-bye, Dixie Land”
Chapter Nine: Too Windy for Tear Gas
Chapter Ten: “We Rich, Goddammit!”
Chapter Eleven: “Fuck It, I’ll Fix Him”
Chapter Twelve: All in the Family
Chapter Thirteen: A Tale of Two Cities
Chapter Fourteen: As Close As Brothers Get
Epilogue: Nothing to Lose
Selected Bibliography


Part true crime, part work of urban sociology, Land of Opportunity is a meticulously researched account of the rise and fall of the Chambers brothers, who ran a multi-million-dollar crack cocaine operation in Detroit in the 1980s.   Descended from Arkansas sharecroppers, BJ, Larry, and Willie Chambers moved to Detroit seeking economic opportunity, and built a successful drug empire by applying strict business principles to their trade; their business grossed an estimated $55 million annually until the brothers were sent to prison in 1989.  Reading the Chambers brothers in the context of the fall of the Detroit auto-industry and its impact on the city’s economy and residents, Land of Opportunity demonstrates how for the Chambers brothers, crack dealing was a rational career choice; and through the Chambers brothers’ story, Adler provides bottom-up history of late Second Great Migration, deindustrialization, the War on Drugs, and crack era in both Detroit and the United States.

William M. Adler is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in EsquireRolling StoneMother Jones, and the Texas Observer. In addition to Land of Opportunity, he has written two other books of narrative nonfiction: Mollie’s Job, which follows the flight of a single factory job from the US to Mexico over the course of fifty years; and The Man Who Never Died, a biography of the labor martyr Joe Hill.  

Land of Opportunity is a deep excavation of the economic roots, everyday working, and catastrophic social impacts of the crack cocaine economy in the dual metropolis and its surprising connections to poor Southern black communities. Its thrilling narrative will shock and shake you to rethink the very meaning of the American dream.”
—Loïc Wacquant, University of California, Berkeley, author of Urban Outcasts: A Comparative Sociology of Advanced Marginality

- Loïc Wacquant, University of California, Berkeley, author of Urban Outcasts: A Comparative Sociology

"In this riveting account, William Adler not only tells of how the Chambers brothers moved from small-town rags to big-city riches, but of how ambition meshes with opportunity in a municipality riddled and wrestling with despair.  In telling this tale, Adler informs us about the precariousness of opportunity found in the underground economy of a city struggling for security and identity in the post-industrial era.  It is a story for anyone seeking to understand behavior amidst the tribulations of life in contemporary urban America."
—Alford A. Young, Jr., University of Michigan

- Alford A. Young, Jr., University of Michigan

“While urban historians are focusing more and more on the 1970s and 1980s, few acknowledge or pay proper attention to the Black southerners who migrated to industrial cities in the 1960s and 1970s after decades of white flight, industrial decline, divestment, and shrinking city revenues. Adler’s social history of the Chambers family’s migration to Detroit is by far the best thing I’ve read on this important, but often overlooked topic.”
—David Goldberg, Wayne State University


- David Goldberg

“With graceful restraint, Adler shows us that the war on drugs is not a war of the county against those who would bring it down by rejecting its values and grasping at easy money.  It is a war of a country against itself, against its history of racism, against its own values of materialism and lack of concern for all its people. “
The Washington Post

- The Washington Post

“Relying on countless interviews [. . .] including interviews with the jailed brothers, William M. Adler offers not only an excellent chronicle of the rags-to-riches-to-prison-garb story of these particular entrepreneurs but also a cogent explanation of the social and economic conditions in this country that make dealing drugs an attractive career choice.”
Chicago Tribune

- Chicago Tribune

"It’s easy to see how Land of Opportunity and Adler’s cinematic stories would later be included in a television documentary—he’s just that good."
—Herb Boyd, Michigan Historical Review

- Herb Boyd - Author, Black Detroit: A People’s History of Self-Determination

"Land of Opportunity is a model of narrative nonfiction. While much of the history of the Reconstruction Era, the Great Migration, the Civil Rights Movement, and urban crisis will be familiar to historians, Adler is adept at weaving history with the present and illuminating its echoes." 
--Journal of African American History 

- Journal of African American History