When it comes to cost-cutting, downsizing, and philosophical and practical compromise, how low is it possible to go before there’s nothing left to cut—and nowhere to go but up? Detropia, the evocative new documentary from filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (Jesus Camp), is a portrait of a city that rose on utopian dreams, temporarily settled into comfortable function, and then began a long decline to its current state of life support, all in just less than a century. In 1930, Detroit was the fastest-growing city in the world; today, a family moves out of the metropolitan area every 20 minutes. Ewing and Grady chart how and why it has come to this, city-symphony style. Between bookends of a conductor leading an orchestra and an opera star singing a cappella in the ruins of an abandoned train station, the filmmakers collage the stories of contemporary Detroiters—a union president, a bar owner, a blogger—who are trying to make it through an ever-more-arid present while haunted by the past, and facing what increasingly seems like no future.
In Detroit’s glorious past, as seen through archival footage and testified to by the film’s subjects—who tell their own stories through loose, stream-of-consciousness narration and conversation—the Motor City was a Midwestern mecca of both national industry and uniquely American pop culture, both car-centric phenomena. The outsourcing of manufacturing that has drained Detroit of promise and opportunity is a process that long predates the national financial crisis—but the overall shittiness of the American plight hasn’t helped. That the auto bailout has had little impact on Detroit’s ability to stave off attrition is evident primarily in Ewing and Grady’s ample footage (beautifully composed and purposefully edited to a haunting electronic score) of burned-out and abandoned buildings, and secondarily in the story thread concerning the endangered Detroit Opera House. The tony, old-school cultural landmark, which relies on significant corporate sponsorship from the auto companies, is in dire financial straits, and if it closes, it’ll have a domino effect on local businesses that depend on theater traffic.
Detropia proceeds as a portrait of a place that time is in the process of forgetting, until the city’s mayor (and former Detroit Pistons all-star), Dave Bing, hands the filmmakers a structuring news event. Frankly admitting that Detroit is “broke,” he announces a plan to “consolidate” the community, asking people who live in outlying, underpopulated areas to move closer downtown so that the city can serve residents more cheaply. But moving costs money, and the mayor isn’t offering a financial incentive—instead, the city is cutting services like bus lines, forcing the working poor into action by threatening the little things they count on just to help them hold on to what they’ve got.
What the mayor’s plan ignores—and the film powerfully brings into focus—is that many of those who haven’t left Detroit are bound to where they live not just by financial constraints, but by an emotional connection to their city and its history. One of the film’s most colorful characters is Crystal Starr, a twentysomething local blogger who stalks through abandoned buildings with a flashlight in one hand and a Flip cam in the other. She’s motivated, she says, by her psychic “memory of this place when it was banging.”
The filmmakers pay elegy to the Detroit of the Motown era, with its thriving middle class supported by manufacturing. At the same time, they’re honest about the fact that the version of Detroit local partisans yearn for is long gone and most likely not coming back. The film’s strongest observational footage was shot at the Detroit Auto Show, where MStevens, a retired schoolteacher who runs a bar, encounters both the Chevy Volt and a new, Chinese electric car from a company called BYD—a/k/a Build Your Dreams. The former’s sticker price is twice as high as the latter’s, and as much as Stevens wants the car that’s built in his neighborhood to succeed, he knows exactly how American consumers think. While long-term residents fan furiously to keep the last embers of an old flame alive, Detroit is increasingly attracting newcomers who assume the city is already dead—young white artists who are colonizing downtown Detroit’s dirt-cheap lofts, European tourists who blithely admit to having been attracted to the city for its “decay”—and thus, a blank slate on which to start anew.
Is this the “new normal” we’ve been hearing so much about? Considering how relatively small a chunk of history it took up, why did anyone think the middle-class consumerism that marked the middle of the last century was “normal” to begin with? Maybe it was merely too good to pass up. As one Detroiter puts it, the city had promised them a life right out of Leave it to Beaver. We’d seen it on TV, then we saw it come into our lives.” Haunted by these hazy memories of past freedom from want, Detroit’s story is a microcosm of America’s—just, for now, slightly more desperate.