Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing’s latest documentary, Detropia, provides a gorgeously true-to-life window into a city often invoked as a political parable, but rarely considered in the flesh-and-blood. The lyrical film tells the story of Detroit from its auto industry-powered rise to become, by 1930, the country’s fastest-growing city (and a welcome destination for African Americans escaping the Jim Crow-era South) to its fall into economic decline and mass abandonment.
The doc is the filmmaking team’s first foray into urban affairs, and thankfully so: Their fresh eyes infuse familiar topics such as the demise of manufacturing, urban population decline and the country’s unforgiving, outsourced economy with a jolting, sharp energy. Grady and Ewing, who built their collective reputation with the Oscar-nominated documentary Jesus Camp, the award-winning The Boys of Baraka and a segment in a recent film adaption of Freakonomics, came to the topic through unassuming means. Ewing was born and raised four miles outside the city to a family that made its living producing parts for the auto industry. With a grandmother who never left the city and parents who retreated after the 1967 riots, Ewing, now based in New York, is herself a third-generation Detroit archetype.
To her credit, the intimacy with Motor City and its people is well-played. Detropia takes a place mythologized, sentimentalized and simplified into yet another blank slate ripe for a creative class makeover and deconstructs it. The film opens with footage of a home being bulldozed. When it ends, viewers are left with this image, along with a more optimistic notion of a strong local culture struggling to stay standing in the face of severe economic challenge and yes, bulldozers. Next American City talks to Ewing the week of the film’s opening in New York, Washington D.C. and Detroit. This evening, NAC will be at the IFC in New York with Ewing for a screening of the film, followed by another, live Q&A with the director.
Next American City: Your film features amazing people like Crystal Starr, a Detroiter who in the film’s opening sequence looks out the window of one of the city’s 90,000 abandoned homes and envisions eating breakfast in the kitchen of the once-grand mansion. “Look at your view in the morning, like yeah. I am going to go out and conquer the world because I can damn near see it from right here,” she says. There is Tommy Stephens, who owns the Raven Blues Lounge, and George McGregor, the United Auto Workers president responsible for defending the right of his union workers to earn a livable wage. One of the auto part plants he represents closes after his union votes against a $3.30 hourly pay cut proposed by the plant’s owner, a company eager to move operations to Mexico. How did you decide on these characters?
Heidi Ewing: We asked everyone for 10 names of people we should meet. By asking that questions we started meeting people, having a beer, having a coffee. We arrived at this handful of characters because all of them love this city, but are frustrated and concerned. They are interconneced in a strange way. And they are articulate and funny, survivors and victims of a one-industy town.
NAC: Until recently, I worked as a journalist in New Orleans. I spoke with many people there who expressed frustration with a national media that helicopters in to tell a story about their city and, meanwhile, gets things wrong. People were often frustrated by a system of media that benefits the media producers but doesn’t yield direct benefit for the communities they cover. Did you experience these frustrations? How did you navigate them?
Ewing: There was a Dateline NBC episode that showed a guy killing and skinning a racoon and selling it to his neighbors. It was low-hanging fruit for NBC — you can get that in any city — and the people in Detroit were really pissed at the depiction. They were irritated at some of the coverage coming out of Time and such. People are especially frustrated by this idea that the creative class is saving Detroit, an idea that is definitely premature and certainly not a final answer for the city.
Detroiters can be prickly. But we laid out our agenda, said we are here to report what you tell us and we stayed, living in downtown Detroit for more than a year. People got used to seeing us around. Most journalists are there for four days, a week maybe. We stayed. We took our time. We got to know people and people got to want to tell us out story. It took us a long time to get the mayor’s office on board. They were the most suspicious. Eventually we got the intimate meeting, but they are not an open administration.
NAC: In those scenes with Mayor Dave Bing and members of his administration, they talk about the idea of shrinking the city’s footprint, essentially concentrating the city’s population in a downtown core to conserve resources. It’s the same idea that was proposed in post-Katrina New Orleans and across the post-industrial Midwest. Can a city downsize like that?
Ewing: On paper it makes sense. The city can’t afford trash pickup and street lights, so stop picking up trash and turn off the lights. It seems like a decent option if you are an urban planner. But in reality, you can’t force people to leave the home they’ve had for 40 years. It’s not right to turn off lights and cease trash pickup in an an area while expecting those same people living without those things or being forced to leave their homes to keep pay taxes. And there are racial undertones; These are African-American neighborhoods being affected. It is the sections of downtown where newer residents, more affluent residents, often white people are coming, where resources are going. The people coming in think of Detroit as a blank slate. It isn’t a blank slate. There is alot of fear from lifelong Detroiters, and it is a legitimate fear.
NAC: Do you think Mayor Bing will move forward with a planned shrinkage?
Ewing: It’s not officially happening, but it is happening. Services and bus lines are being cut. The police force is being cut. Lights are quietly being turned off. The city blames the utility company but doesn’t stop it. No one voted on a downsizing, but it is happening, just without public consensus.
NAC: We recently published a Forefront article, “Welcome to Your New Government”, by a Detroit writer, Anna Clark, about the increasingly critical role that non-governmental organizations are playing in cities around the country. The article focused on Midtown Inc., an NGO that has taken over managing some public services and economic development responsibilities in Midtown Detroit. At one point in the article, Clark asks, “Is there a risk when common-good public services are — at least some of the time — defined by neighborhood borders rather than city ones? De facto or otherwise, will cities be less likely to make high-quality services and innovation available to all its neighborhoods, or will some be left (perhaps all too literally) in the dark?” Is this a valid concern?
Ewing: Yes, there are a large number of NGOs in Detroit. They each have their favorite neighborhoods and programs. Foundations are taking a much bigger role. Corporations are taking a bigger role. It’s sort of a free-fall. People are looking for solutions and in some cases, it’s more efficient than working with the city. There are a lot of questions of what this means for the city and they are questions being asked in other cities, too, because this is happening in different ways, on different scales, everywhere.
Ariella Cohen is Next City’s editor-in-chief.