Getting Detroit Right: An Interview with Filmmaker Pam Sporn

Getting Detroit Right: An Interview with Filmmaker Pam Sporn
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"Detroit is not just abandoned buildings, people live here." -Jack Watkins, age 25.

To be a Detroit native is to have felt that catch in the throat, that sheer trepidation when encountering a news story or a film or a play about our hometown--that fear of what is going to be said, that wonder if the writer is going to get it right. I was born in the city, but when I was six, we moved north to the suburbs. I remember growing up and feeling very protective of the city when a suburban peer made a joke or an ignorant observation. Now that I live in New York, though returning often to visit family, I feel doubly protective, knowing how easy it is for outsiders to write off much that is vital about back home, and misunderstand much that fails.

I recently spoke with filmmaker and former Detroiter Pam Sporn about telling Detroit stories. She is currently working on a documentary called Detroit 48202 in which she follows her old Cass Tech classmate Wendell Watkins on his route around the New Center area. Watkins has worked this route for over 25 years, and can tell so much about the changes on his streets, and the changes in the city, by virtue of the years spent going door-to-door and and delivering mail. He's spent a lifetime growing bonds--between his feet and the earth, between himself and the neighbors, and Sporn is capturing this rich community life in her film. Sporn also lives in New York, and I talk to her about the insider/outsider dynamic and how that affects her work as a storyteller. We also talk about Detroit cliches and who is getting Detroit right these days.

Outsiders v Insiders: Does it take a native Detroiter to get the stories right? Or do outside observers have the advantage? How important are one's origins when it comes to storytelling?

What makes a Detroit story "right" depends on your point of view. For me, a Detroit story that "gets it right" is one that foregrounds the experience of everyday Detroiters and one that has a social justice framework. I emphasize social justice because I think working-class Detroiters have been dealt a great injustice by having wealth, jobs, and public services being sucked out of their city.

I don't think an "outsider" can pop in and tell a story like that, but just by virtue of living in Detroit doesn't mean a person will tell a story that asks the critical questions needed to create social change. It's probably easier for an outsider to create a story that exploits Detroit's situation but an "insider" could also be so invested in a kind of boosterism that might prevent them from including anything that might make Detroit "look bad."

Personally, I'm at the point where I don't want to see another image of Michigan Central Station. I consider it Ruins Porn 101. Yet, it still is an incredible monument to abandonment, and it symbolizes much more, depending on your POV. Are there Detroit images, or stories, that have become cliché to you? Even if they are cliché, do you have a hard time giving them up?

The thing that bothers me about the repeated use of the image of Michigan Central Station is that when media makers use it they don't stop to ask if someone owns the building. It is used as a cliché that could mean anything, like you say. I think most people would think no one owns that building so there is a sense of powerlessness that nothing can be done--with the building--or Detroit.

But the fact is that since 1995 a billionaire named Manuel Moroun, who also owns the Ambassador Bridge, has owned Michigan Central Station. It is a huge structure, but someone with billions of dollars at his disposal could do something with that building, but he has made a decision not to. Asking the question, "why not?" could make the use of that image really meaningful.

Another Detroit image that I think is a cliché is the image of the empty Packard Auto Plant. It's a powerful image because it is so immense and of course, it is meaningful in the history of the auto industry. But, if the image is used to convey the idea that the auto industry declined after the uprising of 1967 and due to competition from Japanese cars it becomes a meaningless cliché. The Packard Plant actually closed in 1956, after the company merged with Studebaker. It had done so to attempt to survive competition from the Big Three-Ford, Chrysler, and GM, which wiped out the independent auto companies. So, the image of the plant really represents capitalist competition and the consolidation of the auto industry.

Who documents Detroit best? Who are the filmmakers, journalists, artists, or musicians that you think are really getting Detroit right these days?

There are 2 organizations I particularly admire doing media and arts work in Detroit. One is the Allied Media Projects, which is a main partner in the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition. Through their Detroit Futures programs and Discotech events, they are giving Detroiters the tools needed to tell their own stories.

The other is the Inside Out Literary Arts Program founded by Dr. Terry Blackhawk, a veteran English teacher and activist in the Detroit Public Schools. Inside Out offers hundreds of Detroit students the opportunity to express themselves through poetry and publishes their work. I think they are "getting Detroit right" because they are facilitating Detroiters telling their own stories.

Tell us about your current project Detroit 48202.

