Detropia: A Review

Let me tell you a story about Detroit. Once upon a time, cars were made in Detroit. Because of the cars, people had good jobs. They could afford a good lifestyle, with college for the kids and maybe a cottage up north. People flocked to Detroit from all corners of the US of A (and world) for these opportunities. And then the jobs left. They went to China or Mexico. The jobs that remained gave lower wages with fewer benefits so that no one had any money anymore. Buildings crumbled. A lot of people moved out of the city. Housing prices plummeted. Businesses suffered.

A picture of the Detropia movie posterThen people took notice of this post-industrial landscape. They came to take pictures of the buildings. They made expensive art books out of these photos. A few people started planting urban gardens. Artists moved to town. Some dude opened a barbecue restaurant called Slow’s, which I mention because every article about Detroit has to mention Phil Cooley and Slow’s despite the fact that many others have brought new and successful businesses to Detroit.

That is the story everyone tells. Over and over again. As someone who has lived in Detroit, I’ve heard that story a million times and I’ve probably told it at least twice. Which is why I was excited for Detropia. These are, after all, the same film makers who gave us Jesus Camp, which is one of the better documentaries of the past decade.

But Detropia tells us nothing new. The narrative is the same narrative told over and over again, with a larger emphasis on art as the savior for the city than on urban farming. Indeed, urban farming as the way forward for Detroit and post-industrial American cities is given some serious side eye. Not that I don’t think urban farming shouldn’t be give some side eye (it is not the savior of Detroit), but the filmmakers present an equally high-minded solution for Detroit: art.

Art, of course, is important. Cities need art. But it is not the solution, and the way it is presented in the movie, art is presented as high-brow opera and “edgy” performance pieces featuring people in gold gas-masks. At the end of the movie, two artists LITERALLY put a bird on a building, which of course made me think of the sketch in Portlandia where two creative-types put a bird on everything as if that will add aesthetic thrill (and marketability) to objects. See this city’s economy and crumbling infrastructure? Put a bird on it!

Although Detropia does little to change the narrative of Detroit, it did attempt to highlight voices rarely heard when discussing the city. Generally, stories about Detroit are told with white voices, which is a worrying trend in a city that is predominantly African American. The filmmakers highlight the owner of a Detroit bar, a leader in the UAW, and a woman who explores buildings in Detroit: all of these people are black. Indeed, the few white voices come from the artists that will save the city (draw your own conclusions from that juxtaposition).

Also refreshing about Detropia was removing emphasis from the city’s experts. Indeed, experts are shown as not really having a helpful point of view: one cut to a city council meeting about right-sizing the city shows chaos because it is a concept that has been explored practically, with little interest given to how such a move is contextualized in terms of history and race. Statistics and facts pop up on the screen rarely. Most of the movie is given to people telling stories. Indeed, the disdain for the expert is most on display when the filmmakers record three Detroiters on their porch discussing urban farming. They conclude that it won’t work because that’s not what Detroit is.

The presence of voices from the city of Detroit is an aspect of this movie that other writers need to emulate. That said, the filmmakers never resolve the tension between the standard narrative we are given and the narrative that people within the city want to give. Indeed, they simply force the usual narrative over the voices they’ve chosen to feature so that the movie feels like a square peg trying to go into a round hole.

That said, I could have watched an entire movie of opera being sung in Michigan Central Station.

Don’t forget to put a bird on it.

This post originally appeared on my blog. Read it! 

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[E] Sally Lawton

My food groups are cheese, bacon, and hot tea. I like studying cities and playing with my cat, Buffy.

9 thoughts on “Detropia: A Review”

  1. I think some of the most actually potentially helpful things for Detroit are the ones that are developed by the people there. I’m sad that they didn’t feature more urban farming- while it’s not some single glorious solution, it can be part on one. Maybe even a big part of one stream. But instead there’s a fixation on the white college kids who come in, do art/an internship, and then around 28-32 head back to suburbia with the “valuable lessons” they learned. Most of the narratives I’ve heard from actual detroit peeps kind of quietly side eye the white artists who swoop in. (some more vocally too.) Can art be part of the solution? Sure. But it’s not some one fix thing, and it can’t be done in a way that exploits the working/unemployed classes and PoC and be a sustainable renewal of the place. Gentrification = NOT COOL GUYS. And that is a lot of the stuff I’ve seen, unfortunately.

    1. Ah, yes. Gentrification is another aspect of the art scene. Really the best projects seem to me to be the ones most focused on rebuilding community space for the community. Hidelberg Project is awesome for that. They work at cleaning up the area AND getting the local community involved in the project. Win, Win.

    2. I think there’s a lot of romance and nostalgia in this narrative, which is why people are pulled to it. Urban farming is sexy, it’s of a time-past, it says we can fix our industrial fucked-upedness. Art is romantic, too. We can all be classy farmers! And it’s hard to depart from the romance and open some of the wounds that are giving us nightmares. I think urban farming and art are part of the solution, but that ain’t worth shit without jobs.

  2. I haven’t seen this particular documentary, but a lot of “how to save Detroit” talk tends to be overly white savior for my tastes, so I hadn’t really sought it out. The fact is you cannot come in from the suburbs with your great idea and fix 50 some odd years of racial tension and urban flight. Urban farming is a great idea, but it won’t work the way people are planning seeing it now with some big corp coming in, building a big farm, and hiring all the poor unfortunate natives. Small neighborhood grass roots co-ops are doing alright though. And the art scene is happening. It’s been happening for about as long as artists have clued in to how cheep it is to get real estate for a studio in Detroit. That will not fix the city either. Good things are happening, but there is no quick fix here.

    1. No quick fix, and I’d add no *single* fix. Anything that is going to renew is going to need to be multifaceted  in addition to coming from detroiters themselves.

      I hadn’t heard the corporations swooping in thing. I’ve seen a lot of awesome from the co-ops though. I know a couple of people who work with some, and some people who are doing similar community based projects like alternative models for medical care and wellness. The narrative from outsiders about the city is incredibly fucked up, and I feel mega blessed to have been introduced to the city by people who both live/grew up there and who are committed to it.

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