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What Detropia Gets Right, and Wrong, about the Motor City

What Detropia Gets Right, and Wrong, about the Motor City

The new documentary is part of the same paternalism that it critiques.

Editor's Note: Aaron Renn is one of the prolific and consistently informative writers on urban revival and sustainability, gaining a following through his frequently cited Urbanophile blog. As he states there, his love for cities is informed in part by the same Isaiah 58 passage that guides the work of Detroit artist Yvette Rock, whom we profiled on Tuesday. Detroit is a regular feature at the Urbanophile blog, and we're delighted to feature Aaron's writing today and in coming weeks. Below is his review of Detropia, a new documentary that's drawn much praise, and many more questions, about the future of the Motor City.

I was lucky to get to see Detropia, a buzz-laden 2012 documentary about Detroit, at the UMass-Boston film series. There, Heidi Ewing, one of the filmmakers, was present for a post-screening discussion. Ewing, incidentally, grew up in suburban Detroit.

The title is an interesting wordplay. It's a portmanteau of ambiguous meaning. It could be a combination of "Detroit" with either utopia or dystopia, though as the bleak civic outlook suggests, the latter is far more appropriate. The film provides a look into the lives of various Detroiters. There's no real story here, no narrative, just a look as if through a window into a portion of the civic experience. The lack of any real relatedness between the characters fuels the sense of disconnectedness in the film. Though billed as a sort of cautionary tale about America, and explicitly intended to provoke political discussion per Ewing, it isn't exactly clear what conclusions we are supposed to draw from it, or how it would inform any real debates or decision making, as the core conflicts and issues are not addressed in sufficient depth to enable that.

The story focuses on three black principals: Tommy Stevens (the backbone character of the film), owner of a blue-collar blues bar called the Raven Lounge; George MacGregor, president of a United Auto Workers (UAW) local; and Crystal Starr, a barista and video blogger. All are thoughtful and likeable characters. A corresponding trio of white minor-character groupings fill out most of the rest of the cast: a newly arrived artist couple, a group of metal scrappers, and the Michigan Opera Theater (admittedly shown in a multicultural way, but I think representing a stereotypically white endeavor and with a healthy dose of white faces).

The film has gotten good reviews, and most of them have focused on the expert and stylish filmmaking. It's well done on many levels. I won't repeat all those other reviews here, but suffice it to say that the film is worth seeing on an aesthetic basis alone.

However, being beautiful is only part of a film. The story you are actually telling is important too, particularly in a documentary work. Detropia, while it has some very strong points, also has a number of weaknesses that have been overlooked by the critics.

The biggest win for the film was its prescient prediction of the failure of the Chevy Volt. Stevens's bar, the Raven Lounge, is only a few blocks from a shuttered GM plant. The plant closure naturally hurt his business. When he hears that the new electric Chevy Volt will be built there, he's excited at the prospects. However, on checking out the Volt at the auto show, he notices serious problems, notably the short distance it can travel on a charge, and the high price tag, particularly in comparison to new Chinese competitors. He's very clear that he thinks that dog won't hunt—and he's right.

Ewing uses that to great effect to show the "hope springs eternal" nature of Detroit's civic thinking, in which the Big Three are perpetually just one new hit car away from being "back." Not only is this "next big thing" thinking a failure in its own right, the hits never quite come. That a bar owner can instantly see this while GM's executives apparently could not is telling.

Similarly, as some New York Times commenters have noted, the young men who raid abandoned buildings for scrap metal seem to have a much firmer grip on economic reality than the auto company executives. They know the current market prices for their goods, and even understand how their work fits into the global supply chain. Presumably they also make a profit.

Another standout, and moving, scene was that of MacGregor's UAW local receiving news of American Axle's new wage proposals, ones that include big pay cuts for people who are barely earning a living wage as it is. Some workers would have seen pay drop from $14.35/hr to $11/hr. $14.35 is only about $30,000 a year—hardly the wage of a labor aristocrat. Imagine trying to support a family—housing, transportation, food, etc.—on only $11/hr. Here we see the destruction of the American middle class as a work in progress. This a type of scene that's been replayed far too often across America. (The UAW rejected the proposal outright, and the plant closed.)