I attended the Allied Media Conference in Detroit in the summer of 2009. I hadn't been in Detroit for 10 years because my parents had moved to Chicago when they retired. I had seen some of the physical decline of the city while they still lived there, especially along Woodward Avenue in Highland Park where we had lived. I had visited the Heidelberg Project in the early 1990s so I knew there were areas that had vacant lots. But I wasn't prepared for the vastness of the decline when I visited in 2009.

A friend drove me around to see the two houses I had grown up in, one on McLean Avenue in Highland Park, and the other on Oak Drive, near Livernois and 6 Mile. I was afraid of what the house on McLean Avenue would look like, because as we started driving through Highland Park I was seeing trees growing out of houses. It was unimaginable to me. To my surprise the house was in beautiful shape, better than when we lived there in the 1960s!

On to the northwest side, the University District still looked beautiful-the Tudor style houses with big lawns and lots of trees. However, also to my surprise, the house we lived in on Oak Drive was boarded up! The roof was drooping over the windows of the room that had been my parents' bedroom and the screen door was swinging eerily against the front door. I had an empty feeling, partly from seeing the house abandoned, and partly because it seemed to emphasize the fact that both of my parents were gone, not just from Detroit, but deceased.

I suppose that visit could have closed the door for good on Detroit for me--I had no relatives there, but it made me think about Detroit in a way I hadn't for years. It was just off my radar. But I was really struck and thought, what in the world happened here?

I recently saw the trailer for Grace Lee's new documentary about Grace Lee Boggs, "American Revolutionary." In an opening scene Grace Lee Boggs says, "I feel sorry for people who don't live in Detroit." I can identify with a modification of that statement: "I feel lucky to have grown up in Detroit." Although I come from a very left wing family, I don't think I would have the same understanding of racial dynamics, racism, and labor history if I had grown up somewhere else.

When I was in Detroit in 2009, one of the people I got to spend some time with, after not seeing him for a long time, was my friend Wendell Watkins. Wendell and I went to Cass Technical High School together in the 1970s and were both members of a student activist group called Challenge Corps. We were trying to organize other students to protest against racism and the War in Vietnam.

Shortly after that visit to Detroit I ran into as mutual friend in NYC who said, "Can you believe Wendell has been on his postal route for 25 years?" Something clicked in my head that told me, there's a story! I thought by following Wendell on his route for a week with my camera, and listening in on his conversations with customers I would have a great character study (Wendell is what I'd call an organic intellectual/philosopher with a dry, sometimes silly, sense of humor), and that I'd find out what had caused the devastating decline of the city and how Detroit's resilient people were surviving.

I learned so much from Wendell in that week about how the buildings and houses on his route had changed over the years and I also learned about some Detroit history I hadn't known about. Gloria Owens is a feisty octogenarian who until June 2013 was the manager of one of the buildings on Wendell's route. She is everyone's "mama," according to Kim Moore another resident of that building who has become a part of the story. Ms. Owens' family was one of the first to move in (escorted by state troopers) to the contested Sojourner Truth Houses in 1942. So, conversations between Ms. Owens and Wendell shed light on the history of systematic racial segregation of housing in Detroit that was facilitated by Federal policy and has implications for today.

But, of course, it's hard to tell a meaningful story that captures the complexities of a place by popping in and shooting for one week. So, what I thought would be a quick project has turned into my returning 5 more times over 2 years to shoot in Detroit and do archival research. That gets to your insider/outsider question. An insider has an intimate relationship with a place and people in that place and is therefore in tune with what's happening now. By regularly returning to Detroit I've been able to build more of a relationship with some of the people on Wendell's route, and reach beyond the route to explore larger political and historical questions that I felt I wasn't getting the answers by remaining in that limited area.

And, I had to return because things keep developing in Detroit. In the time I've been working on Detroit 48202, Michigan voters overturned Michigan Public Act 4, (which gave the governor the right to impose an emergency manager on a city or school system that was in financial crisis), the state legislature simply rewrote the law and the governor appointed an Emergency Manager in Detroit anyway, and now the EM has entered Detroit in bankruptcy proceedings. These are very bad developments for people in Detroit because it means an attack on their voting rights and on their collective bargaining rights and many retirees' pensions. It's a challenge but I think the histories and conversations we hear along the postal route need the present context as a backdrop.

