My wife and I own a house in Detroit, a city of 139 square miles with 700,000 residents but only one first-run movie theater. I missed the two-week window during which the theater was showing Detropia, so I had to drive 50 miles, round-trip, to a far western suburb to see this documentary about the immense challenges confronting my city and the people who, either by choice or necessity, are facing them head on. “That was a real ‘feel good’ film,” one of the three other viewers in the theater said with sarcasm as the film concluded. “It could be,” I thought, “If you’ve fallen in love with the city.” “Detropia” illustrates that it is still possible to fall in love with Detroit, but, as with any true relationship, the process includes risk and pain.
The Raven Lounge and its owner, Tommy Stephens, are featured prominently in the film. The Raven is a classic Detroit blues bar and restaurant that thrived when the nearby General Motors Detroit/Hamtramck Assembly Plant—a three million square foot facility—was running shifts around the clock. The creation of this plant in the early 1980s was very controversial, as it displaced hundreds of residents from their neighborhood, known at the time as Poletown. Polish Americans had monopolized the neighborhood in years past, but by the late 1970s the area was racially diverse and stable. Construction of the G.M. plant devastated the neighborhood, still evidenced today by the burned-out houses, boarded-up businesses and overgrown vacant lots. Most of the jobs at the plant were lost in subsequent years as the auto industry declined, and the economic advantages promised to the city were never realized. In the film, Stephens holds out hope that his business can be resurrected by G.M.’s recent decision to build its electric car, the Volt, at the plant. He also buys up cheap homes in the neighborhood, hoping to contribute to its revitalization.
By chance, I stumbled upon the Raven Lounge with a friend a few weeks before seeing “Detropia.” We were dining at a venerable establishment located just blocks from the Raven—another one of the few places left over from the old Poletown days, trying to stay viable as the neighborhood around it literally crumbles and burns. Oddly, this restaurant did not have a single person of color inside, even though the neighborhood in which it is located is predominantly, if not exclusively, African-American. After dinner, when my friend and I investigated the Raven Lounge, just the opposite was true. Both establishments, fighting it out in a devastated neighborhood, have nothing to do with each other. Segregation like this is unfortunately all too common in Detroit.
One cannot understand Detroit or its problems without examining race. The directors of “Detropia,” Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing (“Jesus Camp”), clearly understand this; and they approach the topic without being heavy-handed, preferring to present the human stories and facts without editorializing. Racism has been a difficult and thorny issue in Detroit for a long time, going back before the 1967 riots, which many people mistakenly point to as exhibit A, for evidence of racial tensions in the city. But there was rioting between blacks and whites in 1943 in Detroit, and the high-profile Ossian Sweet trial in 1925 also illustrated the ugly reality of racial hatred. Contemporary racism is sometimes more subtle, but no less virulent or destructive.
“Detropia” points out that there is hope, however, as hundreds of suburban young adults are reversing the white-flight of their parents and grandparents and are moving into the city. These hipsters are hungry for urban life and for opportunities to be creative, to test their entrepreneurial skills and not have to worry about failing, given the low cost of living in the city. But this phenomenon carries with it some complex sociological quandaries. The majority of these young adults are white, and at times their urban pioneer attitudes irritate the people, primarily African-Americans, who have been here for decades.
Urban agriculture, for example, is nothing new in Detroit—it has been going on in some form for well over 100 years, and several African American neighborhoods have quietly led the way. Now it is in vogue, and the faces that appear in newspapers and on discussion panels are mostly white. Frustration about this is understandable, but at the same time the city has improved in many ways because of the hard work of these young adults. There are more houses being cared for, more small businesses starting up, more money being spent and more sustained excitement being created about the city than at any other point in my lifetime.
The film’s greatest gift to the residents of Detroit and, perhaps, to everyone in the United States, is that it shows how intertwined our lives are. Yes, the white guy working at American Axle and living in a neighboring suburb is connected to the black man who owns the blues bar in a depressed Detroit neighborhood, who in turn is connected to the young hipster artists who have fallen in love with Detroit because of the vast potential it offers. There are thriving, stable neighborhoods in Detroit, but there are abandoned, devastated ones as well. And the people in each are our neighbors, black and white. And no matter how bad we think we have it, we can’t forget them.
View the trailer  for "Detropia."