However, the labor scenes also show Detropia's weakness. There was a clearly one-sided presentation of the facts designed to elicit maximum labor sympathy. Detropia mentions a Cadillac plant that closed and was, according to the UAW rep, moved to Mexico. However, GM also built a new state-of-the-art Cadillac plant in Lansing in recent years that makes the CTS we see MacGregor driving. That wasn't mentioned. The film notes the large pay cuts new UAW workers are expected to take, without showing how existing workers emerged from the bankruptcies with far less damage than other stakeholders. Delphi's union retirees, for example, got a special pension top up from a bankrupt GM to keep them 100 percent whole, while non-union retirees were out of luck and saw their pensions slashed 70 percent. The UAW came away owning a good slug of GM, and the hourly wages discussed in the American Axle example don't fairly represent what Big Three assembly workers enjoy. The presentation was so one-sided and with an obvious political ax to grind it's no wonder no company representatives agreed to be interviewed by the filmmakers.

In the Q&A after the Boston viewing, film curator Chico Colvard keyed in on the role of the artists in the film (and a pair of briefly-featured Swiss tourists in town to check out "decay") as ambivalent figures. On the one hand, they represent new blood for a city that desperately needs it. On the other, they are seen as interlopers or even parasitical, making their art and career from the wreckage of other people's cities.

I thought this was very effectively communicated visually. The artists treat Detroit like a gigantic stage set. They seem oblivious to and disconnected from the experience of Detroit, except inasmuch as it provides them with low-rent opportunities to experiment. The scenes of them in gold gas masks reveal them as an almost literal alien presence in the city, invaders from outer space.

Ewing enthusiastically endorsed this analysis. She said that hearing the term "blank slate" used in reference to Detroit "pisses me off" as Detroit is a richly historic city. She also railed against NYT-style romanticizing of the city's new artistic arrivals.

Alas, Colvard failed to ask the obvious follow-up: What makes Ewing any different? How is her film different from the rest of the "ruin porn" review? She gave no indication that she'd ever considered this question.

Indeed, Ewing and co-director Rachel Grady are exactly like that young artist couple, except that those artists actually live in Detroit. They are using the raw material of the city and its residents to make their art and reputations. Colvard described Detropia as the "hottest film on the indie circuit," so this seems to be working out for them. If their film seems less creepy than avant-garde street performances in gas masks, it's only because they have more flair and a stronger commercial orientation.

I'm not necessarily saying that Ewing and Grady deserve to be castigated for making this film. But based on this discussion, Ewing at least seems oblivious to being a part of the very system she seems to view with ambivalence if not outright negativity.

There's a lot of ambiguity and potential conflict in telling the stories of Detroit, to say nothing of actually turning it around. This was explored in the film but is something that deserved more attention, as solving it is the key to moving the city forward.

Ewing's own reaction to the blank slate meme, and some of her subjects' reaction to the idea of shrinking Detroit, bring out the "It's our city" attitude that so many people have toward Detroit. Young upscale white knowledge workers and not-from-Michigan artists are seen as invaders. The shrinkage plan is seen as a way to turn over large tracts of the city to white investors. And there's an element of truth in these.

Yet, unless someone from the outside sees in Detroit an opportunity for themselves, either personally or as an investor, how will the city ever come back? Ewing decries the paternalism that left the city dependent on the fortunes and good will of three major employers. But what to replace it with? Without that indigenous paternalism, it seems impossible that Detroit will ever see the investment needed to start a turnaround without a new group of stakeholders who have their own ideas about the city and what it should be. People are not just going to mail Detroit checks.

This will be a very bitter pill to swallow for many people who have stuck it out in Detroit through the decline, only to see opportunists swoop in. The high-profile and racially charged debates over the Cobo Hall renovations, a state receivership, and a state takeover of Belle Isle all illustrate this. Successfully navigating this will be an enormous challenge, but is clearly of huge importance to the future of the city. Detroit needs new blood and new investors. But where is the benefit to the city if the people who live there are excluded? Cities are, after all, about people, not buildings. The people of Detroit are not wholly innocent in the matter of their city's decline. Yet as with a Greek tragedy, the punishment is excessively disproportionate to the transgression.

Speaking of which, Ewing attempted to encourage the crowd with what to me was a startling statement. She said, "Young people in their 20s are talking about the heydays of Detroit as if they lived them. I can't think of any city with a stronger sense of nostalgia." She intended this as a positive, but it is clearly one of the reasons the city has gone down the tubes. Nostalgia to any degree of excess is a profoundly corrosive force. It locates the apex of a civilization in an imagined past that never really was, and often inspires bitterness at the supposed forces that destroyed it. The decline of manufacturing would have been an enormous challenge to the Midwest in any event. But when it is populated with people who cling stubbornly to any lost threads of a disappearing past rather than turning forward to make a new future—and the "next hit car" and "it's our city" ideas are both part of this— that makes success nearly impossible, as Detropia makes all too clear for the Motor City.

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