Good developments have also occurred that I've been able to track and document. In April 2012 I filmed a conversation between Wendell and a dynamic individual who lives in the 48202 zip code-Julia Putnam. Julia was telling Wendell about her efforts, along with a team inspired by the Boggs Center, to open a new community based school on the East Side of Detroit. Well, that school opened its doors to over 50 children this month (Sept. 2013)! So, Julia is one of the heroines of Detroit 48202.

How does the story of a postal route illuminate the city as a whole?

Documenting personal exchanges and relationships on a postal route represents the quote by Wendell's nephew-"Detroit is not just abandoned buildings, people live here." The postal route shows people living in a community, something that sometimes get left out of representations of Detroit as a kind of post apocalyptic place. A postal route is a line on a map. So, as we move along with Wendell on his route, we're mapping a section of the city. That map reveals a kind of microcosm of Detroit because of its diversity.

For example, in the New Center Area we see some solid blocks of stately brick homes in really good condition, and we see a block with one abandoned home remaining standing. We see apartment buildings that are fully occupied and ones that are 1/3 occupied and ones that are empty and abandoned. We see an abandoned hospital and an empty school, evidence of a loss of population. But we also see apartment buildings that are in the process of being renovated that will offer a mixture of affordable and market rate apartments. We don't see much car traffic, except for on Woodward Ave and we don't see busses going down Second Ave. because that bus route was eliminated. But we do see the headquarters of the Detroit NAACP and a day care center.

The physical nature of the route and the commentary of Wendell and residents and a developer give a sense of a flux--hearing about what used to be, how residential occupancy decreased when General Motors moved its HQ from New Center to downtown, hearing a mixture of optimism and skepticism about the renovations being done by the development firm. Following the postal route is a physical and mental journey that can open up questions about where the city is heading, and who and what within the city will be the social and economic priorities.

You now live in the Bronx. What does life in NYC teach you about life back home in Detroit?

I started teaching high school in the South Bronx in the Fall of 1980, at the tail end of the fires that decimated the Bronx and caused hundreds of thousands people to move away from the borough. I would walk to my job past vast lots and hulks of buildings. A lot of the Bronx has been rebuilt, through a variety of efforts, but it looked very different back then. Learning about the disinvestment and insurance fraud by landlords that in great part decimated the Bronx is what first introduced me to the idea of "redlining," that intentional writing off of certain neighborhoods and people, by lending institutions. I saw the devastating impact on the Bronx of that disinvestment, made worse by city cutbacks during a time of fiscal crisis.

When I look at Detroit I see the results of the same kind of disinvestment, except I think its worse for Detroit because I feel like the economic powers abandoned the whole city (the center city, not the suburbs).

The school I was teaching in--Schomburg Satellite Academy--was a progressive, alternative school that relied on the creativity and talents of its staff and students to create a community. We defied the stereotypes of the Bronx and its teenagers. So, that's why I identify so much with what the folks building the Boggs School in Detroit are doing.

On the flip side, some of the same areas of NYC that were so devastated in the 1980s and 1990s and considered "undesirable" have now become high-income areas, inaccessible to poor or working class people. I recently read an article in the NY Times about how Brownsville (Brooklyn) is the area of the city where the highest number of people entering the shelter system are coming from. Why? Because housing in Bed-Stuy is becoming so expensive that poorer Bed-Stuy residents are moving to Brownsville.

What is happening in NYC informs what is happening in Detroit and vice versa, to a degree. The bottom line in both places is question for all cities. As changes happen in industry and technology, and urban planners, and real estate developers, and businesses make their decisions, who are they imagining cities are for? For my film, I interviewed June Manning Thomas a professor of Urban Planning at U of Mich, who has written about urban development and race in Detroit. She calls for an approach to urban planning that is based on social justice. I don't think that is where businesses or developers in Detroit or NYC have their priorities, but I think that is the fight that communities in cities across the US have.

Does leaving and returning to Detroit help you or hurt you as a teller of Detroit stories?

Not living in Detroit for many years probably hurts my ability to tell a Detroit story because I've been disconnected for so long. However, part of the film I'm making is my Detroit story, so it's also my story.

One way I think returning to Detroit helps as a storyteller is that things that people living in Detroit have maybe gotten used to seeing (like empty school buildings offered for lease or sale by the Detroit Public Schools) still disarm me. And I think viewers around the country should be disarmed by the abandonment of a black working class city by business and government.

Pam Sporn will be presenting at the North American Labor History Conference at Wayne State University on Oct. 24th. For more information, go here.

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