Burning Down the House

Eminem Movie Ignites Debate in Detroit

8 Mile, now in theaters, shows many of Detroit's historic structures, both abandoned and reused.

Credit: Universal Pictures

In the current movie 8 Mile about rapper Eminem's transformation from a kid of Detroit's mean streets to a musical poet, the film’s epiphany occurs after a house burns to the ground.

Eminem's real-life hometown of Detroit, where the movie was filmed, came out a winner in the Universal Pictures film, faring much better than it did as the apocalyptic backdrop of 1987’s RoboCop, which underscored a devastated, pock-marked landscape. Overall, 8 Mile shows a vital city with an impressive skyline. Nearly half the crew was hired locally, along with dozens of extras. Universal estimates that its production company spent about $6 million in the region.

But there are skeptics, particularly in Highland Park, Mich., where the house was burned. In this troubled, incorporated community within Detroit, some fear that young people will see justification in burning down houses—perhaps the same ones who went on an arson spree in Highland Park during the first six months of 2001, setting 20 fires and leaving the financially struggling community singed and fearful. (Last April, arsonists burned seven more of the neighborhood's houses.)

"Letting them burn those houses is ridiculous," says City Councilman Earl O. Wheeler, whose vote against the Hollywood-sponsored fire was later overruled. "Burning a house for a movie sets an example for our children. It says to them that burning a house is good."

In the teens and '20s, Highland Park served as the automotive headquarters of the world: Henry Ford introduced mass production of the Model T in 1914 in the Highland Park plant, which churned out 1,000 cars a day. General Motors opened a new headquarters on Grand Boulevard on the other side of Highland Park in 1921. Four years later, Chrysler Corp. was founded nearby. The houses that surrounded these plants were built for working people who poured into Highland Park for Ford's $5 a day—twice the average wage at the time.

Ford's Highland Park Plant

Credit: Richard Moody Vintage Postcard Collection

So some of the finest houses in the Midwest bloomed in Highland Park. Most of the community is on the National Register of Historic Places for its exquisite mix of early 20th-century houses, including Dutch colonials, Tudor revivals, and Arts and Crafts bungalows. The area’s two historic districts—the North Medbury-Grove Lawn Historic District and the Southeast Heights-Stevens Historic District—together boast 700 historic houses, including a significant collection of small Craftsman bungalows built between 1910 and 1920.

"Highland Park is one of the richest troves of Arts and Crafts houses in America," says architectural historian William Porter, retired head of design at General Motors. "If those houses were in southern California, people would kill for them."

At its peak in the 1950s, 46,000 people lived in Highland Park; today, its population has plummeted to 16,746, according to the 2000 Census. Abandoned by white residents who moved to the suburbs with the car companies, the community is 96 percent African-American. Its schools rank in the state's bottom 20 percent. Both the police and fire departments have been dismantled, their responsibilities assigned to nearby communities, and crime has crept into the area. According to the city administrator, Jan Lazar, at least 300 to 400 houses in the 2.2-mile square city are abandoned hulks.

When Universal first asked to burn the house in November 2001, the city council said no. Led by the NAACP, 100 protesters marched that month. Yet the state had appointed an emergency financial manager in December 2000 to help Highland Park find a solution to its $11 million deficit and almost certain bankruptcy, and despite the protest, Ramona Henderson Pearson overruled the city council's 4-0 vote. She agreed to let Universal burn one house and demolish two others in exchange for careful removal, some presentations to students about the movie industry, and $2,000. Residents who feared for their safety were given a motel allowance and meal tickets for the two days of filming.

"I didn't like what burning those houses said about Highland Park, but the truth is painful," says Katherine Clarkson, executive director of Preservation Wayne and a 16-year resident of Highland Park. "We have houses that are derelict and economically hopeless. Yes, we could have fixed them up, but the cost of fixing them would have been two or three times their market value."

Yet Clarkson remains convinced that the area will improve. Sixteen years ago, she couldn't secure a $25,000 mortgage to buy her house. Today, banks have become more flexible, and real-estate prices have risen: Some properties are selling for more than $100,000. And the bank recently gave Clarkson $35,000 for renovations without even sending out an appraiser.

A. Billy Ayler, broker and owner of Results Realty, who sells most of the real estate in Highland Park, says its attractive location—close to two freeways and within walking distance to rapidly redeveloping downtown Detroit—will eventually lure residents. He points to the nearby town of Birmingham, which had similar problems until "people recognized that it was a desirable place to live and started paying a bazillion dollars for 900-square-foot houses."

Some hope the area will capitalize on its history, not burn it. Last week Ayler sold a brick 3,200-square-foot Highland Park house for $120,000 to a professional couple who wanted a house with historic character and plenty of space. "With values like that," he says, "this city isn't going to stay down forever."

Jennie Phipps is a freelance writer living in Michigan.

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