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(Craig Campbell)– SPERAMUS MELIORA; RESURGET CINERIBUS: “We hope for better things; it shall rise from the ashes.” The Motto of Detroit.
In 1701, the French explorer Antoine Laumet de La Mothe, sieur de Cadillac founded a small wooden fort on the west side of the Detroit River. Over the next century the settlement expanded; timber houses were erected and crops were cultivated on ribbon farms that stretched to the water. In 1805, the city was engulfed in flames after one home caught fire, razing all of Detroit’s wooden structures. Two years later a motto for a revitalized Detroit ushered in an era of hope for the new city. In the early 20th Century, Henry Ford’s promise of $5 a day for assembly line workers welcomed hordes of unskilled laborers to migrate to the city in order to enjoy prosperous middle class lives. Many African Americans, escaping Jim Crow South, moved north to siphon off a reasonable income from accelerating flow of industrial wealth. Detroit-proper swelled from 285,000 in 1900 to 990,000 in 1920. The population peaked in 1950 when 1.8 million residents lived within city limits. Due to housing restrictions, the city’s black population was forced to occupy a 25-block ghetto known as Black Bottom, but despite the segregation, everyone enjoyed higher standard of living than his ancestors. The city had truly risen from its 19th Century ashes.
And then the city erupted in flames again. The 12th Street Riot of 1967, the most destructive of the Detroit race riots, resulted in 43 people dead, 467 injured, over 7,200 arrests, and more than 2,000 buildings destroyed. The city elected its first African American mayor in 1974, housing restrictions were relaxed, and the city’s huge black population dispersed from Black Bottom into other neighborhoods of the city. What followed is now known as “White Flight,” during which much of the city’s white population moved in droves to the surrounding suburbs, leaving Detroit with a meager population of 750,000 in 2010.
With an average of 500 arsons a month, Detroit has remained burning ever since.
The other weekend, I visited the Traverse City Film Festival in Northern Michigan for an advance screening of “BURN: One Year on the Front Lines of the Battle to Save Detroit.” The film details the struggles and spirit of Engine 50, a public fire fighting company in the city. The goal of the filmmakers was to draw attention to the problems faced by the Detroit Fire Department, possibly the most beleaguered of its kind in the world.
Young men in Detroit, for lack healthier ways to occupy their time, often purchase a gallon or two of gasoline, walk into one of the city’s 70,000+ vacant homes, light a match, and watch it burn. A couple years ago my mom sat on a jury of a property crime case, in which the defendant was tried for arson. The suspect could not make rent payments on his home and was evicted by his landlord. While he was moving out, the house in which he lived was torched, and arson investigators determined that the fire was deliberately set. Multiple witnesses saw the young man walking from the building minutes before flames were spotted on the second floor. And he walked free because “no one saw him light the match.” Arson for fun, arson for profit, arson for revenge – the act of deliberately setting fire to a property is an incredibly difficult crime to prosecute. Asked why arson is such a massive public problem in Detroit, one of the firefighters in the movie laughed and replied, “A gallon of gas is cheaper than a movie ticket.”
At the end of the screening, Michael Moore (who manages the festival) fielded a Q&A between the directors, a group of present firemen, and the audience. Thinking that broadcasting it on an educational network would garner needed support for the film, one member of the audience asked what it would take to get the documentary on PBS. The directors were dismissive. Brenna Sanchez, the Detroit native who co-directed and produced BURN, explained that “the people who need to see this movie are NOT the people who watch PBS.” The people who watch PBS are the people who were in the audience: overwhelmingly white, old Michiganders; not the people of Detroit. The very first person called on during the Q&A with the directors was an old lady who loudly complained about the lack of complementary hearing aids in the theater. They are the voyeurs, the people who take pleasure in the documentary but view its subjects as exotic animals. They’re the old folk who live a comfortable 5-hour drive from Detroit. They like to see the flames, but only behind the safety of a television screen.
Later in the discussion, someone asked a more appropriate question about the road to recovery for Detroit. The microphone was immediately handed to the most articulate fireman who, with teary eyes, told us that we had to come together, “Democrat and Republican, conservative and liberal, black, white, rich, and poor” and rebuild the city, together. He received an roar of applause as he handed the mic back to Sanchez, who had the bleaker reality of Detroit in mind. She explained most of the city’s residents are the poorest of poor, and “many generations removed from anyone who was even remotely successful.” They’ve never known privilege, and the American Dream of hard work and subsequent payoff has been a door long closed on them. Detroit is not, she implied, a pick-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps kind of community.
Was that a racist statement, I wondered, considering Detroit’s predominantly black population? Would she have bee able to say the same thing to an audience in Detroit?
Probably not. Detroiters proudly cite the enduring “Spirit of Detroit” that lives in them. It’s the gritty resilience that always seems to get them through the day, and it was the centerpiece of the massively successful “Imported from Detroit” Chrysler 200 ads. Even watching this commercial now, I hear Eminem’s “Lose Yourself,” see views of the “city that’s been to Hell and back,” and chills shiver through my spine. But there’s something contingent to the audacious attitude of the “Spirit of Detroit” that has been keeping the city in this rut year after year, decade after decade.
The families in Detroit, who are only a couple generations removed from a legacy of racial segregation and white oppression, have maintained the “Us versus Them” mentality through the years. They elect the same imperious city leaders over and over again. Belle Isle Park, for example, was designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, the urban planner who created the layout for Central Park. It is a magnificent, 1000-acre sanctuary lying between the USA and Canada in the middle of the Detroit River. And it’s falling to shit because the City Council, despite its lack of funds, refuses to relinquish management rights of the park to the State of Michigan. During the year of filming for BURN, a new Commissioner of the Fire Department was appointed. Donald Austin had been the Commissioner of the Los Angeles Fire Department before moving to Detroit. Although Austin was born and grew up in Detroit, the firefighters of Engine 50 referred to him as the “Hollywood” guy, disparaging his budget-cutting efforts because he was an outsider, someone trying to come in and fix a city he didn’t truly understand.
I had been planning on outlining all of the problems the city faces, including economic instability, municipal corruption, problems with education, and crime rates. I was going to spell out my theory on how Detroit (or at least certain neighborhoods) hasn’t hit rock bottom yet, and that it has to before it can look up toward recovery. However, in spite of the reductive rhetoric of the city’s TV news reporters, the city’s progress cannot be mapped on a linear chart. There is no “better” and there is no “worse,” at least for the foreseeable short term. The reality is more nuanced; it’s bleaker in some ways (70% of homicides are unsolved) but brighter in several others – in Detroit’s Downtown district, crime rates are lower than state and national levels.
Detroit is a city of neighborhoods. Some have been thriving for years, and others continue to decompose as Nature’s indifference levels the once vibrant communities. And some have continued to improve in palpable ways, embodying the true Spirit of Detroit.