“We Are Not Ghosts”

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Today in class we watched the documentary We Are Not Ghosts (such a title!), which featured the voices of Detroiters who acknowledge Detroit’s decay but also, more importantly, it’s potential, due to the determined people who are still there (i.e. not “ghosts,” of the town they’re living in). The film begins with clips of Detroit: points of pride, like Comerica and The Spirit of Detroit, are almost undermined by the sudden clips of crumbling buildings and vacant lots. All of this is set to a poignant, almost haunting, poem-chant about “my city, my city, my city, my city.”

Also this week in class, we had some readings regarding the city; Rebecca Solnit’s flowery “Detroit Arcadia” and Thomas Sugrue’s scholarly first chapter, “‘Arsenal of Democracy'” of his book, The Origins of the Urban Crisis. While both complemented each other and created a detailed and vibrant (in shades of industrial gray, of course) picture of Detroit and its history, this film provided the pathos necessary to make Detroit’s crisis understandable. Anywhere on the news, on any given day, you can find stories about the decline (“decline” almost seems too many steps ago) of Detroit. But when the barrier of a screen or print or half a globe is set between the reader and the real thing, it’s hard to understand the reality of the situation. The movie directly connects you to the people of Detroit: how they feel and what they think should be done, rather than what the media, or the federal government, or city council (rather, what’s left of it) thinks should be done.

My favorite people to be interviewed in this documentary weren’t actually fully-grown people yet. Indeed, an interview of children at a bus stop was what really pulled at my heart (you win, Bullfrog Films, with the here’s-a-cute-kid emotion trick). The children, who have only been on this Earth for such a short time; who have only seen Detroit in its state of ruin; who have been exposed to crime and deceit and poverty and misfortune, know that what their city is experiencing is not right. And even more, they know that something can be done about it. (Seriously, how can a little boy wisely quip that, “It’s not the city that needs help, it’s the people who need help!” Ugh. Tears.) Their optimism, promise, and enthusiasm are what will bring the city back; perhaps not into the city it once was, but maybe into something different, and even better, than before.

Another favorite voice of mine was a teacher. The film showed her working with her kids; they were open, comfortable, and excited to learn, get the answers right, and help each other out with problems. The teacher’s passion for her job was obvious when she told the camera what she taught “her kids,” as she called them:

“Smart is something that you get. We’re all intelligent. But you get smart by working hard.”

She then went on to say she treated the kids like they were her own, as if they came from her womb (which reminded me of Gibran’s chapters from The Prophet on Work and Children).  I’d like to think that without people like her, these kids may not have found the interest in learning they now had, which could potentially mean the loss of important builders of Detroit’s future. Without her, a future mayor, activist, teacher like her, or just a successful adult could be lost. Her love is what will change their lives; what will change the city; what will change the world.

In conclusion, We Are Not Ghosts taught me that yes, Detroiters are a little down right now. But it’s Detroit; like the Fords it forged all of those years, it was built tough. It will come back; a completely new model of itself.

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