What do you do on a miserable prematurely cold Sunday when ominous clouds threaten rain? Well, there are my neighbours’ peaches to gather, home-grown tomatoes to pick, papers to file and some solitary mess to tidy up before my travelling wife gets home. That’ll do for a start.
But what do you do if you live without prospects and with the rest of your life stretching ahead of you in the bankrupt post-apocalyptic city of Detroit? The schools are closing and the great automobile factories, once the only real source of legitimate employment, have been abandoned to human scavengers and creeping nature.
Julian Temple does seem to make exceedingly good documentaries. I have long championed Oil City Confidential, about Dr. Feelgood and life in Canvey Island, Essex. Requiem For Detroit? last week was equally fascinating. Somehow it managed to be both profoundly depressing and strangely uplifting. As one of the commentators suggested – it might have been Mitch Ryder, who once sang with his group, The Detroit Wheels – there’s only three ways of making money for many of the inhabitants: drugs, dog-fighting or stripping the abandoned buildings for scrap metal.
And yet… young pioneering people are turning up, as they did in the San Francisco area during the 1960s, because they look upon the awful ghost town as some kind of land of opportunity. It may take a strong dose of lateral thinking, but you can just about envisage the place as some kind of microcosm of the post-industrial world. Rampant vegetation is swallowing up the legacy of the population explosion that turned Detroit into the fourth biggest city in the USA.
It’s an irony of the cycle of life that the city was populated by immigrants from the Deep South, who gave up their subsistence livelihoods as sharecroppers to work on the car assembly lines of Henry Ford and others of his kidney. Unemployed car workers are now finding that they can make some kind of living by turning over what little land they have to agriculture. Selling fruit and vegetables can bring in around $500 per week, someone suggested. What a great notion to think that one day Detroit might become the first kind of post-industrial urban farm, where produce is grown in diverse smallholdings rather than huge mono-cultivated mid-western style farms.
This weekend, I went to Vayrac instead of Martel for my fruit and vegetables, bought from stallholders who grow produce that tastes of something other than fresh cucumbers. After depositing last week’s holidaymakers’ laundry at Le Pressing, I sat outside the Bar Tabac with an intense coffee and waited for my friend, Bret. Judging by the voices at the tables around me, the only people daft enough to sit outside on such a dreary morning were English immigrés.
When Bret arrived, he rolled me one of his cigarettes, because he knows me well enough to recognise that I make a pig’s ear of an operation that is thankfully still a rarity in my life. I told him about the documentary, as I know that he too likes to look at life in its historical context. We talked about the notion of actual and moral bankruptcy. Despite the fact that Detroit has suffered what amounts to a Hurricane Katrina in slow motion, it seems that there has been no injection of emergency capital to help bring the place back to life. And yet, he told me, they are building or have built a new stadium for one of the city’s sporting teams at a cost of 300 million dollars or so. The profits, of course, will find their way inexorably into the owner’s already deep pockets. At any time, too, he can presumably move the whole operation – as often happens in the States – to another city prepared to offer a better deal.
The director, Julian Temple, talked to a group of men – all of whom, I think, had already spent time in prison – who were working for a programme or an organisation all about responsibly removing recyclable scrap from buildings, as opposed to stripping them of anything saleable to leave them in a state of imminent collapse. These men spoke openly and surprisingly eloquently of the mayhem that they had once created when idle and the new sense of purpose they had discovered when given a positive occupation.
Meanwhile, we read, President Obama’s credibility is compromised by his inability to engineer the latest US-sponsored war in the Middle East. Why is it, we wondered, that Roosevelt was able to cement his place in history by mobilising armies of the unemployed in the name of a New Deal and yet it won’t wash in the 21st century at a time when, more than ever, we need direction from visionaries of principle? It’s heartbreaking to think of how much money could be diverted from the military to the educational ledgers.
I went home with my fruit and vegetables, musing on such troublesome thoughts. In the evening, I went to Martel with some other friends for a pair of music concerts in the market place. The event was part of a weekend festival linked to the national journées du patrimone. The rain poured down, but even though the stage lighting revealed the fine spray that blew in through the open sides, the extraordinary roof structure kept us all dry.
A big enthusiastic crowd responded noisily to a group called Mellino, whose origins lay in Les Négresses Vertes of late 20th century fame, and even more vociferously to Flavia Coelho, a Paris-based Brazillian chanteuse with spray-on jeans, big hair and an immense smile. The temporary flooring over the cobbles moved like a localised earthquake with the impact of bouncing humans.
Afterwards, we all went home in our convenient four-wheeled killing machines. Henry Ford was a thoroughly unpleasant man with a lot to answer for. But at least he had the clarity to see that his brainchild of mass production would end up being the death of us all. I’m lucky not to live in the segregated communities of Detroit, whose divisions he helped to create. Martel is thousands of miles away in more ways than a geographical one. Nevertheless, there’s a lesson in its terrible decline that applies to us all.