There’s a moment in Pam Sporn’s powerful documentary Detroit 48202: Conversations Along a Postal Route when Julia Putnam, co-founder of Detroit’s The Boggs School, describes an experience that’s as familiar as it is painful for Detroiters born after the ’67 Rebellion. It’s that moment when an elder describes Detroit’s glory days, but in the past tense. A forever past tense.
But are Detroit’s golden days forever gone? If you’re talking about a day where a centralized auto industry ran three wartime shifts and the city never slept — well, those days are past. But watch the community-based teaching work of Putnam, in the footsteps of beloved activist Grace Lee Boggs, and know that all kinds of beauty and power is possible in this city. Despite the odds.
I’m Detroit-born, suburbs-raised. I know what it’s like to speed down highways and make snap judgments about the state of the city. But Sporn does the opposite. We don’t linger downtown or in Midtown. Instead, we go near the Fisher Building, in a zip code nestled between Woodward and the Lodge. We ride along with mail carrier Wendell Watkins. It’s a true privilege. He’s been doing this work for 30 years and he’s witnessed a lot.
Watkins’s story is not from 30,000 feet. We’re walking up the stoops and across the lawns as Watkins describes a street that went from 100 to 8 houses. How companies bought beautiful houses and buildings and just held them, letting them rot.
Watkins, a black native Detroiter just shy of retirement, shows us, house by house, apartment by apartment, the textures of the city. We meet compelling neighbors who all have stories to tell, from life on Hastings Street before it was bulldozed for I-75, to what it was like to organize black people on the assembly line (DRUM). Everyone has roots in the Great Migration, when their ancestors flew north to escape the poverty, degradations, and dangers of Jim Crow Southern life.
I still ache from the film’s telling of Detroit auto industry history, from labor’s perspective. How incredible it was when Ford paid people $5 a day. How men carried pictures of their houses in their wallets, so proud they were of homeownership. These companies built our middle class. But when they did all they could to bust unions, when they closed factories, when they introduced robots and automation that slashed jobs and left so many unemployed, you see how working men and women were abandoned.
“The only place that black people had any value was at the point of production,” said organizer General Gordon Baker Jr.. Baker and other activists took this hard American truth — centuries old — and used it to organize. To see these auto workers of color in action is a mighty thing. Even if we know how these factory stories end.
By film’s close, I found myself touched, again, by Julia Putnam’s words. She recounted realizing that the city’s blight is not her contemporaries’ fault. “It occurred to me how much I had been internalizing the way Detroit looked. Somehow it’s the fault of ‘stupid poor black people’, and why can’t we just get our act together?” said Putnam. Through learning Detroit’s history, she realized that the fault lay with so many decisions that came before her, decisions that left the city bereft of jobs and tax base.
I remember being a young person in Troy, going back and forth between the city and the suburbs, sensing deep injustice, but not knowing too much of the history. Just feeling the burn.
“To do these kinds of histories is healing work,” said Putnam. “It’s healing to tell children: this is not you.”
Detroit 48202 is a must-see for anyone who wants a rich understanding of Detroit history and of Detroit present.
See Detroit 48202 this weekend at the Freep Film Festival.
7:30 p.m. Sat., April 14, Marvin and Betty Danto Lecture Hall at the DIA.
11:30 a.m. Sun., April 15, Detroit Historical Museum.