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Digging Beneath the Cliché of Ruin Porn in Detroit

By posted at 12:00 pm on March 31, 2014 1

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There are two new documentaries that add to the rising chorus – of filmmakers and journalists, writers and artists, even businessmen and politicians – who are proclaiming that the same old song about Detroit is played-out. It’s time for a new tune, these people are saying, one that goes beyond the tired cliché that the Motor City is nothing but miles of abandoned factories, boarded-up houses, and empty prairie.

The first of these documentaries, American Revolutionary, opens with a shot of a little white-haired lady pushing her walker up to the massive Packard plant in Detroit, an abandoned auto factory in a state of such rococo decay that it helped spawn a lurid genre of photography known as “ruin porn.” “The devastation is so fabulous, so incredible,” the woman says, gazing at the rotting factory with a mixture of awe and horror familiar to anyone who has been to Detroit in recent years. “This is a symbol of how great things fail. It’s obvious that what used to work doesn’t work anymore.”

coverThe woman’s name is Grace Lee Boggs, the documentary’s 98-year-old title character, a Detroit-based activist and writer who lived through the city’s glory years and its long decline and now, in the twilight of her life, is still busy nurturing and enjoying the undeniable signs of its rebirth. “American Revolutionary” is the work of Grace Lee, a Korean-American filmmaker who first met Boggs while making The Grace Lee Project, her 2005 documentary about women who share her oppressively common name. The Grace Lees of this world, according to Grace Lee the filmmaker, are “thousands of interchangeable drones.”

If so, Grace Lee the activist is the exception who proves the rule. Born into a middle-class Chinese American family, she first became aware of discrimination against African Americans while living in Chicago. Her urge to unite workers led her to Detroit, where she fell in love with and married a black autoworker from North Carolina named James Boggs. Together they began to agitate to revolutionize American society – pushing for workers’ rights, civil rights, and, eventually, women’s rights. And so Grace Lee Boggs became that rarest of insiders, an Asian American woman deeply involved in a movement dominated by black men.

As the civil rights and Black Power movements gained momentum in the 1960s, she evolved from a hard-core Marxist into a hard-nosed pragmatist. She was initially partial to fiery Malcolm X over mellifluous Martin Luther King Jr., but, like so much of her thinking, this changed with time. One of the most telling shifts in her thought was her revelation about what the civil rights movement was all about. “I realized that black people did not want to become equal to whites,” she says. “They wanted to become equal to their idea of themselves.”

Whether she was writing books, lecturing, forming political parties, or helping young people plant gardens and paint murals, Boggs, to her credit, never abandoned some of the core beliefs she shares with so many black Detroiters. On camera she tells a stunned Bill Moyers that by the 1960s the Detroit Police Department had become “a white occupation army.” And what happened in Detroit in July of 1967 – a conflagration that scorched great swaths of the city and left 43 people dead – was not a race riot. It was, Boggs says, “a rebellion.”

That rebellion helped make Detroit the first black-controlled city in America  In 1974 a former union organizer and state senator named Coleman A. Young was elected the city’s first black mayor – or “Mayor Motherfucker,” as he liked to be called. He would rule the city with an iron grip and a salty tongue for the next twenty years. Though it didn’t ignite white flight – Detroiters had begun moving out to the suburbs in the early 1950s – there’s no denying that the summer of 1967 accelerated the city’s decline. Coleman Young, depending on your point of view, either greased the city’s skids or did everything in his limited power to apply the brakes.

Detroit’s demise, as Boggs sees it, can’t be pinned on any one event or any one man. It was a collective failure to change after the seizure of political power by blacks. Instead of coming together, people split into warring camps: blacks vs. whites, city vs. suburbs, management vs. organized labor. “A rebellion is an outburst of anger,” Boggs says, “while a revolution is an evolution toward something greater. Just being angry and resentful does not constitute a revolution.” She adds wistfully, “Changing was more trouble than not changing.”

That may be changing, at long last. People are discovering what Boggs has known for half a century – that there’s more to Detroit than crime, ruin porn, racial strife, and economic woe. The city’s music scene has always been unkillable, and now alongside it there is a proliferation of start-up businesses, urban gardens and farms, a growing creative class, a booming downtown and a healthy auto industry. Let’s not forget abundant cheap real estate. As the city struggles to emerge from bankruptcy, everyone agrees that the good old days are not coming back. As Boggs puts it, “It’s time for a new dream.” Among the ashes, there are enough sprouts to suggest that the time just might be at hand.

If it is, it will be because of groups like the Navin Field Grounds Crew, the subject of a new documentary called Stealing Home by Jason Roche, a professor at the University of Detroit Mercy. The film is an homage to a crew that could come together only in Detroit: people who took it upon themselves to maintain a vast patch of grass at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull near downtown – simply “The Corner,” in local parlance – the field where the Detroit Tigers played baseball from the late 19th century until 1999, when they decamped to a shiny new ballyard downtown. The powers that be then went about demolishing the grandstands of the stadium – originally Bennett Park, then renamed Navin Field, Briggs Stadium, and, finally Tiger Stadium – one of the most cherished pieces of the city’s soul.

