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What a postal route can teach us about Detroit 

click to enlarge Wendell Watkins.

Courtesy of New Day Films

Wendell Watkins.

In her film Detroit 48202: Conversations Along a Postal Route, Bronx-based director and producer Pam Sporn takes a street-level view of the Motor City. The film follows Wendell Watkins, a former Cass Tech classmate of Sporn's who has spent the past 30 years working postal routes in Detroit's New Center. We spoke with Sporn to learn more about the film, which will be screened at the Detroit Historical Museum this weekend.

Metro Times: How did this project come about?

Pam Sporn: I grew up in Detroit in the mid-'60s to the mid-'70s. I left Detroit to go to college in New York City and became a high school teacher, and my parents remained in the Detroit area till the late '90s. So I hadn't visited the area for about 10 years. When I went back for the Allied Media Conference in 2009, I was visiting friends and went around and saw my old neighborhoods in Highland Park and on the northwest side, and of course was stunned by the conditions that I saw in the city. And so I had a lot of questions, and I reached out to my friend Wendell Watkins, who I had maintained contact with.

MT: How did you know Watkins?

Sporn: He and I went to high school at Cass Tech together, and we were high school student activists back back in the day. At that point he had been a mail carrier in the New Center area for 25 years. And I thought it would be a really interesting view of the city and the changes if I followed Wendell around and his route and kind of listened in to his observations and his conversations with the people he had developed ties with. So he totally agreed. And we did that in the summer of 2011.

MT: How long did it take you to make the film?

Sporn: At first I thought it might be a short film, but then I quickly realized that to really look deeply into the issues that the city faces and what had happened, I needed to do more research and have more context and dig deeper. And so that's why it took six and a half years to do — to talk to more people on the route and then talk to other local activists and journalists, investigative journalists like Curt Guyette and historians like June Manning Thomas at the University of Michigan, and historian Thomas Sugrue, who wrote a very important book, Origins of the Urban Crisis. And so it gave more depth and complexity to the project.

But Wendell's the tour guide. I'm digging into the history that the people on his route talk about that they've been involved in. So for example, Gloria Owens, who was the manager of (an apartment on) Seward, had been a teenager when the Sojourner Truth Projects were opened up to black families during World War II. And so as a 16-year-old, she experienced the white mobs that were protesting against the opening of one of the first housing projects at the time, and she experienced the racist violence against the folks moving in and also troops that were protecting them. So it was that personal story that Wendell was able to share because he had developed a relationship over the years with Ms. Owens. And then as a filmmaker, I was able to jump off into archival photographs that brought that story to life.

MT: What was his route?

Sporn: It goes from Pallister to Euclid and between Woodward and the Lodge. It's part of 48202, but not the whole 48202. And it would change over the years, where they might take away a few blocks or add another couple of blocks as the population declined, and he ended up having to cover more geographical space to deliver the same amount of mail. But he did come to really love the route. And what you see in the film is the high regard the people along that route held him in, because he's now retired.

I decided to film until he retired so that would be kind of a good narrative arc. But then I continued for close to two years after that because he actually left Detroit as part of the story. His children moved to California with his ex-wife when they were teenagers. And so that tension of being far from his family was always deeply felt. And so once he retired and was able to resolve the issues with his house, he moved to California, where he is near his kids now.

MT: What happened with his house?

Sporn: That became a second kind of a climax. We see him being impacted by the devastated real estate market in Detroit in the neighborhoods, which is contrasted to the corporate revitalization downtown and rising real estate values. But here's this native working-class man, a collector of stories and with deep ties to the city, but his house was one of the many underwater mortgages. So he lost that personal wealth. He leaves with no personal wealth that you hope you would have from homeownership

MT: Detroit has changed a lot since you started filming in 2011. Now, the QLine stops in New Center. That whole area will be changing soon.

Sporn: His route is right on the borderline between Midtown and New Center, and the QLine ends right there on Grand Boulevard. What will happen to that area? It's really a question. The [Little Caesars Arena] was not even started when I began the project and of course by the end, it's done.

MT: The Washington Post wrote that "Watkins offers an intimate ... glimpse of a world too often reduced to fatalistic headlines and lurid sound bites." Did you encounter any crimes while working on the film?

Sporn: Well, Wendell told me things about the area. He worked that route for many years and so at one point there were a number of drugs, and he mentioned some murders that had happened along the route. But that happens in any city where there is poverty. So I wasn't focusing on that. My main interest was talking to people. When I first started the project, there were a few documentaries and news articles that were coming out around that time. And they seemed to emphasize abandoned buildings, a kind of a fascination with devastation and not too much about people. So in my film, you do see the blocks that he's going up and down, and you see other parts of the city where there could be a block with one house left. So you see that there's no denying the devastation. But I was interested in getting people's stories as opposed to concentrating on the Packard Plant or the train station and, you know, kind of ogling at that.

I wanted to understand the process of the decline in the city with the history of decentralization and then deindustrialization and the impact of systematic racial segregation, the housing policy that went back to the '30s, and how that laid the basis for a crisis, and then in that way, getting that larger context. We don't rely on more simplistic, lurid explanations like, you know, "black people rioted, white people left, and corrupt black politicians took over and didn't know how to run a city." You know, that there was a process that [had] policy decisions behind it. They placed business priorities above people. On one hand, there've been people who've never left. They never left and they stayed and they fought it and tried the best they could to maintain it under very, very difficult circumstances. And by looking for more complex answers and the history, we can shift the blame away from the people who in fact have been the most impacted by looking at a history of public policy that has not been fair.

Sporn and Watkins will be present for a Q&A after a screening of Detroit 48202 at a "Bring Your Block Club" at 3 p.m. on Saturday, March 9 at the Detroit Historical Museum, 5401 Woodward Ave., Detroit, 313-833-1805, detroithistorical.org. The film will also get screened at 3 p.m. on Sunday, March 10. Admission to both is free.

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