Welcome to the empty shell of Detroit! Once America’s fourth largest city, Motown’s birthplace has lost 25 percent of its population over the past 10 years, an unprecedented exodus that has left the streets lined with abandoned homes, their insides gutted for copper wire or incinerated just for the hell of it. Mayor Dave Bing has promised to raze 10,000 homes a year to discourage the crime and rodents that have crept into the empty lots, leaving residents to sit and watch as their city is torn out from under them. And for the better part of Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s Detropia, the roof is literally caving in.
Most of Detropia’s storytellers are tied to an industry on its last legs, and there is evidence of a beleaguered bewilderment as our guides drive through Detroit’s ghostly streets. They live on memories, and are quick to describe Detroit as “the tip of the iceberg,” with the rest of America soon to follow. Though initially deflating, that good ol’ American spirit never succumbs to resignation and prevents the film from becoming insufferably morose. Instead, the city and documentary are a study in deafening silence. Beautifully haunting panoramas of snow, empty lots and endless scrap yards punctuated by bonfires have surrounded a town bluntly described by its mayor as “broke.” But just as in the post-Katrina bayou, the remaining grim-faced residents are determined to see it through. The film’s strongest point may be Ewing and Grady’s vision of a tight-knit center that will hold regardless of how many things fall apart. Their faith and hope, for better or worse, keeps resurfacing: hawks catch thermals and float high over the city, and the Detroit Opera House, the city’s crown jewel, continues to thrive amidst the squalor.
But the stout civilians of the Motor City have no tangible solutions, unless you count the blurry image of “revolution” mumbled every so often from wrinkled lips. (It did happen in 1967—Detroit erupted in race riots that left 43 people dead before the National Guard ran tanks up and down the streets.) Every city council meeting brings worse news, town hall forums are hysterical cacophonies of accusations and chaos, and all the while factories and wages continue to dwindle. Detropia’s camera is in the losing corner, sprawled out on the mat as the arena empties. And though the stars in front of its eyes have begun to stop spinning, there is no question that the city’s battle is one of getting back on the horse and reorganizing its objectives. Far from depressing, however, Detropia implicates its viewer as a source of possible solutions. What would you do?
The film was shot over the course of the last two years, a period that, in retrospect, seems to be the moment when the city bottomed out. Since then, Motown has seen its falling population rates stabilize and even shown signs of recovery. The same atrophy that left the city considering relocating and consolidating its residents (to turn the outlying areas of Detroit’s 139 square miles into urban farmland (a project slowly taking hold) has begun to attract scores of young artists drawn by the low cost of living and a compulsion to chronicle what Time magazine described as Detroit’s “beautiful, horrible decline.” At the start of Detropia’s third act, a Swiss tourist admits, “Detroit seems somewhat interesting with all of its decay.” Ewing and Grady do their best to end on an uptick, including a rather heavy-handed sequence/advertisement calling on the younger generation to essentially take the reins. In the end, however, a picture of hope crystallizes on screen, and the city’s heart continues to beat.