The Navin Field Grounds Crew is headed by Tom Derry, a native Detroiter who grew up going to ballgames at The Corner. After the demolition was complete, he cajoled a group of fellow Tigers fans to spend their weekends picking up trash, pulling weeds, raking the infield dirt, and mowing the outfield grass where Al Kaline and Willie Horton used to roam. “Something happens to you when you’re here – a tingling,” Derry says, trying to explain the allure of a place he regards as “sacred ground,” but which the city sees as a nothing more than a parcel that might one day become the site of a big-box store.

Despite the city’s hostility to their cause, the Grounds Crew has gotten media attention from ESPN The Magazine, the New York Times, even Australian TV. In keeping with the If-you-mow-it-they-will-come mantra popularized by the movie Field of Dreams, tourists now come to The Corner from all over the world to play pickup games, snap pictures, and swap memories.

coverStealing Home is not flawless. Though I love baseball and have been a Tigers fan since I was in short pants, I have to admit that the sight of middle-aged guys riding sit-down lawnmowers doesn’t always make for riveting viewing. And the documentary sometimes has a high quotient of gas, such as one guy likening baseball to Homer’s Odyssey, and another, a “mythologist” no less, proclaiming that all humans share “an irresistible longing to connect to their roots.” Fortunately, Roche has also woven in archival footage that takes us beyond the bromides and the outfield wall – images of bustling auto plants, civil rights marches, and the bloody summer of 1967.

The last word belongs to a member of the Grounds Crew, who sums up the movie’s message nicely: “This shows what Detroiters can do when we come together.”

Indeed it does. The Navin Field Grounds Crew is emblematic of what’s happening in a broken city where a lot of people have come to the realization that the old ways are gone forever and the only way to get some things done is to do them yourself. And so Detroiters pamper an old ballfield, they spruce up parks the city can’t afford to maintain, they patrol neighborhoods the city can’t afford to police, they turn entire neighborhoods into works of art, they plant gardens, start businesses, renovate houses that haven’t slid beyond salvation. In a word, they figure out a way to endure.

The current DIY ethic was explained to me in 2012, when I was in Detroit on a newspaper assignment and wound up talking to George Royce, a waiter by day and a rock ‘n’ roll drummer by night, who had recently moved from upstate Michigan into a downtown loft. “There’s a bizarre combination of things here in Detroit,” Royce told me. “Exquisite grand architecture and other buildings that are broken down. Extreme wealth and extreme poverty right next to each other. The people who live here usually have something going on. They’re artistic, they’re handy, they’re self-starters. People who are finicky don’t come to Detroit  You’ve got to have self-sufficiency.”

Yes, but why do they come here? “They come,” Boggs says, “to be part of this new world.”

Only a true Pollyanna would try to minimize Detroit’s staggering problems. But buying into the dreary old ruin-porn narrative is, in its way, as myopic as rosy optimism. Despite their many differences in approach, subject matter and tone, these two documentaries arrive at the same conclusion, one that may hold the key to the salvation of Detroit and countless other troubled American cities. The conclusion, in Boggs’s words, is this: “The changes are not going to come from the top.” No, the changes are not going to come from governments or corporations or philanthropists; the changes are going to come from the below, from the street, from individuals and small groups who believe that what they do can make a difference. Even if what they do is as humble as fixing up an abandoned house, or showing kids how to plant a garden, or taking care of a patch of sacred ground.

Image via davescaglione/Flickr





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One Response to “Digging Beneath the Cliché of Ruin Porn in Detroit”

  1. Edward Champion
    at 12:03 am on April 1, 2014

    Bill Morris roars with a roiling, toiling lede that has me unzipping my pants and calling room service for an ice bucket. Mr. Morris is good enough to identify a “rising chorus” of people who have felt that “the same old song” has played out w/r/t Detroit. A more boorish commenter, perhaps one along the lines of Edward Champion, would chide Mr. Morris for that ostensibly cheap cliche. But there’s no other way to express the thesis. I’m here to tell you that The Millions for about a decade simply does not stop its own rising chorus of lengthy essays, with occasional interregnums of Roman numerals distinguishing bountiful new sections, that contributes to the literary clime with the power of a thousand Sontags and a million Geoff Dyers! I am here to praise Bill Morris, who has a DIY ethic explained to him so that he can pass along the DIY ethic to us, where we might in turn explicate it to some stranger in the street, assuming she does not slap us in the face. I shall be hitting several bars this afternoon with Morris’s DIY ethic in mind. It is quite possible that I will require another ice bucket tomorrow. But that is my problem, not Mr. Morris’s.

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