Thursday, August 30, 2012


Detropia: A Film Review

I recently saw Detropia, a new independent film making the rounds of America’s many film festivals. Detropia is a film of contrasts. As viewers we see the advanced decay of Detroit in panoramic views, but also up close as the camera wonders through ruined buildings and abandoned neighborhoods where the grass grows like waving wheat and few homes remain. Some views show summer scenes in colors galore that contrast with winter scenes of falling snow on somber gray streets, and a forlorn walker bundled against the cold. Shots of bulky and abandoned commercial and public buildings moldering in the sun add to the sense of loss. I thought I saw shots of the ruined Michigan Central railroad depot where I used to go with my parents and brother to pick up our grandmother on her visits long, long ago.

The misery of Detroit in pictures contrast with a selection of Detroiters we meet in between, and sometimes along with, the visual images. We meet a former teacher who now runs Raven Lounge, the head of U.A.W. local 22, a starving artist and a few more. They all express a gritty determination to stay and make Detroit revive. These are not a Pollyannaish bunch, they have an edge of cynicism and regret, but they are hometown Detroiters and they will stay and keep an eye on the main chance.

Along the way we meet the mayor, former basketball star Dave Bing, whose words and demeanor conveys good will. His city is broke with the loss of the automobile industry and over half its population, but it apparently has nearly 40 square miles of empty land, which he recognizes as a resource. He announces a plan for urban gardening on the empty land. Later when the camera flashes to a residential front porch we find three weary and dubious gents having an eye-rolling laugh at the mayor’s expense. They wonder if people will want to steal their tomatoes in the new agricultural economy of Detroit.

The mayor’s suggestion has the kernel of a bigger idea, which I would urge him to push further: a more self-sufficient regional economy. When Detroit prospered it produced and exported cars to other states and other countries. The earnings from car sales allowed Detroiters to specialize and then import what they needed from production elsewhere around the country and the world.

In a global economy, specializing in capital intensive industries carries risks and makes any region dependent on the whims of others, both in the corporate office and the erratic marketplace. The guys on the porch would be better off wondering how to produce tomatoes and then sell them locally to Detroiters, creating some jobs in the process, but more important re-circulating the money in the local economy to support other jobs.

Everyone eats, which makes food and food processing a good place to begin developing a less dependent and self-supporting local economy. The enormous companies that are necessary in the automobile industry are not necessary in food processing, nor in other industries and services. The country threw away its textile and apparel industries on the propaganda of free traders. Combined textile and apparel had 1.6 million jobs in 1990; 388 thousand are left in 2011, but it was not inevitable as economists like to say.

Creative retailers are finding small scale clothing production can be cost competitive when it is combined with retail operations. Retailers that produce on site in their own space capture the entire marketing margin and make better use of their employees for the seasonal fluctuations common to the cut and sew industry. Local production eliminates shipping charges from the Far East. Freight charges from China to Long Beach are only part of the expense to import clothing. There are Long Beach handling charges, warehouse in and out fees, forklift fees, customs entry fees, and customs duties, but the clothing shipment still sits in Long Beach. Add the shipping fee from Long Beach to wherever. When it is all added up local production does not look so far fetched.

The mayor needs Detroit banks committed to local lending and development and a readily identifiable Detroit label. Then he needs to convince Detroiters to pool their savings in local banks and to buy the Detroit label. It is a tough thing to do, but that is what I liked about Detropia. The contrast of misery and commitment give the impression these things might be possible in Detroit.

Detropia was a little confusing at first, but gradually clears up because the people who spoke in the film did a good job. They did not fumble and stumble but made their points clearly enough to suggest they had thought about and planned what they were going to say rather than impromptu interviews. The film makers flashed a few facts on the screen but avoided excessive narration. Detropia is an ambitious film worth seeing, but more important, worth thinking about.

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