DETROIT — While some documentary filmmakers travel far and wide in search of a story to capture, artist Nicole MacDonald began her documentary process in the most straightforward possible way: by observing the human traffic visible through the window of her residence in the Cass Corridor neighborhood of Detroit.
“I’ve been watching the alley behind my house for a couple of years now,” narrates MacDonald, in a measured, smoky voice that relays 100 years of Cass Corridor history. A lifelong Detroiter, MacDonald’s own father grew up in a house in the Lower Corridor, and he is one of many old-school residents who make an appearance in MacDonald’s approximately 65-minute documentary, Last Days of Chinatown, painstakingly constructed over the course of the last five years.
MacDonald is an interdisciplinary artist perhaps better known locally for her chops as a painter, and her habit of installing large-scale portraits of outstanding Detroiters in the windows of vacant buildings. Like the film, these portraits reflect MacDonald’s fascination with the city’s history, and Last Days of Chinatown is rigorous in its fact-finding, presenting historic documents and splicing in clips of news footage to bolster the narratives of a wide range of Corridor residents, past and present.
As one might assume from the title, MacDonald explores the history and sudden erasure of a once-thriving Chinese population in Detroit’s downtown area and Lower Corridor, but the film ranges gracefully across a gamut of issues that revolve around a common theme: the displacement of the poor and “unimportant” people to accommodate the march of progress.
The Cass Corridor neighborhood has been one of the most hyperbolic examples of the impact of gentrification on Detroit, as it bears the dubious honor of sitting within the footprint of the new Little Caesar’s Arena development, spearheaded by one of Detroit’s most influential clan of billionaires, the Ilitch family. With capital accrued through their Little Caesar’s pizza franchise, the Ilitches have formed a kind of sports entertainment empire in Detroit, which includes ownership of the Detroit Red Wings hockey team and the Detroit Tigers baseball team, as well as Motor City Casino and the Fox Theater performance venue downtown. Merely six days after Detroit filed for bankruptcy in 2013, the Ilitches received a sweetheart subsidy of over $200 million in taxpayer money toward the stadium project — room for which was made physically possible by years of secretly purchasing properties all over the devalued Cass Corridor for a song.
This is only one of many contentious topics that MacDonald tackles head-on; others include how Cass Corridor became a notoriously dangerous neighborhood after the forcible clearing and relocation of the downtown “Skid Row” bar district in the 1960s — which also “accidentally” razed a thriving Chinese community in the heart of downtown Detroit, estimated to have had 3,000 residents, 53 restaurants, and numerous schools and businesses that were forced to restart in the Lower Corridor, as well. By the time I arrived in Detroit, nearly a decade ago, this Chinatown strip had been reduced to a faded pagoda-style kiosk and boarded-up storefronts that served mostly as a major hub for street dealers in the Corridor.
People who grew up in the neighborhood find themselves beguiled by the precipitous decline of their childhood home, or the sudden changes of current-day Detroit. As recently as 2009, the Lower Corridor had a post-apocalyptic feel, marked by its largely vacant streets and mostly populated by large homeless shelters and human services organizations. If you were driving through, you had to be alert for individuals who lurched suddenly out of columns of street steam, possibly incoherent from drug use or mental confusion, but also known to occasionally throw themselves in front of cars in a desperate bid for an insurance payout. Just a few blocks up, in the heart of the Corridor, cheap rentals provided shelter and consistency for people who might have otherwise been homeless, and who now face that prospect again, as the neighborhood has been rebranded “Midtown” and become host to a surge of high-end boutiques and eateries.
MacDonald shares a car with a housemate, but most often navigates her neighborhood on foot, and the candid moments that punctuate her documentary — people sleeping, shooting up, and having sex in the alleyway behind her house; demolition that seems sometimes to happen overnight; and sweeping panoramas of a changing neighborhood — reflect her immersion in her surroundings. The fact that MacDonald’s documentary is made in a place where she has deep roots is also reflected in the interview footage with dozens of Detroiters from different walks of life, most of whom grew up or still reside in the Corridor, uncertain though their future may be. Residents talk about the devastating impact of crack cocaine on a neighborhood already notorious for its red light activities, the unspoken but harshly enforced racial lines that historically divided the Corridor from some of its surrounding neighborhoods, and the impact of various billionaires on their daily living conditions — in addition to the encroaching Ilitch Nation, Corridor residents and business owners are experiencing a great deal of pressure from a wave of development piloted by Quicken Loans magnate Dan Gilbert.
One particularly poignant storyline concerns Pat McNames and Gary Frundel, who owned businesses through the leanest years in the Cass Corridor — first the Bird Town Pet Shop, for nearly 40 years, and more recently, a truly eclectic antique mall, brimming with oddities, trash, and treasures, and lovingly policed by the pair’s pack of poodles and other canine companions. MacDonald pieces together old pictures of the shop owners during their Bird Town days, and captures footage of McNames and Frundel debating the benefits of the stadium deal, which shortly thereafter triggered their notice to vacate and force their long-loved property to change hands. In an interview with MacDonald during the fire sale forced by their eviction, Frundel is overcome with emotion and wanders off mid-sentence. MacDonald pans to McNames.
“Well, if we make it until Monday, we’re going to have spent 45 years in this block,” he says.
“We’ll make it, Pat, we’ll make it!” exclaims a woman, off camera. Perhaps until Monday, but not anymore.
Through talking with residents, business owners, neighbors, local reporters that have covered the Corridor beat for decades, community activist Ron Scott, and seemingly anyone else who crosses her path, MacDonald raises a question that literally echoes throughout the film: What happens to the people who have to leave? Detroit News reporter Louis Aguilar asks this, adding that he could report every day on the influx of new, upscale businesses coming to Detroit, that do nothing for these existing residents but force them to far-flung neighborhoods without access, transportation, or connection.
“What happened to the Jimmies?” asks longtime resident and sociology teacher George McMahon, referring to a neighbor named Jimmy, the kind of odd-job type once pervasive in the Corridor, available to pick up roofing work or other day labor. “Where have they gone? I really wonder where they’ve gone.” MacDonald tracks down Jimmy for an interview, which finds him speculating as to the disappearance of the neighborhood’s prostitutes — did they get sick? Did they clean up their act? Where have they gone? Where are they expected to go?
MacDonald’s documentary packs an astonishing amount of information into approximately an hour, and does so with rare heart and cogency. Her deep engagement with her subjects and surroundings is evident, as well as her painterly eye, in brief moments of vivid beauty — though the artist states that the generally rough aesthetics of the film are intentional and necessary.
“How to portray my experience and ‘my view’, giving audiences a sense of why I became curious of my surroundings in the lower Cass Corridor,” said MacDonald, in an email interview with Hyperallergic, “while at the same time showing what people struggle with and go through in a humane way? Difficult things don’t always look wonderful, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look.”
Last Days of Chinatown debuted at Cass City Cinema and Wayne State Community Arts Auditorium as part of the Freep Film Festival April 13–14, and is scheduled for upcoming screenings in Detroit including at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD) on June 21. MacDonald is also embarking on April 19 for a one-month screening tour in various West Coast small cinema venues. For more information about screenings, contact Nicole MacDonald.