I think about a world to come where the books were found by the golden ones, written in pain, written in awe by a puzzled man who questioned, "What are we here for?" All the strangers came today and it looks as though they're here to stay.

-David Bowie "Oh! You Pretty Things"

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Justin Tiemeyer Presents 'Film Tourism'

Opportunities to Help Struggling Michigan Cities by Visiting the Places Where Your Favorite Movies Were Filmed

In 2014, Transformers 4 - AKA Untitled Transformers Sequel - will be heading into theaters, and if the success of Transformers (2007), Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009), and Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011) is any indicator the fourth film in the series will be a box office hit. Residents of Michigan may be proud to find out that there is a piece of our state in this upcoming film, a former ferry named the Ste. Claire which is currently docked in Ecorse. The Ste. Claire is often referred to as a Boblo boat because it was created in order to transport Detroiters to and from the Boblo Island Amusement Park, which they viewed as their own version of New York's Coney Island. Boblo Island was closed down in 1993.

According to ship keeper Sam Buchanan, the Ste. Claire will play an important role in one scene of Transformers 4, not a grand shout out to Ecorse and the former amusement park but certainly not the type of thing that you will miss if you blink. It is clear that the municipality of Ecorse, which is currently understood to be in a state of financial emergency, was able to capitalize on the filming. The production crew for the film worked on the set for three weeks and filming took place over three days. Whether or not any of these workers were local is unclear, but it is a reasonable assumption that they acquired local food and lodging, not to mention the money that the people of Ecorse must have leveraged from Paramount pictures in order to have the film shot in their town.

On the tail of this announcement was an even larger announcement, that the Michigan Film Office has offered $35 million in incentives to Warner Bros. in order that the upcoming Batman vs. Superman film will be shot "in metro Detroit and elsewhere in Michigan," a decision that is expected to bring an extra $131 million into the Michigan economy. While many of the geeks of the world are unhappy at the announcement that Ben Affleck will play Batman, the geek in me is excited at the possibility of being an extra in a comic book movie much like my good friend Chad was in Green Lantern. But that is beside the point. This project will bring capital into the struggling city of Detroit and hopefully some of the other nearby emergency managed cities such as River Rouge and Allen Park.

It would be easy to sit back and hope that the struggling cities of Michigan will continue to get money through movie contracts, but sitting back and letting other people fix the problems simply does not work. I could go on a rant about activism and the importance of maintaining funding to the Michigan Film Office despite the complaints of many lawmakers in Lansing that it is an unnecessary expenditure, but I'd like to take this time and this space to discuss another possibility: Michigan film tourism.

Sure, when Amy and I ate here we knew it wasn't the
White Castle of Harold & Kumar fame, but did you
know that scenes from A Very Harold & Kumar
were shot in Detroit?
The Michigan Film Office has a list of the myriad films made in Michigan on their site which ranges from the This Time For Keeps to the 2013 film Black Sky. While you'll still have to drive to Dallas in order to see the future Detroit of Robocop, you can see the cabin from The Evil Dead in Gladwin or the factory from the opening shots of Beverly Hills Cop in Dearborn. When I lived in New York City, you could walk down the street on any given day and you might accidentally become an unpaid extra in a film. I remember walking behind comedian Jason Sudeikis as he walked from his trailer to the set of some film I never took the time to get the name of. We always talked about going out to visit the Amityville Horror house on Long Island or to do a Home Alone 2: Lost in New York tour of the city. There is no reason someone couldn't do a Detroit Rock City or 8 Mile tour of Detroit.
1946 film

The next time you plan your family vacation or birthday excursion, think about visiting Detroit. You can see the backdrops for some of your favorite films and help a struggling link in the chain of Michigan economics. Maybe you can get a hotdog at American Coney Island or see a Tigers game down in Foxtown while you're there - you don't have to make it about film. I believe that if enough of us find something interesting to do in Detroit or Flint or Pontiac as opposed to some other city in some other state or in some other country, the people of Michigan might not have to complain about financial woes for much longer and the children of Michigan won't have to move to other places on account of the fact that those places actually have a strong, functioning economy.

