In the 1930s, Detroit was the fastest growing city in the U.S., due mainly to the automobile boom and WWI production of airplanes and machines. 80 years later, this same city faced the fall of an industry after GM’s and Chrysler’s bailout by the U.S. government. Today, Detroit the fastest shrinking city.
“The city is broke, I don’t know how many times I have to say that,” says the Mayor of Detroit David Bing in Detropia, a documentary by Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing about the urban decay of Detroit. Bing plans to “repurpose the land” and bring together the scattered population of the city. Detroiters, however, have no intention of moving out of their current homes; some want to know what would happen to their habitation once they move out, others view downsizing as a form of segregation.
Recipient of the 2012 U.S. Documentary Editing Award at the Sundance Film Festival and winner of the grand jury prize at the Boston Independence Film Festival, Detropia weaves a complex story of ruin in Detroit through the eyes of local residents: a young video blogger rediscovers abandoned houses and concert halls; autoworkers negotiate wages with management shortly before discovering that the factory is closing down; and a local restaurant owner reminisces about the good old days when jobs were plentiful.
Detropia captures the rise and demise of the American manufacturing industry juxtaposed against job outsourcing and the Chinese automobile industry boom, pointing out that the fall of Detroit is not only the problem of Detroiters, but of all Americans. Characters in Detropia raise concerns that are not necessarily limited to their region: How did China see such rapid economic growth while Detroit is faced with bulldozed houses, abandoned theaters and closing schools? “What do the Chinese have that Americans don’t?” the film asks.
At one point, the film shows a tall, unoccupied apartment building rocking back and forth with debris falling from its roof. However, this image did not elicit lamentation. Rather, I dwelt on the beauty of the scene and the masterful work of its cameraman; but I wasn’t the only one with this reaction. In the film, for example, a Swiss tourist admires the city’s aesthetics of decay. The abandoned city has become a site of contemporary American ruin, attracting artists and younger generations to the tragic beauty of its affordable downtown area. This was the most interesting observation of the film: the simple fact that humans admire ruins, no matter what their implications. Today, popular tourist attractions include the Greek and Roman ruins; tomorrow, perhaps the ruins of Detroit will be added to this list, too.
All in all, Detropia is a wake-up call, both to eradicate economic and racial tensions and to accept the city for what it has become. Cheaper production of automobiles by Chinese motor companies has provoked many Americans (especially Detroit residents) who are out of a job, and the film cautions against a repeat of Detroit’s race riots. Instead of positing the Chinese as a group of intruders, the film proposes that we learn from their successes. Detropia also calls for a new way of dealing with Detroit’s modern cityscape, criticizing city officials for wanting to “repurpose the land.” The city is a breathing thing, Detropia says. It has proved its gritty tenacity to survive even on the verge of bankruptcy. It can never be destroyed by force and will always seek a way to survive.
Want to see Detropia yourself? Visit detropiathefilm.com to find a theater near you.
This article was originally published in Art Animal.