BY ADRIAN MACDONALD
Depending on the review you read, Detropia is either a lyrical meditation on urban decline, or a misleading downer of a film that overlooks a lot of the positive reconstruction efforts going on in the city. The film seems to willfully ignore the innovators in DIY city-building, who are putting out blog entries every day and re-imagining the city as a hipster utopia. A casual Google search reveals far more creative energy in Detroit’s community of artists and technologists than suggested by this movie, which tends to paint the city’s recently transplanted creative class of 20-somethings as clueless aliens in the greater narrative arc of the city.
Whether Detroit is a social nightmare or a blank slate of limitless possibility seems to depend largely on point of view. Some of Detropia‘s best moments are in capturing the paradox between one group of traditional residents that sees unemployment as a disaster, and an experimental new population that sees it as freedom.
Despite its emphasis on decline, the film still subverts cliches and advances the ongoing conversation about Detroit’s future. The most refreshing part of the film is hearing African-American voices, constituting a funny and un-pompous cultural perspective that appropriately dominates this film (about a city whose black population has relatively recently become an 85% majority). Almost all documentaries about Detroit focus on its huge empty spaces, ignoring or downplaying some 700,000 residents who still live among the vacancies. Last year’s Detroit Wild City showed us the elevated view of downtown from the front of the laughably useless monorail, a symbolic but anti-social place to mount a camera — Detropia does the hard work of building trust with subjects and capturing genuine dialogue outside of the interview format.
The film’s key points are made through acts of community dialogue, whether in a public hearing with the mayor, a forum at the union hall, or an exchange at the counter of a coffee shop. Downtown professionals pontificating from their offices — the usual M.O. for documentaries about the 21st century city — are mercifully nowhere to be found. Detropia‘s narrators have street credibility, with perspectives that are unquestionably original and built from personal experience. The union leader, the video blogger, and the blues club owner — all well-spoken and engaging — light up the film with their personalities as much as their positions. They’re the kind of people you wish you could hang out with all the time.
The puzzle at the heart of Detroit is how to conceive of downsizing a metropolis that was built on the premise of limitless growth. The underlying beliefs about what constitutes an urban place have never been more exposed — people expect to see city-level infrastructure and governance, even as the city’s housing densities increasingly resemble the surrounding rural countryside. Urban planners get a brief, dismissive mention as the instigators of an apparently serious proposal to move all Detroit residents into a smaller street boundary and dedicate the rest of the land to farming — a concept that unsurprisingly receives passionate resistance. As video blogger Crystal Starr observes, a Detroiter looks out at the sparse landscape of 3 houses per block, interspersed with open green space, and sees not a pastoral countryside but the shell of a place that was once “bangin’.”
There is a Great American novel to be written about this city, with its confluence of dichotomies and paradoxes — city and country, inside and outside, black and white, goods and services, digital and physical. We are still waiting for a piece of journalism that adequately captures the city’s place in a conversation about open source technologies, localized economics, and an Occupy movement-style vision of self-organizing democracy, but the honesty displayed in this film is the most compelling to date.
Adrian MacDonald is a marketing specialist at LMN Architects, a journalist, and a former New York City taxi driver. His website in progress is PostOccupancy.com.