Wayne County Airport, Bruce Reed, and Detropia, a documentary that pissed me off

It used to be that if you went through Atlanta airport you stopped over in Newt Gingrich’s district, a fact that enabled him to claim some global sophistication. His district, Georgia’s 6th, has been fairly solid Republican for years, so much so that quite often no one bothers to run against the incumbent. You’re dying to learn this I know, but JFK airport is in the same situation, only the other way round. JFK is in New York’s 6th Congressional district, a place so solidly Democratic that it’s rare for anyone to bother with a challenge. Your Robust Democracy illustrated.

It turns out not to be A Conspiracy because the pattern doesn’t hold for Wayne County Airport, a place you’ve possibly also passed through, knowing it as DTW, the airport for Detroit. The ancient John Dingell, 84, is the Democratic representative there. He’s been in Congress for 56 years. Longer than Orrin Hatch, even. But – and perhaps this is because he is so ancient – his 2010 election was a surprise of a nail-biter. Well, a nail-biter for a man accustomed to solid majorities. Dingell got only 54% of the vote. He’s running again this year.

Wayne County Airport, DTW, is 26 miles from Detroit, a nice safe distance. And, as airports go, it’s a fairly attractive place to hub, with a captivating fountain in the middle. Weirdly, the tunnel that takes passengers out to the commuter terminal is less wonderful. Scary, in fact. It wouldn’t be good for those with heavy PTSD or unstable eyes because it’s blessed with strange throbbing lights and loud pulsing sounds that don’t rise to the level of actual music.

But I have a soft spot for DTW because I once ran into my cousin Bruce there. He saw me and said, simply, “Oh, hello, Patrick. I have a book for you,” dug into his pack and handed me a copy of Ruth Ozeki’s My Year of Meats.

You should read it, if only because there are so few current writers addressing political issues. (Name me two. That’s a challenge.)

Instead, political issues tend to get addressed by documentaries. Sure there’s the occasional dramatic like Syriana, but that’s all that bubbles into my mind at the moment. So we tend to rely on docs (sorry, filmie term) to explain the world to us. Sadly, the nature of the 90 minute medium means that there’s rarely room for subtle discussion in those docs. (Cue “what happened to the intellectual culture of yesteryear” diatribe.) They’re so often seeking the dramatic shot and glib assessment with perhaps a nod to All Sides of an issue.

So Detropia opens with one of those dramatic shots. A turkey vulture hovers over Detroit. Clever, huh? The film makers, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, then do what so many other doc makers do; find various Representative Citizens to illustrate the gradual decline of Detroit and the way people respond. And there are essentially three responses. One is the response of centralized authority, in this case mostly the Mayor and remaining business leaders. He’s faced with a bankrupt city unable to provide even the most basic services. He makes big proposals, like the idea of consolidation, mushing together different neighborhoods and, in effect, abandoning huge areas of the city, letting them drift gently back to prairie.

But of course the remaining residents of the affected neighborhoods don’t much like the idea and say so at endless public meetings. Progress, if that’s what it is, is not apparent from these meetings. Ewing & Grady also visit union shops, mostly automobile-related, where workers are being “offered” huge pay cuts as the only way to keep their jobs. Not much of a choice, really.

Ewing & Grady also find another response to Detroit’s decline. Artists are moving to Detroit, seemingly because housing is so very cheap and there’s a nascent arts community. It’s a good place for them to start their careers or to start over. And indeed these young artists are changing parts of Detroit. Very, very tiny parts of Detroit. And they’re kind of fun to watch, brimming with Super Youthful Artistic Enthusiasm.

But, really, 500 potentially peripatetic artists moving to a city of 800,000 isn’t gonna change much except make a doc a tad more interesting.

The third response to Detroit’s decline is one that E & G seemingly miss entirely: community gardens. Big deal, you say, every city has community gardens. Agreed, but none (repeat, none) have gardening on the scale that Detroit has. There are 1,200 community gardens in Detroit. That’s more per square mile and more per capita than anywhere else in the US. And that’s just community gardens; it doesn’t count all the kitchen gardens across the city.

Isn’t this worth thinking about or documenting? Apparently not. And where is coverage of perhaps the most important part of Detroit’s high school system, the Catherine Ferguson Academy, a school specifically for pregnant girls and teen mothers. What’s remarkable about Catherine Ferguson is that these teens are taught survival skills through their work on the school’s urban farm, goats and horses and all. (There’s a 2010 documentary about this http://www.grownindetroitmovie.com/ which I haven’t yet dug up but now probably will.)

Meanwhile, I’ll stay grumpy about Detropia, a lazy movie. Ewing and Grady fail to see that it’s not the  centralized bureaucratic response to a vast problem which will most probably be the thing that stabilizes Detroit. It’ll be the the community’s response.

At least I hope so.


About Patrick de Freitas

Recovering bilbiopole interested in way too many things so I often have difficulty keeping up with myself. Or perhaps I'm more scattered than I imagine.
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