'Detropia': Prelude and Prophecy
In the opening scene of Detropia, a new documentary by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, a house is demolished with an excavator, the bucket crashing through a roof that once provided a family's shelter. A television news correspondent out front, speaking with his medium's disconcertingly positive tone, provides a bleak synopsis. “This is the downsizing of Detroit. You're watching it live. These are houses that are never coming back. It's going back to the prairie.”
Detropia is devastating. But it's populated by the sorts of characters that have made Detroit irresistible to me: hilarious, persistent, angry, upbeat. Take Tommy Stephens, a retired schoolteacher and owner of The Raven blues club who works his deep fryer in a business suit. Walking his block, he points out a house gutted by fire, blaming pyromaniacs responsible for some portion of Detroit's ubiquitous arsons. They get off on it, he suggests. Like, masturbate. “You got some sick people in America,” he ruminates. And you do get the sense that he's not just talking about the masturbating pyromaniacs.
The filmmakers arrive in the early stages of Detroit's next big plan: Former Pistons star and Mayor David Bing is going to downsize Detroit. The plan is called Detroit Works, and it has an entirely sensible premise. A city that boasted a population of 1.8 million in 1950, with a landmass large enough to fit San Francisco, Manhattan, Boston and more inside, is now home to 700,000 residents. Or fewer. Detroit lost 25 percent of its remaining population in just one decade, according to the 2010 census. From America's fastest growing city in 1930 to its fastest shrinking one today. And it shrinks every day.
The plan is to consolidate the population in the city's most viable neighborhoods, which makes a lot of sense except for the people who don't live in them. People scream at Bing: The plan, one woman attending a community forum yells, is to “burn us out.” Public transit, in a metropolis that is already painfully difficult to traverse without a car but where nearly a quarter of people do not have one, is cut too. “What am I to do if all I have is a bus,” asks one woman who leaves home every day at 7:30 AM to make it to work by ten. Another man tells officials that God will be their judge.
During my last visit in May, the Detroit Free Press described the rollout of the mayor's plan, which includes a cut-off of funds to assist low-income people with home repairs in areas declared “distressed.” It's triage. But the plan is cruel: It includes no money to help residents who have stood by Detroit―and who have invested years of their lives and thousands of dollars―move elsewhere.
The sad fact is that Mayor Bing is likely the most powerful person in the country who has any sort of plan for Detroit. The forces in control are out-of-town: the Republican governor taking over city and school management, the bookends of opaque financial transactions in distant New York office towers, or national politicians who only propose cuts. In Detropia, the wealth that built up the industrial middle class is gone, and the people left behind scavenge through its refuse for scrap metal like copper or steel. In one remarkable scene, a group of unemployed young men standing amidst ruins use a rope tied to a pickup truck to pull down an abandoned building. One scrapper, hypothesizing over the steel's ultimate destination, correctly notes that it is likely going to China, “so they can make shit and send it back here and sell it for more.” Actually, as it turns out, for cheaper.
In the New York Times style section and similar pages, Detroit is often on the verge of a comeback forged by young artists opening coffee shops and maybe urban farms. Take last July: “An influx of young creative types is turning Detroit into a Midwestern TriBeCa.” Everything wrong with this article and others like it is summed up by a single telling correction: “An article last Sunday about revitalization in downtown Detroit referred incorrectly to the Detroit Party Marching Band. They received their uniforms from a high school band director in Iowa; the uniforms were not found in an abandoned Detroit public school.”
It was some variant of this popular Detroit comeback story that the filmmakers initially planned to tell. Spending a lot of time in Detroit disabused them of the idea―as it did me. The new coffee shops and crêperies are great and certainly met my niche consumer demands. And the film by no means bashes them. But unless coffee shop owners plan to train and hire hundreds of thousands of baristas, frontier hipsterdom seems relatively insignificant next to, say, the federal government creating an industrial policy.
The film has some blind spots that could be remedied to good cinematic effect. Mostly ignored is the critical role that racism played in the construction of Detroit, a suburban city of modest single-family homes. There are black and white people everywhere in Detropia. But the fact that Detroit is 83 percent black, when it was 83 percent white in 1950, is unmentioned. Footage of the 1967 riots is shown, but without context. White Detroit often points to the riot as the moment when black people destroyed their city and forced them to flee to suburbs. But Detroit's core problems, including sky-high structural black unemployment and the relocation of industry, preceded the burning and looting. It took place during a time when violent white neighborhood organizations fought to maintain segregated housing.
