'Detropia' Film Explores Detroit's Fall and Possible Comeback

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There's been a lot of discussion lately about what Detroit needs. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder appointed Kevyn Orr emergency manager over Motown several months ago. If Orr can't get the books in order in the next six weeks, the city faces possible bankruptcy, reports Reuters. Why is the once-glorious birthplace of the automobile in so much trouble? On Monday, May 27, PBS Independent Lens airs an important film, "Detropia," that explores the crisis in Detroit. Here are some issues presented in the documentary.

Detropia Expose

"Detropia," a Loki Films project, is not just a film drive-by of Detroit ruins. It glances at Michigan Central Station and old auto factories. It catalogs demolition of some of the 100,000 derelict homes in the city. Under current Mayor Dave Bing, 10,000 were leveled, says CNN Money. The vast majority remain, blighting the landscape. But "Detropia" didn't win its multiple "Best Documentary" awards (including one at the auspicious Sundance Film Festival) by romanticizing the ruins or hand-wringing over rubble. It digs under the burned-out-building images to the stories underneath.

Detroit Money Crisis

Why does a city that was once the Arsenal of Democracy (Detroit Historical Society) now resemble a battlefield? How does a town that once had to import workers to fill jobs now struggle with 18.3 percent unemployment (says CNN Money)? It's more than double the national average and triple 2000 figures. What needs to happen to fix a deficit that's pushing $380 million and a city that owes nearly $15 billion? "Detropia" considers these questions.

Personal Problems

Detroit's population has dropped significantly since 2012, says CNN Money. According to a 2011 New York Times report, the drop comes on top of a 25-percent loss in the previous decade. Detroit has seen the biggest population shift of any city, including post-Katrina New Orleans. "Detropia" delves into problems of living in a collapsing urban area.


Crime is huge. Detroit has a lot of space to be responsible for; the city sprawls over nearly 140 square miles, says the United States Census Bureau. But budget cuts mean layoffs and fewer police to patrol, says CNN. A 2009 Federal Bureau of Investigations report found Detroit had the highest homicide rate in the U.S., says the Baltimore Sun. A 2011 report showed Detroit murders up 12 percent from 2010, though overall crime statistics had dropped, says the Detroit Free Press. Four Detroit areas topped NeighborhoodScout's "Top 25 Most Dangerous Neighborhoods" report: Wyoming at Orangelawn (No. 7), Gratiot at Rosemary (No. 3), Mack at Helen (No. 2), and West Chicago at Livernois (No. 1). "Detropia" looks at how people are coping amid these problems.


"Detropia" doesn't necessarily answer Detroit's problems, but it highlights "vibrant, gutsy characters" who refuse to give up on their city (says Loki Films). These "soulful pragmatists and stalwart philosophers" work to stay afloat and make Detroit work. Their loyalty is helping to redefine and evolve the Motor City from an industry-based economy to something new and different. I talked to one such visionary, Rev. David Alexander Bullock of Change Agent Consortium, a Detroit advocacy group. The city faces an upcoming mayoral election, says the Associated Press. Rev. Bullock discussed what kind of people Detroit needs in leadership. He said it should be those who "aren't afraid to stand for the people of Detroit." "Detropia" features folks doing just that.

An educator, Michigan native, and political junkie, Marilisa Sachteleben writes about issues in her state's most pivotal city of Detroit.

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