Toxic Detroit


Color, HD video, 10:00


In the latter part of the 19th century in America, the so-called Gilded Age, Detroit was known as “the Paris of the West”. The nickname was replaced in the first half of the 20th century as the city emerged as the automotive capital of the world. The titans of the manufacturing juggernaut—Ford, Packard, Durant, the Dodge Brothers, et al—helped Detroit become, by the middle of the century, the nation’s fourth largest city (it is now eleventh). High-profile labor unions emerged in the 1930s as factories grew, spawning the Teamsters and the United Auto Workers. By the 1950’s, when four out of every five cars were made in the U.S. and Detroit was a teeming metropolis of two million inhabitants, its automotive industry enjoyed a near monopoly. But its dominance quickly began to evaporate through a combination of post-war complacency and a lack of attention to rising oil prices. Detroit today remains a 20th century industrial city trying to adapt to the emerging 21st century world.

One of the daunting problems Detroit must confront as it attempts to revive itself is its legacy of unbridled industrial production. Toxic Detroit visualizes some of these problems, with views of polluted rivers, ravaged landscapes and noxious air. In the film, a family is seen fishing on the River Rouge. The notorious Zug Island looms in the distance. An island that for centuries served as a Native American burial ground, it is more recently the area in southwestern Detroit that has served as a dumping ground, becoming what it is today: a depressed and dangerously toxic neighborhood. Seen, too, is the Packard Plant, explored inside and out. Once running around the clock with 40,000 workers but closed since 1957, it is the largest abandoned building in the U.S. and sits in a dangerously polluted neighborhood in eastern Detroit.

Of more recent vintage is the Detroit Waste Incinerator, the largest solid waste incinerator in the U.S. In desperate straits, the city sold it off some years ago to the private sector at a time when Detroit was faced with a severe budget deficit. As a result, the incinerator now burdens city residents in two ways: as a major source of air pollution coupled with a $120 per ton bill (vs. the $57 per ton national average).

Detroiters themselves project a defiant attitude that belies the surreal wastelands that plague them. Their optimism and determination are an indication that they are fighting back against a tide of privatization and corruption that has brought Detroit, Flint and other Michigan cities to the very brink.