What If Detroit Never Gets Better? Two New Documentaries Make You Wonder

September 17, 2012, 10:48 AM by  Bill McGraw

Two new, award-winning documentaries about Detroit that have received a lot of national attention will be putting local viewers face-to-face with the city’s often obscured reality.

The movies focus on Detroit’s good people and bad things, and they inadvertently raise questions about the supposed renaissance that is underway across the city.

The documentaries are “Detropia,” a snapshot of the city as its residents struggle against the harsh economics of globalization, and “BURN,” an intimate examination of Detroit firefighters. “Detropia” opened Friday in Detroit, Ann Arbor and Royal Oak. “BURN” premieres at the Fillmore in Detroit Sep. 28.

(Disclosure: I served as an informal consultant to the producers of “BURN.”)

There is an assumption in some quarters that the city is slowly clawing its way out of its 60-year decline, or, at the least, is “bottoming out,” and sits, Chrysalis-like, poised for rebirth. The films don’t ostensibly seek to challenge that idea, but their in-depth look at dysfunctional aspects of Detroit could easily lead viewers to question their beliefs about the city’s health.

A kind of optimistic language about Detroit has become especially prevalent in the media, despite the common belief that journalists, especially from out-of-town, are overly negative in portraying the city.

Fox News recently rated Detroit as one of the nation’s top “revival cities” worth visiting.

CNBC looked at the city this summer and concluded it is undergoing “a renewal that continues to gather momentum and confidence.”

“Battered city’s renewal appears closer than ever,” proclaimed a headline in last week’s South End, the Wayne State University student newspaper.

“The city is coming back,” Gilda Snowden, a Detroit artist, told the PBS Newshour in July. “It can’t help but come back. When you’re down at rock bottom, where else are you going to go?”

The evidence of rebirth largely centers around the very real surge of activity in Midtown and downtown over the past few years. The ingredients include young people riding bikes up and down Cass, a growing number of tech jobs, designer coffee, craft beer, Detroit-themed souvenirs, the vibrant art scene, new housing and Quicken Loans’ founder Dan Gilbert’s purchase and renovation of big buildings.

This revival is symbolized by the coming of a Whole Foods store next year at Mack and Woodward.

Yet that palpable energy and upbeat message exist side-by-side with numerous signals that Detroit as a whole continues its protracted slide.

The city’s near-bankruptcy has resulted in unprecedented cuts to all city services, most frighteningly to already broken-down police, fire and EMS. On top of those reductions, highly-stressed public safety employees are seething over cutbacks in their pay and benefits, even as they are forced to work even harder. Fox 2 reported tonight 32 people have been killed in the past 15 days. All summer, Detroit’s homicide total has trailed that of New York City by only a couple of dozen murders. And New York has 7.6 million more residents than Detroit.

This side of Detroit is symbolized by unchecked fires lighting up the abandoned Packard Plant amid a dark landscape of malfunctioning streetlights.

Layered on top of this chaos are political leaders who stumble from crisis to crisis, underscoring daily how they lack the vision or capability to carry out long-term plans to re-orientate Detroit toward a smaller and productive future.

This group is symbolized by Mayor Dave Bing, who seems to be more overwhelmed with his job the longer he is in it.

Detroit’s decline began in the 1950s with the flight of jobs and capital, but the deterioration gathered speed after 2000, as the 2010 U.S. Census proved by showing the city had lost nearly a quarter of its population over the previous decade. Has the velocity of abandonment slowed, stayed the same, or even accelerated?

Precise figures are hard to come by this early in the next census period, but explore the city beyond downtown and Midtown and you’ll see increasing blight and emptiness in many areas, despite the efforts of thousands of dedicated people and organizations working to stabilize residential neighborhoods.

Both films, in fact, focus on the interesting, witty and engaged individuals amid Detroit’s torpor. But even their life stories tend to draw attention to the city’s fragile state.

The owner of the blues club featured in “Detropia” runs a lively joint, but it’s one of the few functioning businesses on once-bustling Chene Street. The president of a UAW local says his membership has declined from 4,200 members to 800. In “BURN,” the firefighters come across as dedicated and brave, but you can’t ignore their thankless job that consists largely of battling deliberately set fires in abandoned structures.

Veteran Detroit journalist Barbara Stanton once wrote that the killings, arson and destruction of the 1967 riot never have stopped; they have just slowed down, constituting a daily riot in slow motion. And Detroit’s beautifully enhanced riverfront, Renaissance Center, casinos and other downtown improvements don’t seem to have had any effect in quelling that ongoing civil insurrection.

Looking back over the decades, optimism loomed large at every stage of the city’s downward spiral. 

In 1951, the city staged an elaborate, weeks-long celebration that marked the 250th anniversary of Detroit’s founding. Crowds were huge, and boosters got rhapsodic in predicting the next 50 years would be as astounding as the previous 50 years of auto-fueled growth. Historian Milo Quaife captured the triumphant spirit when he pronounced Detroit "the center of the most advanced industrial development on Earth."

And, at first, it seemed like the experts were right: In the 1950s, the city built the Ford and Lodge freeways, expanded Wayne State’s campus, began the Medical Center and Civic Center -- including Cobo Hall -- cleared huge areas of so-called slums and opened the Mies van der Rohe-designed Lafayette Park. Yet at the same time manufacturers were stripping Detroit of jobs; by the end of the 50’s, the city was gripped by an unemployment crisis, the white population had dropped by 350,000 and the decline had begun in earnest.

In the 1960s, national observers celebrated the young and progressive mayor, Jerry Cavanagh, for turning Detroit into a “Model City” in which integration and the war on poverty were official policies. But by the end of the ‘60s Detroit was reeling from the riot and continued population and job loss.

One lesson from the past 60 years: Even as very good things happen in parts of Detroit, the city overall continues to decline.

Emphasizing hope is human nature, but the belief that Detroit is “turning around” based on what is happening downtown tends to marginalize most of the city, not to mention Detroiters themselves who pay the state’s highest taxes yet are forced to wait endlessly for buses, police cars, EMS, streetlights, abandoned-home demolition and other services.

Both “Detropia” and “BURN” contain numerous hopeful moments, but they also serve as reminders that Detroit needs radical policies and bold leaders, plus a lot of breaks from the global economy. 

Before a “Detropia” screening Thursday night at Wayne State, I heard one member of the audience ask an acquaintance, who already had seen the film, “Is there any hope in the movie?”

The acquaintance responded: “It depends on how you define hope.”

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