Since Detroit declared bankruptcy in 2013, the media narrative has ranged from stories of urban blight and foreclosure, to reports of artists and trendsetters moving to the city for cheap rents.
Through the voices of five high school seniors who found themselves about to graduate into a city regarded as a cautionary tale of post-industrial economic downturn in 2013, The New York Times documentary The Detroit Graduates shares a different perspective. The New York Times journalists Kassie Bracken and Eugene Yi and Detroit-based photographer Fabrizio Costantini spent the year of the bankruptcy visiting Denby High School in northeastern Detroit, then checked back in to see where TomAndre, Hakeem, Demetrius, Tazya and Shakkur found themselves a year and a half out of high school.
This is the fifth in a series of documentaries co-presented by POV and The New York Times. Read more about the collaboration.
POV went behind the story with Kassie Bracken.
This interview was edited.
POV: How did you first come to Denby High School and why did you end up choosing this school to focus on?
Kassie Bracken: When it seemed clear that Detroit was going to declare bankruptcy, and that it was going to happen imminently, my editor wanted to get some voices on the ground. So, initially, we wanted a short story on some of these “do-it-yourself” blocks, where there might be three or four families on a block that could occupy and take care of abandoned homes. These remaining families create a sense of community and safety.
So, we did a quick story, but we were looking for a way to spend a longer amount of time there. Our photographer Fabrizio Costantini — who co-produced The Detroit Graduates and is our regular photographer in Detroit — he’d heard about high school kids who were squatting and going to school. So, we thought that we might follow high school students who were attempting to get their degrees while squatting. That led us to speak to a couple of school principals and eventually we were steered towards Denby.
It seemed like the right fit right away. Tracie McKissic, the school principal, had such an engaging personality, and she was open to the project, and open to us being there for the year. And initially the idea was, let’s document a high school graduating class, because this is usually a time of optimism and possibility — but what’s it like to be graduating into a bankrupt city?
As we went along, it became clear that the narrative arc wasn’t quite as satisfying as we’d hoped, because the tension becomes, ‘Will they graduate?’ rather than ‘What is the next step?’ We shot a fair amount, and then we decided to hold off and wait a year to see what happens to the characters we’ve been following.
I think that was the right choice. It led to some unexpected twists and turns, and stories of success and maybe some setbacks that I don’t think we would have captured nearly as compellingly in just following for a year.
POV: In that year between, were you in contact with the students? Did you have a sense of where they were, or what was going on in their lives?
Kassie Bracken: The only person we didn’t have a sense of was Demetrius, and that was because he was incarcerated. He was the first student we met that we felt strongly about, that we really wanted to follow, and that was because he had just moved to Detroit. We thought he would provide a really interesting set of eyes. He was coming from Dayton, Ohio, a city that has it’s own problems, but has better city services than what the students who grew up in Detroit were experiencing. We thought he would be a good stand in for the viewer.
And then we found out about this tragic backstory he had, and the personal ambition to graduate and make something of his life. His mother’s husband shot her in the head. He was a Dayton city police officer, and no charges were brought against him. You could definitely see that profoundly impacted his life. He told us he’d had some problems in Dayton, so he came to Detroit for opportunity — which seemed counterintuitive.
When he was in Detroit, he found this window. He was getting decent grades and applying to colleges, all the while knowing he’s got papers out for him in Ohio. And then, he stopped going to school. The school couldn’t track him down and we couldn’t track him down. We kept trying, but we were busy following other characters, so we thought maybe he’d left Detroit and maybe he wouldn’t be the story that would work out for this project. Then we found out that he’d been in trouble in Ohio, and that he’d broken the law and his probation to come to Detroit.
POV: The way that his story is edited and told is very different than the others.
Kassie Bracken: Yes, necessarily so, because he kind of disappeared on us. We just wanted to have some help telling that story outside of the prison, so we spoke to his grandmother, who we hadn’t really spoken to publicly about her daughter’s death in almost 10 years. So, obviously it was very emotional for her, and she’s still holding onto a lot.
POV: In speaking candidly about their experiences, all five of the students echo the larger conversation about race, class and identity in the United States. Did those points come up naturally, or did you directly ask those questions?
Kassie Bracken: It definitely came up organically and I think it came up more so in the second round of interviews in 2015, because of what was going on in the country since Mike Brown and Eric Garner.
In that second interview with Hakeem, there was even a sticker on the campus that we included that read, “Mike Brown can’t vote but I can.” And with Shakkur, when he talked to the young men at the boy’s home, he said, “It’s not worth it to be holding, they’re going to lay you out.” So, it came up more in conversation later, but it definitely did come up initially as well, and it just is part of the conversation in Detroit.
POV: You were following these five students in Detroit because of the bankruptcy. In what ways do you think their stories speak specifically to the experience of growing up in Detroit, and in what ways could their stories be representative of other student’s experiences in the United States right now?
