Friday, June 22, 2012

"Detropia", at AFI Silverdocs, looks at the collapse of the Motor City


Today, the 10:30 AM showing of “Detropia” at the AFI Silverdocs film festival was a sellout, and was followed by a 45-minute panel discussion of the collapse of what used to be America’s fourth largest city. Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady direct this self-distributed film.

In 1930, Detroit was America’s fastest growing city. Now, having lost half its population, at 730000, it is the most rapidly shrinking.  Houses and some highrises are being torn down, and the city is considering asking some residents to relocate to reduce the cost of services as it faces bankruptcy.

The turning point may have come with the 1967 riots.  The low point might be Obama’s 2009 bailouts of GM and Chrysler. 

The city has a surreal look, with old skyscrapers even looking worn, with most views of the city looking across wastelands.

There are periods of relief, as with artists who move in, wooed by the low costs for lofts and studio space.
Toward the end, someone says “Capitalism exploits the weak”.  There is also a comment that the middle class is the buffer between the rich (the 1%) and revolution.  And the middle class is going.

There are several explanations.  One is that unions got too demanding.  Business was too cushy and complacent and made a shoddy product until the 80s.  Then, in the past decade, the financial rules changed (or were found to have loopholes), encouraging banks to sell people mortgages they knew they probably couldn’t afford.

A more subtle point is that the parts of the world taking jobs have lower standards of living.  The low wages accompany dormitory living by young people emigrating from poor areas and sometimes expected to send money home to relatives.  The collapse of some of the rust belt could be seen as a symptom of people living off the unseen sacrifices of others.

The fall of Detroit follows the “canary in the coal mine” idea.  Many other communities (like Camden NJ) have seen the same things happen.

The end credits were cut off for the discussion.  But it’s important to note the background music: from Nabucco  (the brass opening) and Rigoletto (Verdi), Madame Butterfly (Puccini), and The Mikado (Gilbert and Sullivan).

My only visit to Detroit occurred in 1984.  I stayed in a bizarre windowless motel downtown for $30, and went to a Tigers game in the old Briggs Stadium.

Compare this film to "The Pruitt-Igoe Myth" about St. Louis, March 16, 2012 here.

AFI has extra showings this weekend (June 24) because of previous sell-outs. Check here

The ITVS film (90 min) has aired on some PBS stations.  The official site is here

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