“The accrued financial benefits of each pension plan and retirement system of the state and its political subdivisions shall be a contractual obligation thereof which shall not be diminished or impaired thereby.”
– Michigan Constitution (Article IX, Section 24)
Manhattan, San Francisco, and Boston all fit nicely within the city limits of Detroit. Those three cities have a combined population just a scosh over three million and take up a combined total of 116.96 square miles. Detroit, which handily wins the land mass prize at a staggering 139.1 square miles, enjoys a population of just under 707,000. The logistics of providing basic services (services which were planned for a population of well over 2 million) for a city that basically has no tax base have become untenable over the years, and here is where the documentarians come in. Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady are two more in an ever increasing line of well-meaning, inventive filmmakers who do their damnedest to weave compelling portraits of this troubled/troubling city. Ultimately and sadly, they disappoint.
Several decent filmmakers over the years, eager to explore the fascinating, tragic history of Detroit, have gone searching within the city for various ideas concerning the city’s best way forward. They’ve been met with mixed results, some focusing on the wisdom and experience of those who’ve lived through the region’s tumultuous history, or consulting with expert urban planners and fresh faced social scientists from urban centers that actually work and who figure there’s no reason why Detroit can’t make it. In Detropia, Ewing and Grady focus primarily on the lives to two middle-aged, upper-middle and middle-class Detroiters. One, a retired school teacher cum blues bar owner, expounds on the lack of insight and forecasting of Detroit’s auto industry, while the other, the president of a local chapter of the UAW, drives a Cadillac around the old neighborhood, recounts how vibrant and busy it used to be, and then has to inform the auto parts workers he represents that the company they’re working for basically can’t afford to do business in Detroit anymore.
At this point, some context for various reasons the auto industry collapsed might have been helpful, other than the pat implication that businesses that move out of Detroit are selling out the population, fueled by their own greed and callous wants. The problem is, this reasoning has more of a cartoonish quality than a perceptive one. In practice, any theory of social activity that’s premised on one side of a negotiation being purely sadistic and evil won’t really engage a viewer. Auto parts companies leave areas that have become toxic to their ability to remain in business; herein lies an interesting area of debate that there is no shortage of disparate, intelligent voices within the city limits of Detroit that one could easily consult. However, Grady and Ewing seem unable to decide whether they’re making an artful video portrait of Detroit, or whether they’re actually trying to provide an argument for why Detroit’s fucked and how to unfuck it. The city has stratified in ways no one adequately saw coming, a maze of somewhat vibrant neighborhoods surrounded by miles of nothing. Recently, the city has been unable to even keep street lights on, which is one of the most sensational and easy analogies for the city’s health in general, one which isn’t lost on the filmmakers.
The story that Detropia fails to tell, and the one which is most obvious to anyone familiar with the City of Detroit, concerns the crippling legacy costs facing the automakers there to be sure, but, more importantly, which have left the city with an unimaginably huge and seemingly insurmountable debt that isn’t going to go away simply by encouraging more young couples with gold-spray-painted facemasks and plenty of free time to move into the numerous inexpensive lofts. Ewing and Grady’s mistake is in pointing out the dire situation that faces Detroit, and then taking the easy way out and blaming the ownership of the automobile industry. Like most easy answers, it’s kind of insulting to those who are actually living with the unpleasant quotidian realities of this colossal rust belt fallout.