How bad can the post-industrial era get for rust belt cities?
Look no further than Detroit, a city that resembles Buffalo’s most blighted areas on steroids.
As presented in Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s impressionistic “Detropia” – a fitting play on the word “dystopia” – the Motor City is a shell of its former glory, sold out by America’s captains of industry for cheap labor overseas. Despair has overtaken automobiles as its greatest export.
The film uses statistics to give a sense of the history and gravity of Detroit’s plight. There are cheery film clips depicting the city in 1930, when it exemplified the rise of America’s middle class as the country’s fastest growing city. It would later become its fastest-shrinking city. Black-and-white footage of the 1967 riots shows the city burning during the “Summer of Love.”
But “Detropolis” isn’t outwardly political. The filmmakers, who received an Oscar nomination five years ago for “Jesus Camp,” allow a blues lounge owner, union president, blogger/artist and others tell their stories of what life is like in Detroit. Most wistfully look back on the past, while steeling themselves for a future that looks no less bleak.
“We built everything in America. Where did it all go?” asks Tommy Stevens, the lounge owner and former school teacher.
“This used to be like the cream of the crop. Anybody came here from down south for jobs,” says an unidentified man, surveying the sights from his porch. “Look at this street. Man, it just look like somebody just dropped a bomb on here.”
The filmmakers reconsider the city through artfully rendered images that soften the unsparing blight, or juxtapose it with gleaming structures and advertising images. Some of the scenes – in vacant and boarded-up buildings, of stray dogs, walls ripped up for salvaged metal – meld with Dial 8.1’s atmospheric score to give the film an almost disembodied feel at times.
Instead of Motown, Eminem or Iggy Pop, we get performances at the Detroit Opera House, contrasting an art form popular with the upper classes with a city they have largely left behind.
The relentless stake through Michigan’s manufacturing heart comes into focus when a United Autoworkers local must decide whether to accept pay cuts of $3 or more an hour at American Axle. They refuse; the work moves to Mexico.
What has happened to Detroit will be familiar to Buffalonians, as well as folks in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Gary and other rust belt cities, but it’s the scale that’s most pronounced. A demolition contractor speculates the number of homes awaiting demolition could reach 90,000, sure to create more scarred blocks in a city where many are already down to one or two homes.
City officials, who say Detroit can no longer afford its street lights and bus lines, discuss consolidating residents into more densely populated areas, and returning 40 of its 139 square miles to a natural state or used as urban farming.
The 2010 Census found the city’s population reached a 100-year low, but it also revealed a 59 percent increase in young people who moved downtown to capitalize on inexpensive housing. Many are artists and bohemians drawn by Detroit’s faded industrial grandeur.
Their involvement is a welcome sight – if not quite a panacea – for a city that people still leave in droves.
“We can experiment here, because if we fail, we haven’t really fallen anywhere,” one artist, sounding like a tourist, says, far removed from those Detroiters with nowhere else to go.

Rating: 3 stars
Director: Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady
Running time: 90 minutes
Rating: Not rated, but PG equivalent for mature subject matter.
The Lowdown: A documentary considers the collapse of Detroit through artfully rendered images and the eyes of several residents.