As for me, I just found out that Mark Wahlberg - one of the four actors whose movies I will watch despite of terrible reviews and trailers - was in Michigan for the shooting of the 2005 film Four Brothers. I think I might dedicate some time to seeing the places in Detroit where those four brothers drove around contemplating revenge. Hopefully, I'll come back with some dining recommendations.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Cash Against the Machine

An Explanation of and Work-Around for Michigan's Emergency Financial Manager Law

Governor Snyder and the Michigan legislature have come under heavy scrutiny in the past few years for appointing emergency financial managers for several Michigan municipalities that are considered high risk for financial disaster. While Public Act 436 of 2012 is the most recent standing law on the subject, the foundation for the emergency manager came about in Public Act 72 of 1990, titled the "local government fiscal responsibility act."

The aim of Act 72 to serve the general welfare of the people of Michigan appears to be genuine. In a section titled "Legislative determinations," we are lead to believe that the aim of this act is to promote "the public health and welfare of the citizens of this state" and "the interests of the people," but there is also an undertone that the state is using the distress of its municipalities in order to gain control where normally power would be denied the state. High hopes and deep suspicion are balanced expertly in this legal document.

Perhaps the most important portion of Act 436 is the list of fourteen conditions that may point to "a local government financial problem." Municipalities facing one or more of these situations will come under state review for determining whether or not an emergency financial manager is necessary. Some examples that may indicate economic instability include past due unpaid claims to creditors exceeding $10,000, large numbers of pensioners who are not receiving timely deposits, municipal employees who have not been paid for over a wee past their scheduled date of payment, and violations of a variety of government acts. In most of these situations, it is necessary for a public or private body to petition for the emergency status. This is not a situation where the gods of Olympus see that man has stolen fire and begin to enact their punishment. Rather it is like the case of suffering nomads pleading for deliverance who are given a list of commandments intended to lead them to a better way of living.

The real points of contention in the emergency manager law have to do with questions of government overreach and the imposition of highly paid outsiders who deny the people their right to self-govern. Regardless of your beliefs one way or another, these are questions that ought to be asked by any body of people who values liberty and justice as granted by the Constitution of the United States of America. I would like to reorient the discussion, however, in order to focus on another question: What can we do to help these cities?

We may have supported a Dallas hockey team, but we
supported the Detroit economy when Amy and I
wined and dined at Pegasus in Detroit's Greektown
neighborhood prior to a Stars-Red Wings game at the
Joe Louis Arena last February.
According to the Michigan Department of Treasury, there are currently nine cities and six school districts under the control of a state appointed emergency financial manager: the municipalities of Hamtramck, Detroit, Allen Park, Inkster, Flint, Benton Harbor, Ecorse, Pontiac, and River Rouge and Hazel Park, Buena Vista, Pontiac Public, Muskegon Heights, Highland Park and Detroit Public school districts. We can let state officials battle it out in order to keep these areas afloat or we can seek a way to engage the problem ourselves. The simplest public solution would be for Michiganders to buy products from the affected areas and to reroute vacations to places like "lovely Benton Harbor." This is the aim of all of the Pure Michigan radio advertisements narrated by "Toolman" Tim Allen. Perhaps it should be the aim of the citizens of Michigan.

There are certainly difficulties with any plan based solely on a spend, spend, spend mentality. The reason the state of Michigan wishes to take over city operations is because, at the bottom, many people believe that these cities are being mismanaged. While mismanaged, investing in a city might be seen as throwing money down the toilet. This is a valid point, but throwing money into a local toilet might prove more useful than investing in the immense overhead of interstate and international logistics that comes from buying American flags that are made in Taiwan. In the end, I think spending locally is the right direction because the only thing democrats and republicans at the federal level could agree on during the discussions preceding the manufactured fiscal cliff dilemma was that America needs more revenue.

Detroit, Flint, Benton Harbor and the rest need more revenue as well. Let's find some businesses that stand for what we believe in, businesses in Allen Park or Ecorse or Pontiac, and let's buy from them rather than spend all of our money on the gas it takes to deliver our goods. If you have a favorite business located in a financially devastated community, share it with your friends, share it here if you're willing. We cannot promise that the social network of elected officials will do the work we've chosen them for, but with enough cooperation we can promise that the social network of Michigan citizens can make a big difference for cities in distress.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

There Are No Zombies in The Walking Dead

A Review of The Walking Dead #1
Gasp indeed!

