by Francis Mead

Motown = Motor City = famous artists = cars = shut-off water supplies = UN = human rights.

Huh? Detroit combines all of the above.

Detroit Screenshot 2Two UN human rights reporters – officially they’re called “Special Rapporteurs” – visited the Michigan city recently, after local groups appealed to them for help. Why? Because the city, bankrupt and desperately in need of revenue, had decided to cut people’s water supplies off in an attempt to force them to pay their bills. Almost half the city’s residences were in arrears. The Special Rapporteurs said that it’s a human rights violation to cut water supplies to someone who can’t afford to pay – and they pointed out that some countries have simply made it illegal to cut off anyone’s water for any reason – on public health grounds.

The story got international attention – and we (myself, cameraman Antonio Tibaldi, and drone photographer Parker Gyokeres) went to make a film about what it all meant.

We filmed with Rochelle McCaskill who’d had her water cut off. She’s struggling with lupus and simply can’t keep up with the bills, because her disability benefits aren’t enough to pay the rent AND the water bill.

Detroit ScreenshotEssentially, this is a film about urban poverty in a wealthy Western country – not unheard of, of course in many other industrialized countries. But Detroit is an extreme example of urban deterioration. Known as the Motor City, because of its association with the giants of the automobile industry – Ford, Chrysler, General Motors – its revenues have plummeted as the industry contracted under international competition. Then, after major rioting in the 1960s, there was a massive flight of middle class families out of the city. The city’s population has gone down from nearly two million to 700,000 now. Fewer people mean it’s harder and more costly to maintain services – which then become more expensive and less affordable. A horrible spiral, that’s left some of the very poor in an impossible situation.

Detroit’s mayor has put in place repayment plans and is raising money to help the very poor – but some criticize the repayment plans as too inflexible – and the extra money hasn’t reached people like Rochelle McCaskill. Thousands are still being cut off.

So life is hard, very hard for Rochelle and her family.

Rochelle McCaskill with her four-year-old grandson Gregory

Rochelle McCaskill with her four-year-old grandson Gregory

But we found an unexpected link which completed the chain back from water, human rights, and the UN – all the way back to Motown. Because Rochelle’s uncle composed the famous hit song “What becomes of the Brokenhearted” while she was literally sitting on his knee! She paints to the music – and while she does, she finds the peace of mind the song talks about. —


Watch the full feature: