Philadelphians know what happens when industry and people go: empty factories, unemployed workers, vacant lots, declining schools, poverty, crime and a hamstrung municipal budget. But no big American city has suffered more acutely than Detroit, which lost more than 1.1 million people since 1950. And counting. Urban decay proves attractive to artists and hipsters: cheap rent and romantic vistas. And Detroit, which has received more than its fair share of buoyant reportage championing cafés and creperies, is indeed experiencing gentrification in a handful of neighborhoods. But the creative class’ consumer benevolence, however delicious I might find it, fails to address the deep structural problems that have hollowed out cities like Detroit — or, for that matter, like Philly.
Detropia, a new documentary by Jesus Camp’s Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, focuses not so much on nomadic bohemians or impoverished squalor (though, yes, there’s a little of both), but on workers who struggle to make life work in a city that built the middle class. Detroiters often rankle at their lazy media portrayal and the fascination with “ruin porn,” the unmitigated glorification of the city’s abandoned buildings that almost celebrates its collapse. Detropia is about the roughly 700,000 who remain: street disquisitions on masturbating lunatic arsonists, American Axle demanding humiliating concessions from union auto workers and, ultimately, the city’s impossible demand that large urban swaths simply dissolve. The powerful forces that brought Detroit to its knees have extended their reach to the suburbs, stretching through Gary and Camden, and from North Philly to the Bronx. Americans, often resistant to learning or remembering, would do well to watch Detropia.