Skip to main content

Detroit, the 'used to be' city

By Heidi Ewing, Special to CNN
updated 6:37 AM EDT, Mon July 29, 2013
Detroit has become the largest American city to declare bankruptcy. People who spend any time there grow accustomed to hearing the words "used to be," says Heidi Ewing, co-director of "Detropia," a documentary about the Michigan city and its uncertain future. An aerial view, circa 1950, of the old Tiger Stadium and the downtown skyline shows the Motor City in all its former glory. Detroit has become the largest American city to declare bankruptcy. People who spend any time there grow accustomed to hearing the words "used to be," says Heidi Ewing, co-director of "Detropia," a documentary about the Michigan city and its uncertain future. An aerial view, circa 1950, of the old Tiger Stadium and the downtown skyline shows the Motor City in all its former glory.
HIDE CAPTION
Detroit, the glory days
Detroit, the glory days
Detroit, the glory days
Detroit, the glory days
Detroit, the glory days
Detroit, the glory days
Detroit, the glory days
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Heidi Ewing: People in Detroit always talk about how pretty, how lively, things used to be
  • Ewing grew up in suburbs, but she loved the snapshots of her parents in 1960s Detroit
  • She wanted to film the "comeback city," but found desperate people on the margins
  • Ewing decided to turn camera on the folks who stayed to bring Detroit back to its vibrant past

Editor's note: Heidi Ewing is an Academy Award-nominated filmmaker, the owner of Loki Films and the co-director of "Detropia," a new documentary about Detroit and its uncertain future. She is from Metro Detroit and lives in New York. On Twitter, follow Ewing @HeidiLoki and "Detropia" @detropiathefilm.

(CNN) -- "This block used to be full of pretty little houses with well-kept yards." When you spend any time in the newly bankrupt Detroit, you get very accustomed to hearing the words "used to be."

It's a phrase often uttered by the old-timer looking fly in the red suit and crocodile shoes, who may actually remember when Detroit was the pinnacle of industry. But it's also said liberally by young men and women who have been hearing about Detroit's good old days from their parents and grandparents. The thing is, when you are in or around Detroit for awhile, "used to be" seeps into your brain through osmosis -- a simultaneously fuzzy and vivid collective memory that makes the Motor City the most nostalgic place in America.

A snowy evening in Detroit
A snowy evening in Detroit
Crystal Starr sits in the empty window of the Lee Plaza in Detroit. Lee Plaza was once an Art Deco symbol of success, now reduced to a symbol of urban decay.
Crystal Starr sits in the empty window of the Lee Plaza in Detroit. Lee Plaza was once an Art Deco symbol of success, now reduced to a symbol of urban decay.

My parents grew up in Detroit and, like too many others, fled to the suburbs in 1967 after years of lingering racial tension boiled over and riots rocked the city. That meant that my sister, brother and I grew up 20 minutes from Detroit's 8 Mile, the border that, like a hammer, separates the current and "ex" Detroiters.

My grandma stayed stubbornly behind on Faust Street on the Northwest side of Detroit. I would visit on weekends and go through the attic, looking for clues of what Detroit used to be.

I especially relished the boxes of black and white snapshots of my parents in the 1960s. There they were in one shot, sipping cheap Cold Duck sparkling wine while throwing a party at La Plaisance, their high-rise in Lafayette Park, a sweet pad that overlooked the Stroh's brewery.

In another one of my favorites, they stand with my older brother PJ, then 3 years old, in front of J.L. Hudson's, the beloved department store where the elevators had operators and the restaurant served salads with celery seed dressing. It was hard not to be curious and a bit envious of this city life that had eluded my siblings and me.

Heidi Ewing
Heidi Ewing

In high school, my girlfriends and I made pilgrimages past 8 Mile Road every weekend to hang out with the city boys who went to the excellent U. of D. Jesuit High. They introduced us to Rock n' Bowl, a bowling alley that blasted New Order and let us drink the Mad Dog 20/20 we had bought illegally from a liquor store with bulletproof glass. The city felt dangerous, but we felt immortal.

Opinion: How Detroit can rise again

I finally got my chance to live in Detroit in 2010, when I moved there to make a documentary about the city. Like many Americans, I had caught a whiff of optimism from Detroit, rumors about newcomers and artists descending on "The D," news of urban planners and visionaries who had a plan to make it the city of the future. So I came with my crew, ready to roll, even an uplifting title in mind: "Detroit Hustles Harder."

But finding the easy comeback story proved challenging. Although we did indeed encounter a small gang of young creative types and revitalization efforts inside Detroit's small Midtown area, beyond these few blocks of hope we found a citizenry fending entirely for itself.

Albom: Detroit is not Atlantis
Detroit files for bankruptcy
Detroit's fall from grace
Can Detroit reinvent itself?