The Walking Dead is, at its roots, a "Rip Van Winkle" story - Rick Grimes is put into a coma by a shotgun
toting escaped felon only to awaken in a completely different world, a world populated by shambling monsters, "the walking dead." Much like Washington Irving's short story, Robert Kirkman's thriller in black-and-white is subversive. At first glance, the world of "before" and the world of "after" are like night and day - animated corpses wander chaotically where living, breathing beings once thrived in a cooperative community - but just as Van Winkle reduces the Revolutionary War to replacing a King George painting with a George Washington, Grimes sees a world that hasn't changed all that much.

In the first issue of The Walking Dead, there are no zombies; there are only humans. Before and after, humans are violent beings capable of hospitality, camaraderie, and mercy, but also of insanity and cruelty. When Grimes and "neighbor" Morgan Jones discuss the disturbing state of affairs, they don't speak of "zombies," "revenants," or "walkers." They use the words "it," "things," and "monsters," and let the reader fill in the blanks, but our familiarity with zombie culture can obscure the fact that we've used these same terms for generations in order to dehumanize people we see as other. Those who have been transformed are not even clearly dead, with the exception of one ravaged corpse that Grimes eventually puts down like a cowboy shooting a crippled steed.

The theme of a zombie apocalypse world being not so different from our current world is not so new. Zombie films have made this assertion from the very beginning. The 1978 George Romero film Dawn of the Dead  is often cited in this sense because of the undead's propensity for shopping malls, making the viewer wonder if we're not zombies already. The Walking Dead is significant in that Kirkman follows his characters for more than 90 minutes, meaning that we deal with human questions not only through social satire, but through the monthly development of characters we know and love. The story has been going on for a full decade, and it doesn't show signs of stopping.

What a reader can expect from The Walking Dead #1 is a balance of hope and despair that will penetrate the next hundred or so issues. We are introduced to Morgan Jones and his son Duane, who have been in the thick of it since the dead first started rising. Because of what he's seen, Morgan doesn't trust in the powers-that-be. When they told people to rally in Atlanta, Morgan stayed put, relying on his own savoir-faire rather than the edicts of the authorities. As his foil, Rick Grimes believes in a better tomorrow, that the communiques about Atlanta were true and that order will be re-established shortly. He is an officer of the peace and peace is on its way. It is hard not to side with Rick Grimes.

Of course, Grimes slept through the worst of it. Or, perhaps, the worst is yet to come.

Morgan: "The cities are screwed!" Rick: "So, you're saying the cities probably aren't screwed?"
Morgan: "Uh... yeah..."

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Skill Vs. Will

Why Detroit Has to Do More Than Just Want a Revival

The only thing more beautiful than Detroit
in the winter will be future Detroit in the
Op-ed contributor Stephan G. Richter did an opinion piece titled "What Really Ails Detroit" for the New York Times recently in which he argued that Detroit's collapse into bankruptcy was caused by other factors than those we are actively discussing at the moment. For Richter, Detroit's financial troubles are indicative of an "overall decline of America's manufacturing centers," caused not by globalization, outsourcing, and recession, but by the lack of a highly skilled labor force. He describes the traditional narrative on the subject as "at best ... a convenient half-truth."

Detroit's problem - and America's, if we're following Richter's logic - did not begin in the last decade. Richter traces it back to 1950s post-war America, a period he refers to as the "heyday" of America's manufacturing strength. Since the two major fronts of World War II were in Europe and Asia, America was able to bounce back much faster than most of the economic power centers on those other continents. As a result, top corporate managers paid their workers higher wages based on market dominance and the enormous revenues that resulted rather than elevating pay as employees became more skilled. Richter blames these managers and their descriptive wage raises (based on results and current dominance) in the place of prescriptive wage raises (based on skills and capability for future dominance) for bringing about the current state of urgency in the American city.

In short, Detroit is failing because America is no longer competitive in terms of manufacturing. What we once saw as causes - globalization, outsourcing, and recession - should have been seen as warning signs that municipal economies would collapse, one by one. Silent, but underlying Richter's opinion piece, is a sense of American arrogance, the idea that radical independence will triumph over communal engagement. Richter's solution to the Detroit problem is a long-term decade-spanning plan for skill development, requiring cooperation between national, regional and local entities such as businesses, government agencies, associations, and schools.

