Despite the feel-good bravura of “Imported from Detroit” and other upbeat commercials by the Big Three automakers that draw on the talents of Clint Eastwood, Jon Hamm and Eminem, the Motor City the car companies built is not rebounding – it is collapsing. Detropia, a new documentary airing on PBS on Memorial Day shows in heartbreaking clarity how what was once the fastest-growing city in the world is now the fastest-shrinking city in the United States.
“We built this city” is the motto emblazoned on the wall of the United Auto Workers Local 22, whose president, George McGregor, is fighting the good but admittedly losing fight to keep its members employed, and employed at jobs that can pay a living wage. Filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady follow McGregor as he drives by mile after mile of abandoned automotive and automobile parts plants – and then later watch as a team of gypsy salvagers tear apart those plants to sell the steel and copper and other metals for pennies to the pound. Ironically and tragically, the leavings from those auto plants, as these men bitterly reveal, are destined for China – much of it for use in making cars for export to United States, as the filmmakers demonstrate while touring the Detroit auto show.
In 1930 Detroit was the fastest-growing city in the world. Its industrial base was so large and powerful that it became the arsenal of democracy that gave the Allies the weapons to win World War II. Fifty years ago there were 1.8 million people living in the city, in an area so large it can encompass Los Angeles, Boston and Manhattan and still have room to spare. Detroit was the American Dream – and it was the incubator of the great Middle Class.
Most of those factories and the jobs are gone, shipped overseas. The “demise of industry” only accelerated as the economy collapsed in 2008, says Tommy Shepherd, a retired teacher who runs The Raven Lounge, a famous local blues haunt. While the rest of the country suffered a recession, “It was a depression that hit us,” says Shepherd, whose business has fallen off so much that he can no longer afford to hire a cook and now mans the kitchen as well as running the front end. Yet despite all the evidence to the contrary, Shepherd still has hope things will turn around.
That won’t be easy, as Detropia points out. Today, the population is half what it was in 1960, and that decline is accelerating, as every 20 minutes another family leaves. Over 100,000 homes are vacant. These are “houses that are never coming back,” as one of the men who now makes his living bulldozing rather than building homes tells the camera. With many neighborhoods reduced to one or two inhabited homes per block, embattled Mayor Dave Bing is trying to consolidate what remains of the population into still viable quarters while proposing that the rest – nearly half the city’s land area – be turned over to “urban farming.”
Detropia is a bitter pill to swallow; a sad, sad gut-wrenching story of a great city in collapse. It is a story told through the eyes and words of men and women who deeply love, are proud of and, incredibly, continue to believe, as blues club owner Tommy Shepherd tells the filmmakers, that “It’ll come back.”
* * *
Detropia premieres on most other PBS stations at 10 p.m. Eastern, Monday, May 27. As Connecticut Public Television has not yet scheduled a showing of Detropia, viewers in Connecticut will have to tune in to PBS affiliates in New York and Boston.
* * *
Mark G. McLaughlin is a Connecticut-based free lance journalist and game designer with over 30 years of experience as a ghost-writer and columnist. An author whose first published book was Battles of the American Civil War, and whose games include the Mr. Lincoln’s War set, Mark continues to be enthralled by stories from the age of Lincoln. To view Mark’s 16th published design, the American Civil War Naval strategy game Rebel Raiders on the High Seas, visit his publisher at http://www.gmtgames.com/p-238-rebel-raiders-on-the-high-seas.aspx
…or his blog at http://markgmclaughlin.blogspot.com/
Mark’s latest work, the science fiction adventure novel Princess Ryan’s Star Marines, is available on Amazon.com in both paperback and Kindle e-book formats at http://www.amazon.com/Princess-Ryans-Star-Marines-Save/dp/1466218487/ref…
To read more usedview.com pieces by Mark G. McLaughlin become a regular subscriber; just click on the “Subscribe to get instant updates” button at the top of the page. Examiner’s editors pledge that subscribers will never be spammed. Sharing articles on Facebook, Twitter or other social networks is also appreciated