Also missing: the area's Arab population, the nation's largest, or Mexicantown, one of the city's most vibrant neighborhoods. Or Detroit's three enormous casinos, filled with people who look like they cannot afford to be gambling, shiny vacuums of global capitalism sucking out what little wealth remains from the ruins. Bleak.
The co-directors also pipe in audio from talk radio and cable news without identifying the names or affiliations of talking heads. This is jarring. But this documentary, which focuses in on the neglected subject of the city's black middle class, can't be about everything.
Detroiters are also a notoriously tough crowd. Locals are particularly critical of a genre of photography derided as “ruin porn,” the picturesque shots of magnificently abandoned buildings―like the vaulting, crumbling heights of the 18-story Michigan Central Station―that have proliferated across the internet. And for good reason. Ruin porn engages a post-human pastoralism that celebrates the city's collapse. Yet ruins are an inescapable reality. It's hard to take a photo of the city that doesn't include something abandoned or just plain absent. The film's impressionist, poetic approach captures the eerie calm of a big emptied out place. It's the same sort of silence I've heard in Cleveland and Youngstown. The ruin captured in Detropia is visually beautiful, but relentlessly not romantic. The shots hit hard and hurt. Like they should.
Similarly, Detropia catapults over charges of parachute journalism by putting the decay in context and by allowing Detroiters to be their guide. Crystal Starr, a Detroit video blogger, is a recurrent chaperone through the city's abandoned wonders.
“Can you imagine like having breakfast right here? Look at your view, look at your view in the morning.” The abandoned kitchen looks over a smattering of houses and a deep sea of green trees, out to the downtown skyscrapers. “Like yeah, I'm going to go out and conquer the world because I can damn near see it from right here.” She channels Detroit like a medium. “I feel like I was maybe here a little while back. Or I'm older than I really am but I just have this young body, and spirit and mind. But I have the memory of this place when it was banging.”
The film nurtures the sort of existential crisis in American national identity that Detroit should have long since provoked. Instead, America's political class is in total denial of decline and refuses to diagnose the political-economic disease rotting out the core. Detropia is an antidote to that Thomas Friedman version of reality.
The camera follows the United Auto Workers Local 22's surreal negotiations with management at American Axle, which demand another round of humiliating pay cuts backed by a threat to move the last bit of work overseas. “This is what we need to keep Detroit vibrant,” the company tells union president George McGregor.
Workers already at the bottom of the factory rung, making $14.35 per hour, would go down to $11.
“After the plant left, shit, the neighborhood left. It just went. Kapoo,” says McGregor, behind the wheel of his Cadillac, describing where the Cadillac assembly plant once stood. The lot, where McGregor held his first job, now stores dumpsters. “They built a new plant in Mexico, and all the work's in Mexico. That's where it's at.”
Autoworkers picket the North American International Auto Show, protesting plant closures. Inside, Chevrolet unveils the electric-powered Volt accompanied by a hopeful modern dance troupe celebrating the power of nature. But Raven owner Tommy Stephens is troubled by a Chinese electric car across the showroom that costs half the price. The GM plant down the street once signed his customers' paychecks. The Raven used to have a cook.
At this point in the review, you should see this point coming: Detroit is where 20th century industrial America reached its zenith, and its decline is both prelude and prophecy.
The Sun Belt cities and the suburbs were supposed to be a triumph of the market's creative destruction: people choose where they live, and good places win over bad. But Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Orlando, once thought to prove Detroit unnecessary, have gone bust. “Disney World ain't what it used to be,” says Stephens. The gaping maw of the new American century that swallowed Detroit has an unrequited hunger. Watch Detropia and you've been warned. The film is beset by a foreboding sense that the status quo leaves no option but mass unrest. I can only hope that's not wishful thinking.
“No buffer between the rich and the poor? Only thing left is revolution,” says Stephens, a most reluctant revolutionary. “This is coming to you.”