The postal route of Wendell Watkins is ground zero for redevelopment, and perhaps displacement.
Meet Wendell Watkins, a delightful mailman in Detroit. He says he joined the post office because “you get paid pretty well, and you don’t have a boss on you all the time, and you get to meet a lot of people.” Also his grandfather was a mailman and his grandfather “was like the coolest guy in the world.” So he took a test, “got 100,” and received a route. That was more than 26 years ago.
“As it turns out, a lot of things have happened in the mail in the last 30 years,” he says in a teaser for an in-progress documentary called Detroit 48202: Conversations Along a Postal Route. “Maybe 1 percent have been good.”
A lot of things have happened in Detroit during this same period, with maybe the same percent of them good. Detroit 48202 explores the city’s recent hard times—from the bankruptcy to the emergency manager to the severe blight to the recent twinkling of a comeback—through the lens of Watkins’s postal route. At her promotional site, director Pam Sporn describes his turf as “a microcosm of the patterns of urban blight and re-growth in the context of global economic changes”:
Each conversation along Wendell’s route provides insight into Detroit’s historical ebb and flow; of an industrial giant that boomed with the hard work of immigrants and migrants, then downsized, leaving the future of Detroit’s working and middle class in question; of labor and civil rights movements that fought for workers’ rights and against patterns of racial segregation in housing and employment; of a culture of resistance that continues to seek creative and socially just paths to revitalization.
The changing nature of New Center
Sporn tells CityLab she decided to make the film in 2009. On a trip then to Detroit, where she’d spend much of her childhood, she was “blown away” by how much the city had changed since her previous visits in the late 1990s. (Sporn recently retired as a New York City teacher and now serves as a film and media adjunct at Hunter College.) She connected with Watkins, who she says was her high school classmate at Cass Tech, in midtown.
“We were involved in protest politics of the early ’70s together,” she says. “He has an understanding of the city.”
Watkins’s mail route serves the 48202 zip code in Detroit. This part of town, known as New Center, is adjacent to the midtown area, where Dan Gilbert and other major developers are buying up loads of properties and trying to attract new residents. The film captures some of the natural tension between New Center, a largely black area still struggling from the economic downturn, and midtown, a gentrifying neighborhood on the rebound.
“Demographically, that’s an area where you'd find new white professionals coming to live in a mostly black city,” says Sporn. “That area, that redevelopment, is pushing up against the New Center area.”
If Sporn’s early cut of Detroit 48202 is any indication, Watkins is both a worthy and engaging guide. He’s full of native insight and resigned humor about his struggling city. That charm is on display whether he’s pointing out the recent history of a boarded-up building (“You don’t hardly even see drunken brick nowadays”), or picking out all the places on a block that have closed up during his run, or shaking his head at a wall that physically separated white and black neighborhoods.
“Detroit has always been Up South,” he says in the trailer. “Everybody kinda knows it.”
A carrier of history
Watkins’s conversations with some of the people on his postal route betray the severe racial fractures in the city, past and present. A woman named Gloria Owens recalls being one of the first black families to move into the Sojourner Truth housing project, back in the 1940s, which they did under the protection of soldiers because, as she tells Watkins, “whites didn’t want a colored to live out there.” A college advisor named Arnelle Douglas believes the racial gap remains intact in many parts of the redeveloping downtown.
“They gonna have the downtown,” Douglas says to Watkins, “and they’re not gonna let you come in.”
Sporn sees Watkins as “a carrier of history” in a community where a lot of cultural memory is up for grabs. Take the corner of Virginia Park and Woodward in New Center—site of the Algiers Motel incident from the late 1960s, where three young blacks were killed by police officials during a city uprising.* There’s no marker designated the spot as significant. “The forces that are revitalizing midtown and downtown—it isn't necessarily in their particular interest to preserve that history of what happened at that spot in 1967,” she says.
But history isn’t the only thing at stake. At one point, says Sporn, Watkins guided her through a closed-up building at 59 Seward, which was slated to be converted into affordable senior housing. But there’s been a pushback to use the location for more market-rate units, with the head of one local economic development group telling the media that affordable housing for seniors “is not what we need to be bringing back our neighborhoods.”
That’s the kind of discussion Sporn hopes the documentary will inform. “Will it be planning that will push people out,” she says, “or planning that includes people who are already there?” Sporn hopes to complete the film over the next year and says there’s really only one more big event she needs to shoot: that would be Watkins’s retirement, set for this fall.
*Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that the Algiers Motel killings sparked the Detroit uprising; they occurred during it.