PBS in Ypsi, the New York Times in Detroit, and a state in transition

For those of you who haven’t seen it yet on PBS, Ypsi was featured on the most recent episode of Under the Radar Michigan. The crew, as you may recall, was here in town this past October, shooting footage of people lined up down Michigan Avenue, waiting to partake of the 40¢ chicken dinners that are served up at Haab’s every year on their anniversary, when they go back to their 1934 pricing. And, while they were here, the Under the Radar crew also visited Riverside Park and the Tap Room, where they heard stories of the the little people who worked at the bomber plant during WWII, and how they used to, according to local legend, get drunk and dance on the tables of the bar. Here’s the episode.

Speaking of local documentary footage, I know I instituted a “no ruin porn” policy on the site, at least when it comes to Detroit, but the New York Times has some footage on their site that I think transcends the genre. If you want to check out the video, which features a crew of young men engaged in the dangerous business of ripping down buildings for scrap metal, click here.

Here’s a clip from the accompanying text:

…Detroit lost 25 percent of its population between 2000 and 2010, and now, broke, finds itself on the verge of a possible state takeover. Yet visual reminders of a better time both haunt and anoint the residents here. The past is achingly present in Detroit, and the way its citizens interact with the hulking, physical remnants of yesterday is striking.

A few years ago, there was a rash of power outages in Detroit, caused by people illegally cutting down live telephone wires to get to the valuable copper coils inside. The Detroit police created a copper theft task force to deter the so-called “scrappers,” young men who case old buildings for valuable metals, troll cemeteries to steal copper grave plates and risk their lives to squeeze any last dollar out of the industrial detritus.

One freezing evening we happened upon the young men in this film, who were illegally dismantling a former Cadillac repair shop. They worked recklessly to tear down the steel beams and copper fasteners. They were in a hurry to make it to the scrap yard before it closed at 10 p.m., sell their spoils and head to the bar…

The underlying subtext, of course, is that this my very well be something that may soon becomes commonplace across America — dirty young men, in the dark of night, tearing down the historic buildings that once signified American prosperity, selling the metal for pennies a pound to dealers, who in turn ship it off to China, where it’s reborn as goods which can then be sold back to us. It brings to mind the scene here in Ypsi a few years ago, when all the equipment from the old Visteon plant was sold at auction to companies outside the United States.

And, here, for discussion, is something that I posted on that day, in 2009.

…One issue that I had with the Governor’s visit yesterday was how willing everyone seemed to be to “get beyond manufacturing.” I believe it was the Mayor who said proudly that Ypsi was putting its manufacturing past behind it, and evolving into an “arts, culture, and entertainment” destination. Personally, for Ypsi, I think maybe that’s a good thing, but, I still can’t help but think that, as a nation, we’re cutting our own throats when we collectively embrace this idea that we’ve moved beyond manufacturing. It seems to me that it’s not in our best long term interests to be dependant on the Chinese for everything we need to live…. And I don’t know what the solution is. I just know that, at some point, we’re going to pay a price for this…

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11 Comments

  1. Glen S.
    Posted January 22, 2012 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    I wonder if it is possible that even a small fraction of this scrap might end up being melted down in China, only to be shipped back to America as a component of a new iPhone or iPad?

    The reason I ask is that, in some ways, the following article is a kind of reflection (in reverse) of the story illustrated in the “Dismantling Detroit” video.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/22/business/apple-america-and-a-squeezed-middle-class.html

    On one side of the Pacific — poor, desperate Americans work for low pay, under despicable conditions, scavenging the remains of Detroit, once the epicenter of the product that transformed the 20th Century — the automobile; While on the other side of the Pacific, poor, desperate Chinese work for low pay, under despicable conditions, creating the products that perhaps best exemplify the most important industry of the 21st Century — the iPhone, and other similar digital devices.

  2. Mr. X
    Posted January 22, 2012 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    It should be noted that Leland, which is also featured in this installment of Michigan Under the Radar, is also home to the Chubby Mary.

    http://markmaynard.com/?p=15470

  3. Mr. X
    Posted January 22, 2012 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    Also, the coverage of the Leland company Baabaazuzu, in the Under the Radar piece, is interesting in the context of the New York Times commissioned video about scrapping in Detroit. Scrapping is essentially what Baabaazuzu does as well. They scrap old wool clothing items, and create new things from them. In that instance, however, the transformation takes place here, with American workers. They’re able to do that, I’m guessing, because their products sell for a premium, whereas scrap metal goes to China because, thanks to globalization, they can do the dangerous work of melting it down and recasting it for dirt cheap, without those pesky environmental laws.

    http://baabaazuzu.com/

  4. Posted January 22, 2012 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    Yeah, those scrappers? Stole the fence from around our playground & teachers’ parking lot. So now the kids aren’t fenced in (I don’t care so much about the cars, honestly) and remember, we have blind children at our school. So all of my “Follow the fence with your cane” lessons are for naught. Thanks a lot, you scrapping mf’ers.

  5. Bob Krzewinski
    Posted January 22, 2012 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    I remember some photo of a mass of people after Steve Jobs died, holding up their I-phones, or I-pads with a burning candle photo on them, in “tribute” to Jobs as if he was a diety. I wonder if all those Job worshipers even gave a thought to who made their I-phone? Namely sweatshop workers in China working 34 hour shifts in factories that put up wire fence over windows so workers would stop jumping out of windows to commit suicide. Jobs could have changed this, but he really didn’t care to, probably prefering to bathe in all the worship of being called a “visionary”

    For more on this there is a very good article from The Nation – http://www.thenation.com/article/164499/agony-and-ecstasy-and-disgrace-steve-jobs

  6. Lynne
    Posted January 22, 2012 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    The scrappers are fine until they start stealing, imho. I was just talking to someone who owns a bookstore in Seattle. During the recent snowstorm there, some scrappers took the opportunity of an abandoned business district to break into the building next door to her bookstore to steal the copper pipes. But because they didn’t turn the water off first, the end result for her was a flooded bookstore. It makes me sad that people are getting that desperate. I say desperate instead of greedy because scrapping is hard physical labor for not much economic return. Is this the future of our nation?

  7. dirtgrain
    Posted January 22, 2012 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think it’s just desperation. Some of these materials are getting significantly more expensive, as it becomes more costly get them from the earth (as we’ve depleted the easily harvested, big-score deposits of copper, for instance). Scrapping pays.

  8. Lynne
    Posted January 22, 2012 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

    I haven’t ever done it myself but I wonder how long it would take to gather around 100 lbs of copper. You have to count the time spent looking for it and the time spent selling it too. 20 hours for two guys? That would be on par with a min wage job.

  9. Edward
    Posted January 22, 2012 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

    Does anyone know the story of Under the Radar Michigan? Did that guy just hire a team, throw together an episode or two, and then pitch the series to Detroit Public Television and that other groups that are providing funding? I ask because it looks like one hell of a fun job, and, no offense to the guy hosting, but I can’t help but think that it could be done better. Maybe I’m not the target market, but it seemed kind of corny. Maybe that’s what PBS viewers want, though. Still, it was good to see Ypsi paid some attention.

  10. Edward
    Posted January 22, 2012 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

    I’m also tired of all of the adds for scrap metal buyers and pawn shops on Detroit radio stations. I can’t remember which group it is, but one of them advertises proudly, and constantly, “No Questions Asked.”

  11. Hillary
    Posted February 23, 2012 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    Mr. X –

    Thanks for giving baabaazuzu a shout out! We are now recycling even our lint after our wash cycles–trying to put every bit of our materials to use!

    Cheers – The Zu Crew

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