Thursday, October 18, 2012


Abandoned houses; vacant factories; a once-magnificent church now gutted, its grand piano just a shell tipped on its side; a high-rise apartment building with an entire wall missing, the rooms exposed to view: Beautiful images? Not really, but in the new documentary “Detropia” about the crumbling of Detroit, they actually appear hauntingly so. The extraordinary cinematography of Tony Hardmon and Craig Atkinson reminds us that even ruins can appear magnificent and beautiful even as we are aware that they represent a devastated city and ruined lives. It is just one of the things that makes this film so moving and powerful and affects us so in watching it.

The film by Oscar-nominated directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady was shot over eighteen months and is told through the eyes and experience of people who are living with the devastation of a city they care about. There are no experts, or social scientists, or pundits or politicians (with the exception of Mayor Dave Bing who is struggling to find a way to salvage his city including turning vast tracts of urban land into urban farms) explaining to us what is happening to Detroit, just people who refuse to leave.

Retired schoolteacher, Tommy Stevens who now owns The Raven, a restaurant and blues-bar next to an abandoned GM plant believes the plant will come back and things will get better, even as we see pictures of deserted streets of abandoned buildings; George McGregor, president of UAW local 22 laying out for his members the company’s proposal to significantly reduce pay for skilled machinists and other workers to something close to a Fast Food Burger Restaurant salary; Blogger Crystal Starr a young African-American woman with a small video camera who is trying to find beauty herself in the destruction.

The film is about Detroit but it is also about America at large. The post industrial economy will find other cities vulnerable to destruction and decay and not just in the Rust Belt.

The film opens with arresting images: empty streets, vacant overgrown lots and a wrecking crew demolishing an abandoned house. As the bucket crane tears into the roof of the house, the crew chief tells a glib TV reporter that there are 11 houses on the same block that they will demolish. The reporter calls it the ‘downsizing of Detroit’.

In the mid part of the twentieth century Detroit was a symbol of the industrial might of the United States. It built the machines that won World War II. It was one of the Meccas of the great black migration from the South to the upper mid-west industrial heartland during the period. In 1930 it was the fastest growing city in the world. Today, it is the fastest shrinking city in the United States with 100,000 abandoned homes or vacant lots.

With the abandoned factories, the unstated question has to be: We retooled our industrial might from manufacturing consumer goods to building tanks and planes and warships to win WWII, if we had to do it again, could we?

There is an element of Michael Moore’s “Roger and Me” to this film – the closing of automobile plants and off-shoring of manufacturing jobs – but this film is really about the decline of a great American city.

There are lots of visuals of deserted or nearly deserted streets and buildings. The pictures evoke a strong sense of emptiness, the feel of a ghost town. You almost expect to see tumbleweeds blowing down the street.

These visuals are juxtaposed against archival footage from the 50s when times were clearly better and Detroit was booming.

We see men scavenging metal from abandoned factories and selling it for scrap. One of the men notes that they can get eleven cents a pound for steel which will be sent to China and then will come back here as new product. One of the top exports from the U.S to China is scrap metal. We send them our jobs and our scrap.

Interspersed with the scenes of desolation and abandonment, are scenes of productions of the Detroit Opera. The irony is that the Opera is sponsored by the big Three U.S. automakers. Another irony is that the film was funded in part by the Ford Foundation.

Some of the archival footage is from the late 60s, when the decline may have had its start. The manufacturing jobs had not quite yet started their torrent overseas but the growing disparity between rich and poor was there. It would then grow in more modern times to include the disparity between the rich and the middle class. But in the late 60s there was great unrest in the African-American communities in the north. The footage from the late 60s includes the riots that began in 1967. Ironically Georg Romney was Governor of Michigan in 1967 and his voice can be heard in some of the clips.

The film does touch briefly on the influx of artists to the abandoned properties because they are so cheap. But it is clear that even this bit of positivity is not going to be enough to save the city.

The film is not a diatribe and it poses unspoken questions for which there may be no easy answers and answers and questions which may be conflicting. The questions are unspoken but the context of the film makes sure that they are there.

“Detropia” opens Friday, October 19 at the Denver Film Center on Colfax.

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