Whenever the network news crews roll into Detroit to do yet another raw-nerve exposé on our besieged city, we all want to know the same things, don't we? Did they do a hatchet job on us? Were they balanced? Fair? Did they at least show some of the hints of hope around here?
In this case, the answers are no, yes, yep, and you bet. The hour-long Dateline NBC special "America Now: City of Heartbreak and Hope," almost 10 months in the making, airing at 7 p.m. Sunday on Channel 4 (WDIV), is a crisp, unblinking, impartial CliffsNotes version of how great we used to be, how woeful our present condition is and the drastic measures we're taking to right our sinking city again. The broadcast features everyone from Mayor Dave Bing and public schools savior Robert Bobb to Sam Riddle and Kid Rock — how could it not be evenhanded?
Its sensibility is due in great measure to the NBC correspondent who assembled it. Chris Hansen, who has graced this Idiot space previously, grew up in metro Detroit, graduated from Michigan State University, spent more than a decade working as a reporter for Channel 4 and Channel 7 (WXYZ). He knows us. He walked Detroit's streets for years, covering our murders, arsons, high crimes and misdemeanors. But not even Hansen was fully prepared for the reality that hit him upon his return to Motown.
"I didn't think certain aspects would be as bad as they are," Hansen acknowledges by cell phone, while riding an East Coast Amtrak train to another Dateline story. "The number of abandoned homes. The situation in the public school system. To see a 75 percent dropout rate was stunning to me. But at the same time, to see what Robert Bobb has done, to see what the mayor is trying to do and what the police chief, Warren Evans, is trying to do, there is reason for optimism there."
Detroit, described in the hour by Hansen as "once the heartbeat of the American economy" and "the ultimate reflection of America's pain," is compared often to New York, and not favorably: a murder rate seven times that of New York City, our 38 square miles of abandoned property equal to the entire land mass of Buffalo. "If we saw another nation with a piss-poor school system, where crime is running amok," notes an unseen observer, "we'd be giving them foreign aid." Hansen appears astonished by Bing's drastic plan to physically shrink Detroit in order to improve city services. "That's the reality," Bing replies firmly.
Along the way you'll meet Glemmie Beasley, a local blues musician who shoots raccoons and sells their meat to aid the inner city's nutritional shortcomings; singer Taja Sevelle, a prime mover behind the urban farming initiative to help "turn Motown into Growtown"; and Pam Good, the suburban housewife who founded the nonprofit program Beyond Basics that will tutor 5,000 Detroit public school students this year. But largely the city is viewed in the Dateline documentary through the eyes of Detroit resident Cordette Grantling, a single woman Good recommended to producers. Grantling has taken in six children that other women gave birth to but didn't care to raise, supporting them on her biweekly salary of $203. "What a wonderful, warm, compelling character she ended up being," says Hansen. "People like her are why the city survives and continues."
Bobb, staring a $300 million school deficit in the face, declares, "I don't think failure is an option for the city of Detroit," and that's the takeaway from "City of Heartbreak and Hope." Le Petit Zinc, the thriving French bistro in the Corktown district, is highlighted, and Star Wars actor Hayden Christensen, shooting a movie downtown thanks to the city's incentive-laden film industry boom, deems it "a privilege" to be working in Detroit. But it's Grantling who offers perhaps the most bottom-line perspective. "If you have a roof over your head and some food to put in your stomach and clothes and shoes to put on, you can make it," she says. "You can make it!" Let's pray she's right.
(Funny: Look closely near the end and you'll catch a glimpse of FOX2 anchor Huel Perkins on screen, which may be a first for Channel 4.)
An 'Ugly' Farewell: After four seasons – barely enough episodes to qualify for syndication — ABC's glam-com Ugly Betty airs its series finale at 10 tonight (Channel 7 in Detroit). In its relatively short life, Betty tackled such touchy issues as gay teens and body image, upped the edginess of the Latino family in prime time in ways George Lopez never dreamed, created TV's first color palette tailor-made for HD, made bubbly America Ferrera a household name, let us ogle Salma Hayek and Vanessa Williams, and earned a Peabody Award. To say it will be missed is the reigning understatement of 2010.Jim McFarlin is a media critic for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]