I don’t actively seek out photographs and films documenting Detroit’s decay. Detroit ruin porn (written about on Hyperallergic here, on Wired here, and just about everywhere else) could be cast as a useful reminder that no city is invincible, but in recent years the sheer quantity of photographs coming out of Detroit hasn’t felt remotely empowering. The images of the destruction are sad and offer no sense of a desire to change the problem, or suggestions for how that could even be done. However, I wanted to give the new documentary Detropia, made by Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing, the creators of the bone-chilling documentary Jesus Camp, a chance. I figured if anyone could investigate and show a Detroit outsider what it means to be in Detroit, it would be them.
The film rather loosely follows several Detroit locals, in the process unfolding the conflicts, daily lives, and institutions of the city, powerful and weak alike. Yes, Detroit is a mess, but Grady and Ewing make no attempt to neatly encapsulate the complexity that is Detroit. Detropia recalls another documentary, The Pruitt-Igoe Myth: An Urban History (which Hyperallergic covered here), which thankfully laid to rest the myopic claim that housing projects alone could solve St. Louis’s problems of the time. The Pruitt-Igoe Myth instead went about making St. Louis’s problems more complex. In Detropia, the admission that the directors were not going to “get” or “solve” Detroit was a breath of fresh air, even as they tried their best to understand anyway. I think most people would agree that any simple solution for Detroit is no solution at all.
There’s an especially enlightening moment in the film when three younger men are talking about a proposed plan to move many of Detroit’s remaining citizens into the city’s center. The plan to repopulate one area was proposed to come to terms with a dwindling population coupled with an infrastructure stretched thin; the hope is to turn the newly vacant land into more productive sites, like urban farms. One of the men envisions a future where the violence of Detroit remains intact while surrounded by farmland, painting a surreal scene of a thug threatening to shoot someone over stealing his tomato. Although these scenarios are still imaginary, simply moving residents and adding gardens would do little to alleviate the immediate poverty and subsequent crime present in the city, as the Pruitt-Igoe documentary shows. How does one with a straight face propose a garden as the solution to Detroit?
Another especially eerie scene depicts young men ripping apart an abandoned building to trade its copper and steel for cash (pictured above). Setting some wood on fire, presumably for warmth and light, the men struggle into the night to tear the building apart to salvage every scrap piece of metal possible. A police officer reportedly came by and told them to be careful, a shockingly lax position that few major cities would endorse. The work looks dangerous and hard, and at the end of the scene we learn that the United States’ largest export to China is scrap metal, a chilling sign of how dramatically our economy has shifted, especially when considered with Detroit as a backdrop.
Because of Detroit’s cheap property and plentiful land, the city has become a destination for young creatives looking for the freedom to experiment and enjoy the quality of life that comes from a low cost of living. In the film, this new population of young creatives is mostly represented by the performance street art duo Steve and Dorota Coy (pictured at top). Their work and lifestyle are given a chance in Detroit, and their anti-corporate motif rings true given the setting. Although this new crowd is a hopeful change for Detroit, Detropia does not dwell on them long or over-emphasize their impact and presence. The film remains committed to the local Detroiters, those who have been through the rises, falls, and changes their whole lives. Detropia grants us an unbiased and small glimpse into the complex problems the city faces, and shows us the diverse citizens still living there.
For more information on Detropia, visit detropiathefilm.com.