A Haunting Look At Detroit, Its Inhabitants, And Its Attempts At Revival

The new movie Detropia focuses on the Motor City’s decline, but also the people still there who are working on bringing it back.

Detroit is more than a crumbling city: It’s a symbol of all the things that have gone wrong in American manufacturing. But Detroit is also so broken down–25% of its population has disappeared and 50% of its manufacturing jobs have been lost in the past decade–that there are few places to go but up. Detropia, a new documentary from the directors of Jesus Camp, is a haunting look at the city and its resilient inhabitants. We spoke to the directors, Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing, about the story behind the film.


Co.Exist: Where did the idea for the film come from?

Ewing: I grew up right outside of the city, and my parents are from Detroit. Rachel [Grady] grew up in Washington, D.C. We decided in October 2009 to go film for a few days and see what we found. We had no real agenda or real goals, we wanted to just get a sense of where the city of Detroit was going and what was on Detroiters’ minds. We were mesmerized by what we found and what came through on the camera and what people had to say. It was as if Detroiters had been talking for 25 years about all the national issues that only now are we really interested in talking about. We basically moved to Detroit in September 2010.

When you went into filming this, was there anything you were expecting to find?

Grady: There were certain things that we expected to find and they were a little bit different than the narrative that has been put out there–we call it the New York Times version of Detroit. All these photography books have just come out [looking at] the buildings and architecture that’s in Detroit. Something we noticed is that there were never any people in them. There are hundreds of thousands of people that live in Detroit, so it was really important to us to find these people, give them a voice, and see what they thought was going on in their community.

What made you decide to show so many clips of performances at the Detroit opera? It’s a thread that continues throughout the film.

Ewing: It was important to us to remind people that Detroit still has state of the art institutions. It’s not just the abandoned buildings and the blight and all of that. There’s a symphony, there’s an opera house, there are people trying to hold on to the arts in the city. Detroit is such an epic kind of operatic place that it seemed to fit in to the fabric of our storyline. In a way the opera house can be a visual reminder of what some of these places can be with attention, ideas, creativity, and willpower.


How did you find the subjects? There are some really amazing people–everyone from people collecting scrap metal to a guy who owns a restaurant and music venue.

Ewing: A rhythm began. A barkeep told us about the Raven Lounge. [The owner] of the Raven Lounge told us about the plant up the street. We went to the plant up the street and found out who the local United Auto Workers head was for that plant. We meet him, his name is George, he’s in the movie. A lot of things started connecting themselves. What we found is that people from different walks of life who don’t know each other were all concerned about the same thing and are all really survivors and victims of this one-industry town. All of them have something in common, which is that they’re choosing to stay in Detroit, trying to figure out what happened and how it’s going to transform itself.

Would you say based on the people you spoke to that Detroit residents are still pinning their hopes for the future on the auto industry?

Ewing: You know, its hard to get off that. I would say there’s still hope for resurgence of the auto industry. I think most Detroiters realize it will never be what it was, partly because of global competition, partly because the Big Three dropped the ball, and partly because of automation. The combination of those three things is not lost on Detroiters, but you do hear from people a lot hoping that the plant will add a second or third shift. You can’t really ask a place overnight to lose its dependence on the corporations that basically built and sustained this place for 50 years.

Grady: It’s a place that’s both saddled with and energized by its memories. It’s this weird in-between place of living in the past and really struggling for the future.

Towards the end of the film you explore the movement of young people and artists into the city. It’s not something you chose to focus on too much throughout the film, though. Why?


Grady: We didn’t necessarily do that on purpose. It’s a very organic process, documentary filmmaking. And ultimately we felt like that story is getting a lot of coverage. We felt like the people we ended up casting are people who don’t necessarily typically get to have a voice. We did include this new influx of people and we do believe they’re going to be part of Detroit’s revival, but they’re certainly not the only thing that’s going to add to that revival.

Ewing: We just kept coming back to born and raised lifelong Detroiters. You want your film in 10 years to be relevant. The arrival of the young artists is an unfinished story. We don’t know how that’s going to end up. There are systemic problems in Detroit that have to be resolved in order for those people to stay. If they choose to have children, where do they go to school? There’s a lack of infrastructure in the city and there’s a high crime rate and all of these things, and it’s kind of like you want to wait and see how that community integrates itself into the fabric of Detroit.

In the end, did you get the sense that people felt hope for the future?

Ewing: I think Detroiters are hopeful. They’re this weird combination of salty, hopeful, weary, there’s a lot of gallows humor. But I’d say that a lot of Detroiters are nostalgic for the greatness that Detroit was, and not only that, but they have this hope that Detroit can transform itself into something relevant again. There’s more hope now than when we started filming two years ago. I think part of that is the national attention that Detroit has been getting ever since the “Imported from Detroit” commercials, and there seems to be a new national narrative about Detroit. Overall, the people who have stayed have stayed for a reason, and you’ve got this pool of people who are doubling down on Detroit. The people who couldn’t hack it and didn’t believe in the city pretty much already left.

Detropia opens on September 7th in New York City.


About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more