The author is a former reporter for the Detroit Free Press and New York Times.
By Joe Lapointe
For decades, the Michigan Central train station off downtown Detroit lurked like a big tombstone on a moribund city. It became a favorite subject – perhaps a cliché -- for the “ruins porn” photographs that defined the Motor City’s image at the turn of the century.
But now, suddenly, Ford Motor Co. will buy and revive the 104-year-old building as a transportation technology hub.
This means a landmark built for 19th Century transportation technology will be repurposed by a company that changed the world with 20th Century transportation technology so that, soon, commuters of the 21st Century can get around better.
“The new Michigan station will be the biggest laboratory for reinventing automotive transportation ever created,” William Clay Ford, Jr., assures viewers. “It will transform how people live in cities around the world just as my great-grandfather did all those years ago.”
Ford’s famous ancestor, of course, was Henry Ford, who shaped Detroit and the world. Young Bill is the current executive chairman.
His face and voice appear early and late in the documentary “Detroit: Comeback City,” which had its debut Sunday night on the History channel. That made dollars and sense. Ford’s company paid an undisclosed share of the production costs and provided great creative input.
No doubt that’s why one early scene shows a black-and-white film of all those Model Ts rolling off old Henry’s assembly line.
And why another black-and-white clip shows Motown’s Martha and the Vandellas lip-syncing “Nowhere to Run” while dancing down the assembly line and climbing into a 1965 Ford Mustang.
And why a late clip shows signs promoting Ford’s 50th anniversary celebration in 1953. And why the first commercial on the documentary just happened to be for a “Ford EcoSport,” a compact SUV.
At its worst, “Detroit: Comeback City” pushes the gauzy optimism of an infomercial bought and paid for by a sponsor with something to sell.
But at its best – and the good moments dominate – the documentary acknowledges Detroit’s boom-bust economic past and its many social warts while fanning the flicker of local optimism sparked since Detroit’s recovery from the Great Recession of 2008 and the municipal bankruptcy that followed.
Migration to Detroit
For the most part, “Detroit: Comeback City” is well-paced and nicely edited, with narration over archival footage mixed with recent interviews. Many – but not all – are about the train station itself and what it meant to migrants to “the Northernmost Southern city in the country.”
The best of these is when a Detroiter named Jill Day tells how her grandmother moved here in 1949 from Alabama wearing a black dress she made.
She tells of how the ceilings and benches of the train station reminded her grandmother of a cathedral with pews and how the light streaming through the big window assured her things would be all right.
Day speaks in the current, dilapidated station with her grandmother’s dress in her hands. By the end of the segment, she is not speaking at all, just hugging the dress.
Of course, a “Southern city” on the Canadian border meant racial realities and Detroit resident Brenda Perryman tells of a Detroit legend.
“There was a group of police officers, plainclothes, called The Big Four,” she says. “And The Big Four would just harass black men.”
Naturally, this segues into the riot/rebellion of 1967. But there is nothing in “Detroit: Comeback City” about the more vicious race riot of 1943. And how could they condense a century of Detroit history into less than an hour and not mention Coleman Young or Father Coughlin or Ty Cobb or the MC5 or Joe Louis? (At least they show The Fist monument, big and up close in the film's second shot.)
We understand it is impossible to include everyone’s personal preference. It is nice that they touch on Rosie the Riveter at Ford’s Willow Run bomber plant. But these glimpses are often too brief. At times, “Detroit: Comeback City” views like a pitch reel for something bigger and better, perhaps a series on the city with a deeper dive into its history.
Some of the best images on the show are so slickly edited that they fly by too quickly and must be viewed on freeze-frame for the full impact. For instance: As Detroiter Marsha Battle Philpot talks of how her father’s shop got burned out, the screen shows a black-and-white photograph of the store in good times.
If you freeze it in your DVR, you can read the “Joe’s Record Store” sign and another that says “Recordings by Rev. Franklin.” That would be the Rev. C.L. Franklin, father of Aretha, the great singer, another prestigious daughter of the city overlooked in this doc.
Also in the photo, a sign says “Graystone Tickets.” That would be the Graystone Ballroom on Woodward that booked the big acts such as Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald.
On one side of the store is a “Confectionary.” (Remember them? Do any signs say that anymore?) On the other side is a “Shoe Shine” place. Imagine this image getting a longer, more thoughtful Ken Burns kind of treatment.
But the hits exceed the misses in “Detroit: Comeback City.” The best come when the producers wisely return to the train station as a framing device and let people pour out their memories of this pleasantly haunted castle.
One is a guy called “Catfish,” a homeless Vietnam veteran who lived in the train station after it was abandoned.
He took it upon himself to act as building superintendent for the other squatters to keep the rabble from reducing the joint to rubble.
“You get a lot of knuckleheads comin’ in, they want to smash and break stuff up,” Catfish explains, adding that he told the vandals that this was not their turf.
A better-known interviewee is Smokey Robinson, the Motown singer, who assures viewers in his beautiful Detroit voice that his city was once “the Promised Land” to black and white alike.
“It was a great city,” Robinson says. “It can be again.”