If I had just come from another planet and someone showed me this documentary and told me it was scenes of a major city in the wealthiest and most powerful nation on this planet, I wouldn’t believe it.
Detropia is a 2012 documentary by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady on the decline of the city of Detroit. Some of the imagery is almost surreal, considering Detroit was at one point a showcase city for America with a vibrant middle class, well-kept neighborhoods and a ton of cultural amenities. The city shown in this documentary is something completely different.
This documentary has no narration from the directors and the only experts they consult on this documentary are the residents of the city itself – no urban design PhDs or talking heads, just everyday people in Detroit, who come up big with a lot of frank and gut-level commentary. Another technical plus of this documentary is that there’s very little juxtaposition of stock footage from prosperous and promising times in this one – sometimes it seems like if you’ve seen one documentary like this, you’ve seen them all due to the frequent use of stock footage.
There’s one scene that stood out of a house being torn down with a swingset in the backyard. The swingset was almost overgrown with golden native prairie grasses, swaying in the wind. It looked like what you would expect an abandoned homestead somewhere in the prairie states would look like, not something in the midst of one of America’s largest cities.
Another scene that stood out to me was one on the stoop of a house in a run down neighborhood with a group of black 20-somethings. The municipal government had just brought up the idea of attempting to move residents and consolidate them in order to be able to better provide services as right now the city itself is geographically large and spread out, making efficiency difficult. The plan was to turn over unused land into urban agriculture. These guys were talking about the idea and were in complete disbelief over the prospect of turning the city over into gardens. While urban agriculture makes sense to a lot of people outside of Detroit, it’s probably pretty hard to accept a prospect like that if you’re actually in Detroit and have no connection to food production. I can see how it can be seen as admitting defeat. I guess it’s just a matter of perspective. I do think that urban agriculture along with decentralization is probably Detroit’s best option though (see: Detroit: Too Big to Not Fail)
An example of the frankness of the residents was a scene involving a bar owner and ex-teacher going to the big auto show in Detroit (I forgot what it’s called, but it’s the major one). He talks to a Chinese manufacturer of an electronic car that will retail for about $20,000. Then he talks to some guys manning the booth for a major American manufacturer with an electronic car going for somewhere north of $40,000. He asks them why the Chinese can do it for $20,000 left and you can see the guys get uncomfortable. They say it’s an apples to oranges comparison . The bar owner pushes it further and winds up with the bullshit answer “because we have more features” (which is probably true, but probably not $20,000 worth). The bar owner then brings up the fact that these guys are saying the same things they said about Japanese automobiles when they first hit the American market and they ended the conversation there. The discomfort was obvious…
At one point in the documentary they interview a group of guys that were in the business of collecting scrap metal. They said the police had stopped them earlier and just wanted to make sure that they weren’t stealing anything and told them that if they got any complaints from the neighbors, they’d have to send them off, other than that they had free range at the abandoned houses. They said they were in this business because they couldn’t find jobs elsewhere and it was the only way they could honestly make money. They said they got 11 cents a pound for scrap steel and $2.50 for copper. One guy made a poignant comment about how the scrap metal was often sent back to China so they could “make shit with it and sell it back to us”. Then there was text stating that most of our scrap metal in the US is sold to China.
This is currently on streaming Netflix, so it’s worth watching if you’re into these subjects. I don’t think that there’s any new ground covered in the way of documenting Detroit’s decay but it’s full of harrowing footage and homespun wisdom on the topic.