I screened Detropia immediately after seeing Ethel on Saturday afternoon. Before I get into the review, I sat right next to one of the directors, Rachel Grady, as I sat outside eating my PB&J in between the screenings. I realized it later as she was introducing the film with MFF Director Jed Dietz. It was random, and now another reason why I think film festivals are great.
Detropia focuses on the plight of Detroit, Michigan. Once the fastest growing city in America, it is now the fastest shrinking city in America. Detroit is 139 miles, the size of San Francisco, Boston, and New York combined. 40 miles of Detroit are vacant. This documentary highlights the plight of the city and its citizens, but does not provide a neat answer. One cannot get a neat, concise answer to a problem as big as the one Detroit is facing.
The documentary follows individuals and sees Detroit through their eyes. Crystal Starr, a Detroit blogger, takes us into the ruins of Detroit. Detroit from her perspective seems like the ruins of a once great society like Athens or Rome. The difference is that this society is still living and we gain a sense of the people. Massive train stations, apartments, and office buildings are left to beautifully decay.
There are over 100,000 abandoned homes and lots in Detroit. Some are left. Some are torn down by city contracts. Some are burned by arsonists. Some are torn down and the scrap steel is sold for 11 cents a pound. (Scrap metal is the United States largest export to China.)
George Mc Gregor, president of United Auto Workers Local 22, gives us an insight into the crumbling auto industry in Detroit. He drives us all over the city, showing us what once was. "When the plant left, the neighborhood left." In 10 years, Detroit lost 50% of its manufacturing jobs. In 10 years, the US lost 50,000 factories and 6,000,000 people lost their jobs.
Tommy Stephens, owner of the Ravens Lounge, shows us how the loss of the factories affected the neighborhoods as well. There is a great exchange near the end of the film between him and a female companion. They consider the future of America competing with countries like China. She asks "should we lower our standard of living?" He responds, "I think we're going to have to." "They're not going to like that."
Detroit's mayor, Dave Bing, was shown in a meeting with urban planners. This meeting was the first and only one they allowed the production to film. The urban planners tried to create a land use policy in which they can find sizeable neighborhoods to invest in. This would mean consolidating the population in order to provide better city services such as emergency vehicles and bussing. When the plan to consolidate the city is revealed, the citizens of Detroit are outraged. They consider downsizing a form of segregation that would have "Gardens every motherf**king-where." Others are willing to have half a city if they could have it the way they used to. The debate rages on.
But there is some growth in Detroit. In 2010, the census reveals that the population has dropped to 713,000, the lowest in 100 years. But there is a 59% increase in young residents. Young people are choosing to move to Detroit for opportunities they could not have elsewhere. We meet 2 street artists who considered Baltimore and New York before moving. In Detroit, they can buy their own loft for $25,000 and still afford their art studio. They enjoy the beauty in the desolation of Detroit. "We can fail, because if we do, we haven't really fallen anywhere."
In all, Detropia is a beautfully shot picture of an American city in turmoil. We are left with more questions than answers. We must consider the future of all our cities. How can they survive? In the words of Tommy Stephens, "This is coming to you. That's just my opinion."