Kassie Bracken: We knew that using this high school class as the lens for what’s happening with the bankruptcy in Detroit would have the specific challenge of making sure that this is a Detroit story. How do we make it specific to Detroit and not another urban poverty story, an urban education story, an inner city poverty story? We wanted to make sure in the questions we asked, in the scenes we captured, that it would be clearly about Detroit. But at the same time, I definitely think it speaks to larger systemic questions.
Specifically for Detroit, there’s a couple of things — in the first parts of the stories, when they’re in high school — talking with teachers like Mr. Haffner, there’s a dilemma. He understands that the buses don’t run, so when a kid who is supposed to be in his first period class comes to his seventh period class, that’s okay. At the same time, I would talk with him about the tension. He recognizes that a diploma has to mean something.
When we checked back in with Shakkur, he told us that his security job in downtown Detroit was about a 20 minute drive from where he was living, and he had to be at the job at 8 AM. He would get up at 4 AM to get ready, and leave himself at least two hours to get somewhere that’s 20 minutes away, again, because of the buses.
So that’s definitely specific to Detroit. The kids knowing that the cops won’t show up, that it’ll take an hour, ambulance services… And again, with Hakeem, his literal reaction to seeing the difference [at Michigan State University], and getting used to that. He said, I went home for Thanksgiving and realized I got used to the campus life.
And visually, the landscaping kind of makes you hurt a little bit. Because the perimeter of Denby is completely bombed out. It’s weeds, and graffiti, and empty houses, scrap houses, all around the perimeter. The lead image that we used for the presentation, that’s TomAndre in this gleaming blue robe, holding his diploma in the house across the street from the school that he passed every day. I think that says a lot.
POV: Is there any evidence that the area around Denby is changing in the same ways that we hear about downtown Detroit changing?
Kassie Bracken: It’s still very much blighted. There are no “pop up shops” or gourmet coffee shops near Denby. The students are very aware of it — they talk about how there’s no where to get healthy food — there was one class where the students were talking about what they’d fix if you could fix Detroit, and a lot of them mentioned that.
They also talk about commerce going out of Detroit, because they’re on the border of Harper Woods and Eastpointe, and if you need anything, you go to the mall outside Detroit, and you’re not keeping the money inside Detroit. So, they’re cognizent of that kind of stuff.
In terms of these trend pieces of artists moving into Detroit — for the most part, that’s not happening around Denby, as far as I can tell. Although, visually, the perimeter around the school has improved. They finally tore down a burned out apartment complex across the street — which doesn’t sound like much but I can’t imagine going to high school every day and passing that — so I think for this graduating class, [it makes a difference].
That was a question that was on my mind a lot of the time: how does that impact an 18-year-old’s sense of possibility, of personal optimism? I don’t know. What does it mean to pass a place that is clearly dangerous every day to get to school? People have told that story before with Detroit, but it’s just one element of these challenges.
But I will say, and this is important. I think that Mr. Haffner’s comment — that people call these kids “bankruptcy kids” or “bankruptcy babies” — it was very important to him that they aren’t victims. All of these students, even Demetrius, they all found opportunity. That was an important note that he hit.
POV: In Tazya’s story, Mr. Haffner says that he can’t imagine walking to school and having to pass abandoned and squatter houses every day…
Kassie Bracken: Yeah, to listen to Beowulf. That’s one of my favorite lines. With Tazya’s story, when I interviewed her, it was so visceral, her nervousness, or… she said, “There’s gotta be a place you can live where you’re not afraid and looking over your shoulder all the time.” It was very much about wanting to get out, and wanting to live somewhere else.
Then a year later, she’s worrying about her son, living on the same street she lived on as a high school student. It was a tough update, but at the same time, she graduated. She graduated late, but she graduated. And she still has things she wants to pursue — perhaps in a year we’ll check in and see where she is.
POV: Are there plans to check back in again in another year and a half and see where everyone is?
Kassie Bracken: Yes. I don’t know what the period would be but we’re definitely interested in doing updates periodically.
It’ll be interesting to see who goes back, who leaves, and what happens with the city, too. The principal said at one point, even though it’s only 15 to 20 minutes from downtown Detroit, a lot of her students had never been downtown. She said that when they took them on a class trip, it was like they were from Nova Scotia. Ms. Blanding said something similar. Once in a while she would take students downtown and they couldn’t believe it. It’s like another country. So that’s going on too, it’s not just the visual difference, it’s the sense of — my children will not see this. They don’t see the improvements happening.
POV: Are there any additional plans for what you might do with distribution of the shorts? What kind of responses have you received so far?
Kassie Bracken: We put it on The New York Times Learning Network, which goes to thousands of middle schools and high schools.
Hearing back from a couple of the students, this feels like a new level of belief and possibility [for them]. That means a lot to me.
We’ve also gotten a lot of positive responses on social media from local Detroit blogs, and that means a lot to me too. I would read from the local blogs to get a sense of their reactions to media coverage, and I’m fortunate enough to be working with Fabrizio, who is Detroit born and bred — but it’s always a concern, though that’s the job. Especially in somewhere like Detroit, where people talk about blight porn, and the opposite extreme is the hipster trend story. So, it was important to keep this in the student’s voices, and I’m happy that we could stick with that.