Detroit. The city everyone loves to hate. Or at least to talk of disparagingly.
When I first heard about the movie Detropia I thought, “here we go. Another person set on exploiting the troubles Detroit has had; telling a one-sided story that grabs people’s attention.” The movie’s synopsis describes Detropia as a documentary that tells the story of a “grand city teetering on the brink of dissolution.” You can see where my skepticism/pessimism came from.
I went to see the movie with the intention of writing a scathing review afterward (bonus of having a blog). But it was not to be. The movie actually does an incredible job of contextualizing and humanizing the challenges that Detroit faces. Because the city truly does have huge obstacles to overcome: incredibly rapid population growth and then decline, loss of its major employers, and mismanagement. But these aren’t happening in a vacuum or without anyone’s notice, and the filmmakers captured this dynamic.
For example, the filmmakers attend a couple of United Autoworkers Union meetings. You can see and hear the frustration of the union members trying to negotiate with their employer who has told the union leader “we don’t care if they get a living wage.” The filmmakers also follow a local bar owner, who is eternally optimistic that the boom times will return and people will once again order a plate of 50 wings after work. The film casts a somewhat critical eye on the hipster artists that have moved downtown, where they can afford an apartment, a studio, and create “edgy” (if not completely tone deaf) urban art.
They also take on some of the policy challenges, and I think this was the biggest take-home message from the film. As captured in Detropia, Detroit Mayor David Bing is fully aware of the challenges facing his city: the population is tiny compared to the land area owned and operated by the city, and the people that do still live in Detroit are waiting for the next reason to move out. A solution is hatched: residential areas should be more concentrated — no more neighborhoods with only one occupied house, and the city can’t afford to provide bus routes and other services to sparsely populated areas. But it becomes clear at a town hall-style meeting that this isn’t going to go over well with residents. People feel they’re being delivered a solution they had no part in creating and aren’t convinced that the land will be used for better purposes (“they’re going to turn Detroit into a farm?! I don’t think so.”).
The movie and its “stars” repeatedly claim that Detroit’s experiences offer lessons for other cities. I think they’re right, and I think the lessons lie in the creation of solutions. From what I can tell Detroit’s mayor’s desire to concentrate the population and re-purpose the land makes a lot of sense. The problem is that the city is lacking two things: leadership and participation or buy-in. While Mayor Bing is an intelligent and well-intentioned mayor, he lacks the leadership and charisma that would be necessary to move a city onto a new course from the top. He comes across as a manager more than a mayor. At the same time, decisions are being made at high-level meetings among city staff and planners, without the inclusion of residents. Detroiters are well aware that redistributing the population probably makes sense for the city — but they lack trust in the people and the process. To me, these are the biggest factors holding Detroit back, and the areas where other cities should take notice.