By HEIDI EWING and RACHEL GRADY
Published: January 18, 2012
We chose to focus our cameras on Detroit out of a gut feeling that this city — often heralded as the birthplace of the middle class — may well be a harbinger of things to come for the rest of the country.
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.
Surprisingly, these guys, who all lacked high school diplomas, seemed to have a better understanding of their place in the global food chain than many educated American 20-somethings. The young men regularly checked the fluctuating price of metals before they determined their next scrap hunt, and they had a clear view of where these resources were going and why. They were the cleanup crew in a shaky empire. Somebody’s got to do it.
One of the men, who had come up from Kentucky to scrap after losing a job in a coal mine, stands out in our minds. Taking a short break from the action, he looked up and said with disgust, “All that’s left here are the remnants of what was.”
The next day we went back to check on the progress of their project. The entire building was gone.