An essay about Detroit's current economic and social struggles

at Detroit, a city in crisis after the devastating loss of its manufacturing base. Detropia is more essay than documentary: Just a few dates and figures scroll onscreen that track Detroit's tumble from densely populated urban center with a stable middle class to a struggling bankrupt city now defined as much by its vacant land and abandoned properties as by its remaining 700,000 residents. (Detroit is not empty so much as over-sized.)

 But mostly, the filmmakers let Detroit speak, whether it's their cameras panning its broken infrastructure, or residents explaining how life went from good to bad. It's a series of snapshots and disjointed voices, though a few Detroiters are given more time to tell their specific stories, and express their hopes and fears. (Among them are a UAW leader and a young female video blogger.)

Contemporary scenes of run-down neighborhoods are cut with archival footage from more prosperous days and moments of weird beauty, such as a dog loping through snow-covered deserted streets, or a half-destroyed building gently swaying. (Detropia can't help veering into ruin porn; no one with a camera can resist clambering inside the shuttered Michigan Central Station, and the film even stages a brief opera recital there.)

The information presented isn't comprehensive enough to function as an illuminating post-mortem, and the depiction of Detroit's current state of crisis likewise seems scattershot. Signs of renewal are relegated to colorfully garbed artists, two of whom admit Detroit's abject state is part of its appeal. (Oh, what irony if you revitalize it!) 

Thus, Detropia leaves an impression that the city is comprised solely of hipsters in masks and poor African Americans waiting for another factory to open. The film is most effective when laying out what often gets lost in gloomy statistics and urban-planning fantasias — that is, that Detroit is still a living city, and as much a model for the problems of 21st century as it was for the successes of the 20th.


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