While Richter did not directly reference large public works projects as a means to success in Detroit, this does not preclude public investment in renewal such as the proposed new Red Wings stadium from being part of the solution. However, Richter would likely offer a similar argument to Marvin Surkin, the subject of a previous blog post, namely that the jobs created by construction of the new hockey home will be largely low skill, low pay positions. For a public works project like this to have a positive, lasting effect in terms of public interest, it would have to be the beginning of a larger cooperative effort to train the local labor force, elevating them from grunts to foremen to designers and finally innovators. You should read that previous sentence with an emphasis on "beginning." The ultimate goal would be to continue on, to create a city of the future, for the people and by the people, that employs the smartest, most impressive labor from people who have never been expected to do more than punch the clock.

We have to do more than show that a strong Detroit is what we are seeking. We need to lay the groundwork to make it happen.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Detroit's Magic Bullet

A Critique of the New Red Wings Stadium as an Economic Stimulus for Detroit

My first time at the Joe Louis arena for the record-breaking victory against the Dallas Stars
last February may have also been my last time if the Red Wings move to Foxtown.
On the August 14th edition of Stateside on Michigan Radio, host Cynthia Canty interviewed Marvin Surkin, a specialist in comparative urban politics and co-author of Detroit: I Do Mind Dying regarding the private/public joint venture to regenerate the highly indebted city of Detroit by replacing the Joe Louis arena with a new Red Wings stadium. According to a plan endorsed by Governor Snyder, the Wings would join the Lions and Tigers in the Foxtown district, bringing 8300 jobs and 1.8 billion dollars to the struggling city. Surkin's response: "Gee, I wish it were true."

"Magic" is the only word Surkin can conjure for a deal that has been promised, in some form or another, time and time again for years. As if the examples of Detroit's new baseball and football stadiums weren't enough to prove that this sort of corporate logic doesn't work, Surkin provided a further example in the classic 1927 Yankee Stadium which was refurbished and more recently demolished all in the name of resuscitating the Bronx. It didn't work for the Bronx, and it won't work for Detroit.

Surkin's argument is that this project will certainly bring jobs to Detroit, but these jobs won't necessarily benefit Detroit. While the developers will be required to contract a percentage of their labor locally, a serious question to ponder is whether erecting this colossal entertainment hall will actually take funds outside of the city. As for the persisting jobs - the parking attendants, beer servers, hot dog slingers - it is clear that these are not the highly skilled, highly paid jobs that are needed to make Detroit strong. Surkin suspects that the Foxtown businesses will go the way of Chrysler, providing jobs but in the process actually lowering the mean income of those involved.

Surkin asks an important question: "Are we going to see the city further abandoned or are we going to see the city supported?" Some other important questions follow. What would happen to the people if the Red Wings had to leave Detroit because they are no longer profitable due to an investment that went bust? Do the voices of big name supporters like Governor Snyder and Little Caesar's Mike Ilitch deserve to be heard over the voices of the people? Will fancy sky boxes and special kickbacks for corporate sponsors lead to a profitable enterprise that is socially relevant to Detroit? Surkin may be "a voice crying in the wilderness," but what he says should give you pause. The future of this deal is "run down," "second rate," "torn down."

Personally, I've heard both sides of this argument. The naysayers can't see the value in 284 million dollars in public funds going to a sports team when hard working people are going to face an impoverished retirement because their promised pensions are no longer funded. Everybody else seems to think that by pumping all this money into the Detroit entertainment scene, the newly established mecca will bring people from far and wide and those people will leave their money behind. I tend to agree with Surkin that there are some very wealthy people who are hoping we're dumb enough to forget history and trust that this time it will finally work out for the right. At the same time, I believe that there is likely a connection between the success of Detroit sports teams and the success of Detroit, but the connection is a subtle one that has not yet come to light. 

Detroit will not be saved in broad strokes, and the strokes don't get broader than million and billion dollar stadiums, but maybe the hubbub about the new home of the Red Wings will make it clear that we need more research into how a hockey team can bring a city out of bankruptcy.