By Don Simpson | January 11, 2013
Directors: Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady
Detroit certainly has seen better days… After a mass exodus of the population in the late 2000s, the city became riddled with empty lots and abandoned buildings. Crime and violence spread rabidly. Television images of the cityscape began to resemble sets from The Walking Dead. It was as if the recent recession triggered a post apocalyptic nightmare.
It is difficult not to blame part of Detroit’s rapid economic decline on the “Big Three” automobile manufacturers — General Motors, Ford and Chrysler — that call the Motor City their home. As these auto manufacturers automated their assembly lines, humans were replaced by robots; then, cheap labor in other parts of the world (namely, Mexico and China) prompted these manufacturers to outsource even more jobs. To play devil’s advocate for a minute, United States auto companies are competing with foreign manufacturers that can produce their vehicles for lower costs and therefore sell their products for less money. So, arguably, U.S. auto companies would need to drastically cut their salaries in order to compete with foreign manufacturers on price. This is why General Motors, Ford and Chrysler — as well as most Republicans — like to pass the blame on to the local unions. The union workers will not accept a cut in salary, so their jobs are sent abroad.
The burden eventually falls on us as consumers. If we want to be able to buy cheap mass-produced products, the manufacturers must produce those items at as low of a cost as possible. Unless our labor force is willing to settle for a much lower standard of living, those products must be made in cheaper labor markets. If we want manufacturers to keep jobs in the U.S., then consumers must be willing to pay more for American-made products. This is precisely what happens when the retail market focuses too much on cost and not enough on other things (like supporting one’s local economy). Of course, another major problem is that we only pretend to exist in a world market. I am not saying that I am in favor of the World Trade Federation, but the U.S. cannot control foreign labor standards and salaries without strangling those foreign nations with trade embargoes — but is that fair?
No matter the cause of the economic decline in Detroit, the primary concern now is how to save the city from literally disappearing from the map. This is precisely where Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s Detropia comes in. The documentary gives us a slice of the history of economics of Detroit, but Ewing and Grady admirably opt to focus primarily on the people who are trying to turn the city around. They keep their message quite positive, unveiling people who have the necessary faith and dedication to their community in order to help rebuild it. While the mayor talks about redesigning and repurposing the urban landscape, other city dwellers attempt to do their part to fix things. With a real unemployment of close to 50%, some of the hangers-on must figure out new ways to make money; such as stripping scrap metal from abandoned buildings, which is eventually shipped off to China, just like their jobs. Basically, anything goes — whatever keeps their heads above water, while not harming the community.
The “good” thing is that housing has become remarkably affordable in Detroit and this has opened the door for young aspiring artists to relocate there. An artist can exist on very little income, renting (or even owning!) a very nice home with ample studio space. For them, Detroit has become an urban playground with plenty of vacant buildings to explore and utilize as part of their creative canvas.
At first I thought that the surreal image that haunts the poster for Detropia was sort of false advertising; but, like surrealism, Ewing and Grady follow a meandering path to get where they are going. There is something incredibly refreshing about the seemingly unfocused structure of this documentary. With no narrator or pronounced perspective to guide our way, the film unfolds like a stream of consciousness diatribe on urban economics. All the while, Ewing and Grady refrain from pummeling us with too many facts and figures; instead, Detropia allows its various interview subjects to interject their personal thoughts and opinions. Ewing and Grady seem to understand that economics is purely theoretical, and not a science. There are no clear answers, no simple solutions. Economic recovery might even be outside of the realm of government intervention. In the case of Detroit — as the title suggests — utopia might be discovered with the creative support of grassroots efforts by the people for the people. And coming back around to that poster image — it might just happen to be the burgeoning demographic of young creative types that form the background of this brave new world.