Detroit, once the nation’s fastest-growing city, is now the largest city to file bankruptcy in the history of the U.S. As reported in The New York Times, Detroit may receive 300 million in federal aid, which is not the same as a bailout and not nearly enough to pull the city out from under the heavy anvil of bankruptcy.
If you’ve seen the 2012 documentary Detropia, then you have a pretty good idea what the city of Detroit is up against. If you haven’t, the film provides a powerful and heartbreaking look at what can happen when the proverbial American dream dies.
A voice-over at one point in the film succinctly states: “We’ve moved to a have and have-not society. He who controls the gold runs the show.” While that may have always been the case, perhaps it has never before been so deeply felt.
Filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady are the co-directors who also brought us the award-winning films Jesus Camp and The Boys of Baraka, among others. Whereas I find that so many documentaries leave me wanting in some way, Detropia felt like an even mix of good journalism and art. The documentary expertly juxtaposes the long and near past and captures Detroit right at the brink, still a good while before filing Chapter 9 — perhaps even before city officials knew it would come to that. It also covers a lot of ground. We meet several Detroit-for-lifers that include a union president, small business owner and local video blogger and they take us to empty factories, through abandoned buildings, past homes that are burned and gutted and waiting to be demolished. We see men pulling scrap metal. We compare the Chevy Volt and its Chinese competition. We sit in on a union meeting, a city planning meeting, and then later on a front porch, listening to the local responses. Then there is the young hipster artist who buys a loft for cheap, a space that would make most of us SFers drool.
The questions raised by Detropia are mostly philosophical: Is the rise and fall of Detroit synonymous with the rise and fall of the middle class? Can the arts revitalize a city? Will it take something revolutionary to save Detroit, perhaps moving or redistributing its population and attempting large-scale urban farming? The proposed allotment of the federal non-bailout money adds to these questions: What is the role of the federal government in saving individual American cities? Is there a fiscal — or an emotional — reason to step in? And then, why should you care?
Here in the Bay Area, we’re in the midst of another tech boom, the result of which is well known or well documented: insane rent, Google buses, and rampant gentrification (even from far flung locales or by those who say our gentrification problem isn’t gentrification). But rather than foster a thriving middle class, as the automobile industry did for Detroit, San Francisco and the surrounding cities are now home to a massive population of upper- or upper-middle class residents, and current conflicts over rising costs and shifting demographics make it easy to forget that many of us are living in a bubble. It’s easy to forget that less than 10 years ago, our eastern neighbor, Vallejo, filed bankruptcy, as has, subsequently, Stockton. Or that Oakland came dangerously close in 2009. I remember hearing about Vallejo and I often wondered but failed to research: What happened next?
Vallejo is still there, of course, on the way to the wine country or Sacramento, still housing approximately 115,000 residents. When a city files bankruptcy, it operates as best as it can. Things slide downhill, into blight. Crime rates soar. Citizens have to band together and rise to the occasion. And, via slim resources, a city begins to rebuild. In Detroit today, for example, the garbage is still picked up, just not on a regular schedule.
So Detropia can’t answer the pivotal questions: Can Detroit reboot? Can they innovate? Should we all move there? Or is this a last-ditch effort to save what’s already gone? But still the city, as it’s pictured in the film — in all its humanity, misfortune, flaws and failings, resilience and beauty — might function as a cautionary tale. It reminds me that any city that makes such steep gains can have an equally long way to fall. And also that, in one way or another, we’re all in each other’s hands.