Panic In Detroit

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. ![](upload://6DFlBDf5sslXkf3fx1VtoqI7lRW.jpg)

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.

Maria, I'd be delighted to give you some figs, but they're not ours - they're our neighbours'. The tree we planted here needs transplanting, I think, to a sunnier spot. Brian, Norman, Jonathan - thank you all for your fascinating comments about Henry Ford and the likes. Interesting, too, Jonathan what happens in Germany. Thank you for reminding me about the New Deal. Of course, it takes a war to mobilise the full workforce (or the aftermath of war - the 1950s, when we never had it so good in that respect). But some good things came out of the New Deal and it gave some people a chance to do something rather more constructive than queue up or drive west in droves.

The 'Dearborn Independent' that he only closed because of the lawsuits. Ironically, Ford although he was a nasty bit of work was a pacifist who had opposed World War One. However, he believed Jews were responsible for starting wars in order to profit from them and said: "International financiers are behind all war. They are what is called the international Jew: German Jews, French Jews, English Jews, American Jews. I believe that in all those countries except our own the Jewish financier is supreme . . . here the Jew is a threat". Adolf loved that and thus based all of his new model industry on Ford's approach. Strange world.

Yes Norman, the trees heave with apples here, then dropped 99% wasted. Yet, ironically a couple of months back somebody trampled across out clearly cultivated leeks, etc. and was helping herself to our plums on a tree in our garden when I appeared and she remarked with a kind of 'I didn't think the tree belonged to anybody' excuse. But with you anyway.

It is a strange world, very strange indeed.

It is amazing what we see on our walks. Blackberries we reap without conscience and windfalls, but it is heartbreaking to see trees just loaded and no-one to pick the fruit. We asked a couple of houses if we could 'pick and pay' but they said 'oh no it's for our children and grandchildren' only to see th e fruit rotten and useless a week or so later. I just don't understand, we will willingly pay for fresh fruit off the trees and pick the stuff ourselves.

I think we are going to overcome our consciences and pick the stuff anyway, as others have said I too hate waste like this.

On the other subject I have a picture of Henry Ford receiving a Nazi award as Hitler thought he reflected all American Industrialists with his anti-Semitic 'Dearborne Express' (not sure I have spelled that correctly the reference not being to hand). Yes, a truly nasty piece of work if reports are true.

Strange world isn't it?

'Change was always unwelcome'. I like that, Brian. How right you are: keep the status quo going at all costs. Glad to hear that you're experiencing at least a garden of plenty. Only the tomatoes have really come up trumps for us this year, but it's amazing how much fruit you find rotting on the roads and paths. I hate waste, but there's only so many figs and plums that a man can eat without blowing up like a barrage balloon. Good luck with bedding in the asparagus. You're a more adventurous man than I, Gunga Din.

Flavia Coelho, love it. Whoever knows what coelho is translated would too. Rabbit... OK.

Reflecting on your thoughts I find that it reflects back on our own here. We left the UK hoping to escape certain shall I say cliques? They are people who 'made the running' but we felt they did they highly efficiently by making sure nothing happened - change was always unwelcome. Our timing at the peak of the economic crisis was naturally unplanned. So it has left me particularly without work - I have spent two weeks waiting for a contract to start that is mine but for the fact there has been no exchange of contract and the people only accept a real signature. Whoops, again no change from an organisation that portrays itself as one that promotes change! They are busy promoting peace in Syria at present, but very transparently in a way that please all sides and since they have a USA office, them included. So, apart from the 12K I may not be seeing in a few months, my heart does not grieve the contract probably evaporating.

So yeah. We have kilos of grapes still to pick, four trees laden with ripe figs, blackberries, beans ripening each day and, like everybody else it seems, tomatoes by the tonne. The strawberries and asparagus need pre-winter weeding and bedding in. So perhaps a Brazilian tune or two amongst the selection on my mp3 player and garden here I come.