Netflix’s ‘Tread’ Is A Good Indictment Of Municipal Bureaucracy

Screencap of the dramatized segments in the documentary, featuring Marvin Heemeyer representing himself in a series of legal disputes and administrative hearings on code compliance and zoning in the city of Granby, Colorado. ©2019 Zipper Bros Films, Sutter Road Picture Company, and Netflix.

Prior to Netflix’s release of Tread in March 2019, many Americans were aware of the legendary tale of infamous Coloradan Marvin John Heemeyer, who in 2004 shot himself dead after destroying $9.6m in property (2020 dollars) in a heavily modified, Komatsu D355A bulldozer. The reason for the rampage? Heemeyer was tired of what he claimed was years of harassment and subterfuge by local landowners and municipal officials. They had, he claimed, more or less bankrupted an otherwise profitable auto repair business, ostensibly in the name of code compliance. The wildest thing about the story is perhaps less that it happened, but that the stories he tells– as related on a cassette tape recorded shortly before his rampage- haven’t led to more mass destruction. I’m being tongue-in-cheek here, of course. But the film provides ample landscape for understanding how municipal bureaucracy can be so tremendously dysfunctional and lead to gross disenfranchisement and even financial ruin– and for no quantifiable public benefit.

I don’t need to unpack the entirety of Heemeyer’s story, which is told quite well in the film, with original dramatization and interviews. But the takeaways are that, whether or not he made missteps in his approach to solving what should have been a relatively simple problem involving zoning, infrastructure, and property access, he ended up as the subject of a needless degree of punishment and duress by municipal government and landowners apparently intent on messing up his day.

THE APPEAL OF THE DOWNTRODDEN AND WRONGLY ACCUSED

Part of the appeal of a film like Tread is that we as a society seem to be increasingly drawn to ambivalent portrayals of the underdogs, the downtrodden, and the wrongly accused. Such is a hallmark of the “true crime” genre. Nearly a decade after the smash hit Prison Break (2005), which derailed after a couple of enjoyable seasons, one might recall the story of Adnan Syed in Sarah Koenig’s Serial (2014), a sort of figurehead of this documentary genre. In 2020, Americans quarantined from the coronavirus gobbled up episodes of Netflix’s Tiger King. The series, which is just way too Florida for even my affinity for sordid and checkered tales, draws a compelling counterpoint between jailed Joseph Allen “Joe Exotic” Schreibvogel (write-bird? you weird Germans) and Carole Baskin. In spite of my having watched a total of twenty minutes of one episode, I counted dozens of tweets and Facebook posts accusing Carole Baskin of murdering her husband, Don Lewis. Like, very strong feelings abounded. Tiger King took the popular imagination of quarantined America by storm. Well, at least for three months. (I haven’t heard much about it since the beginning of the summer). In a society increasingly frustrated with a staggering rate of wealth inequality, these stories become even more popular.

ALL-AMERICAN ENTREPRENEUR AND… VIOLENT VANDAL?

In this case, Heemeyer is this sort of regular, all-American Joe. He is featured in footage in the documentary from snowmobiling trips with friends. He was described as very focused, driven, highly intelligent, and competent, but most of the people interviewed had nothing bad to say about him. Interestingly, too, most of the people who, he claims, were committing wrongs against him didn’t have much to say about him at all, and certainly not much particularly bad. (This may be a telltale sign of their feelings of guilt over what happened, of course, but that’s a separate conversation).

At the core here is the question of Heemeyer’s attempt to pursue a relatively quiet, benign, entrepreneurial objective of opening a muffler shop. Purportedly quite technically skilled and a competent welder, Heemeyer was able to make a go of it, building his own shop after first settling in Granby in the early 1990’s. 

DEMYSTIFYING, THE FIRST STEP IN IMPROVING SYSTEMS

Infrastructure investment. Zoning. City services. These are all extremely un-sexy processes. But they’re also important. They’re important because they underlie, literally and metaphorically, most of the moving parts of the economy and of society at large. When managed as intended, they make cities safer, more equitable, more comfortable, and more affordable. We’re not thinking about them all day, but they’re still there. Unfortunately, the people who run these services are usually running them with decades or, in many cases, even centuries old technology. In many cases, too, there is little incentive to change.

I once had an AT&T technician out to try and diagnose some internet service problems we were having. They ended up having to replace a bunch of terminals on the telephone poles, and a supervisor, apologizing profusely, told me that as far as they could tell, these lines more or less hadn’t been touched for about fifty years. This, in a city where power routinely falters every time there’s a storm. Rainwater creates floods instead of draining properly. Voltage spikes destroy sensitive electronics. And so on and so forth.

With no incentive to improve, systems don’t improve. The threat of privatization is often welcomed by policymakers eager to cash in and put “any change whatsoever” as a feather in their cap.

THE SECOND STEP: ACCESS AND ALTERNATIVES

We can derive an important lesson from energy codes. While a regular building code will stipulate things like the necessary height of, say, a railing, an energy code will stipulate maximums and minimums for energy usage or insulation depth. This is important as a matter of combatting climate change. It’s important as a matter of saving homeowners energy bills. It’s also important because we’re not fucking barbarians. Many energy codes offer two paths to compliance, though. One path, the prescriptive path, is to verifiably comply with a set of design standards to meet your objective. The other path is the performance path. This is less concerned with design than it is with measurable energy usage.

I mention this because the Heemeyer case illustrates the significant disconnect when municipal officials indiscriminately slap owners with fines and tickets by saying “you didn’t do [x]! Here, have a fine!” without providing an alternative for how they can achieve functionally the same goal. Granted, there are some things that do not merit a performance alternative. There are centuries of jurisprudence that say that the State is afforded a degree of police power to enforce laws that maintain public order, safety, and health. Mask mandates? Sure. Regulations to make sure the building doesn’t blow up? Well, yes. But if you have a muffler shop that has but one non-public restroom and only one FTE occupying the space, why would you need to drop six figures of your own money on a sewer line extension? This is ridiculous.

I’m not saying it’s ridiculous to the point of going on a rampage in a bulldozer and destroying millions of dollars in property. But, in my time in the Building Department, having elicited glares from gun-toting property owners, having been chased out of buildings by screaming, angry old men, and having been on the other side of this issue, when the city threatens to fine you into bankruptcy unless you follow the letter of the law on their time frame with no exceptions or alternatives– it’s understandable that someone would get really pissed off and feel like they had no recourse. It is high time to improve how business is done in cities. It’s also important for us to humanize the process of citycraft. This can be done by a city government providing sensible alternatives to citizens if one option won’t work. It can also be done by maintaining lines of communication.

In the mean time, my city-building plans are staying well the hell away from Granby, Colorado. You know, just in case.

Check out Tread on Netflix.

Screencap of the dramatized segments in the documentary, featuring Marvin Heemeyer working in his muffler shop in Granby, Colorado. ©2019 Zipper Bros Films, Sutter Road Picture Company, and Netflix.

Nat M. Zorach

Nat M. Zorach, AICP is a city planner, community development professional, and MBA candidate at American University's Kogod School of Business, based in Detroit.

Leave a Reply