The truth is, we encountered an endless parade of grotesquerie in Detroit: A scary dude named Jay Thunderbolt, face disfigured from a gunshot, running a depraved strip club out of his deceased parents' home. A young man named Chuck trying to make it as an R&B artist when his house gets shot up by men with AK 47s on Christmas Eve, his calls to the Detroit Police unanswered. An old woman, head of a community cleanup group, robbed in her home in broad daylight. Illegal "scrappers" dismantling an old Cadillac repair shop just to get money for beer. An overworked demolition crew, hired by the city, brimming with tales of finding frozen bodies during routine jobs.

We were flummoxed. Was our truth-telling becoming an exercise in exploitation? Where were the solutions we came for? It was time to stop asking who may save Detroit and instead ask Detroiters what compelled them to stay in this dysfunctional place.

We started with Tommy Stephens, a former schoolteacher who, despite thinning crowds, opens the Raven Lounge every weekend on a bombed-out block in East Detroit. He stays because "Detroit without a black-owned blues club just isn't Detroit anymore. And somebody's got to do it."

Along Michigan Avenue, we met George, who, after 30 years still slogs away at UAW Local 22, trying, often in vain, to keep jobs in the city. "The middle class was born right here in Detroit," he said. And across town, there was David, who turned down an easy life in California to run the Detroit Opera House. "If a city has no cultural institutions," he said, "then is it still a city at all?"

RoboCop creator: Detroit shows film's fictional future is upon us

All these people had one thing in common: A deep sense of duty and unflagging belief that they need to do their part to preserve some of what had made Detroit a source of great pride for this country. With looming slashes to pensions and the threat of more service cutbacks that will come with Chapter 9, I wonder how many loyalists will question their sacrifices?

The subjects of the film, which in the end we called "Detropia," could not escape the deep nostalgia that compels them to stick with Detroit. This burden of the past haunts even the 20-something Crystal Starr, who spends her time off prowling through abandoned buildings, flashlight in one hand and a book about Detroit's history in the other.

She'd climb to the top floors and sit in old kitchens, looking out the giant windows, panes long gone, trying to recall a time when this place was on the rise. "It's weird," she said one day, looking out at the cityscape. "I wasn't even here for the good times, but still, I have the memory of this place when it was bangin'."

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Heidi Ewing.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 2:19 PM EDT, Fri October 31, 2014
As a woman whose parents had cancer, I have quite a few things to say about dying with dignity.
updated 9:04 AM EDT, Fri October 31, 2014
David Gergen says he'll have a special eye on a few particular races in Tuesday's midterms that may tell us about our long-term future.
updated 10:52 AM EDT, Fri October 31, 2014
What's behind the uptick in clown sightings? And why the fascination with them? It could be about the economy.
updated 9:01 AM EDT, Fri October 31, 2014
Midterm elections don't usually have the same excitement as presidential elections. That should change, writes Sally Kohn.
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Thu October 30, 2014
Mike Downey says the Giants and the Royals both lived through long title droughts. What teams are waiting for a win?
updated 2:32 PM EDT, Thu October 30, 2014
Mel Robbins says if a man wants to talk to a woman on the street, he should follow 3 basic rules.
updated 5:03 PM EDT, Wed October 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say more terrorism plots are disrupted by families than by NSA surveillance.
updated 5:25 PM EDT, Wed October 29, 2014
Time magazine has clearly kicked up a hornet's nest with its downright insulting cover headlined "Rotten Apples," says Donna Brazile.
updated 4:55 PM EDT, Wed October 29, 2014
Leroy Chiao says the failure of the launch is painful but won't stop the trend toward commercializing space.
updated 7:45 AM EDT, Wed October 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley: Though Jeb Bush has something to offer, another Bush-Clinton race would be a step backward.
updated 8:37 AM EDT, Tue October 28, 2014
Errol Louis says forced to choose between narrow political advantage and the public good, the governors showed they are willing to take the easy way out over Ebola.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Eric Liu says with our family and friends and neighbors, each one of us must decide what kind of civilization we expect in the United States. It's our responsibility to set tone and standards, with our laws and norms
updated 7:45 AM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Sally Kohn says the UNC report highlights how some colleges exploit student athletes while offering little in return
updated 3:04 PM EDT, Sun October 26, 2014
Terrorists don't represent Islam, but Muslims must step up efforts to counter some of the bigotry within the world of Islam, says Fareed Zakaria
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Scott Yates says extending Daylight Saving Time could save energy, reduce heart attacks and get you more sleep
updated 8:32 PM EDT, Sun October 26, 2014
Reza Aslan says the interplay between beliefs and actions is a lot more complicated than critics of Islam portray
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT