The rise and fall of Detroit is a fascinating subject. This sample essay discusses how one of America’s greatest and most prosperous cities fell from grace for a variety of reasons, and the city now faces some of the most serious economic and social issues in the history of the country.
Detropia and the decline of Detroit
The 2012 documentary Detropia documents the socioeconomic crisis facing Detroit after the 2008 economic recession. It follows three principal figures—a blogger, a nightclub owner, and the president of the union of autoworkers—as well as a pair of artists, the Coys, later in the documentary. Each person shares their experience for what they see as the challenges and opportunities facing Detroit, most of which center around the city’s shrinking population and future, as well as the causes. Particularly, the documentary highlights three main causes for the decline of Detroit—a lack of viable and sustainable employment, a lack of the middle class and a sense of community, and a lack of education and preparation for being competitive in the 21st century.
George McGregor and Detropia
One of the people the documentary follows is George McGregor, president for a local chapter of the Union of Auto Workers. His focus and themes in the documentary are about the loss of jobs and the strength that manufacturing brings. At one point in the film, as he is driving past the closed Cadillac factory, he remarks,
“A nation that manufactures things has power. A service-based nation has no power” (Detropia 2012).
While McGregor is talking about the U.S. economy as a whole, it is evident that Detroit has lost its power because all of the manufacturing jobs have disappeared or the management for the companies that operate in Detroit ask for big concessions from the workers. According to McGregor, the loss of jobs is eroding the middle class and weakening the economy and future of Detroit. McGregor’s assumptions are supported by many experts, including researchers at the Center for Automotive Research. Their 2008 research study concluded that if operations for the Big Three auto makers fell by 50%, the result would be a loss of between $275 and $400 billion over 3 years (Center for Automotive Research 6).
Another main figure in the film is Tommy Stephens who owns a night club that has declined with the economy. For Stephens, there is no longer a middle class or sense of community in Detroit, which he blames for its decline. At one point in the film he leads the documentary crew around the neighborhood, showing both a house that was abandoned and then burned as well as a property he bought for $6,000 so it would not be vandalized. Once bustling neighborhoods are nearly abandoned, and the city’s plan of moving residents toward more populous areas is met by derision and skepticism, showing a lack of true community. At the neighborhood meetings, residents claim they love Detroit but also cry that the city needs to fix the situation. The exodus of residents has also further eroded the sense of community. Seelye noted in her 2012 New York Times article,
“The loss in Detroit seemed to further demoralize some residents who said they already had little hope for the city’s future” (1).
Crystal Starr, Detroit blogger
Crystal Starr is a blogger who is featured in the documentary and records one of the community meetings. The youngest of the main characters, Starr talks about the history she feels but doesn’t quite understand. While Starr does not explicitly discuss education in the film, she is symbolic of the new generation who is facing limited opportunities because of a lack of educational resources and experience. As a blogger, Starr is documenting the things around her, but unlike Stephens and McGregor she is not as heavily engaged in the economy of the city, more a watcher than a doer.
Detropia is a documentary about a changing economy and the symbolic city of the old way. The documentary does not shy away from the problem—a shrinking and declining city on the verge of insolvency—and the reasons for it, including the shift away from a manufacturing economy that provides middle class jobs, a loss of community, and a lack of resources, particularly education, to prepare new workers. However, the documentary does show some optimism through the Coys, a pair of artists who believe the city still has potential to be important, meaningful, and thriving in a new economy.
Center for Automotive Research. (2008). CAR Research Memorandum: The Impact on the U.S. Economy of a Major Contraction of the Detroit Three Automakers. Detroit: Cole, D., McAlinden, S., Dziczek, K., and D. Maranger.
Ewing, H. (Director) and Grady, R. (Director). (2012). Detropia [Motion picture]. USA: Loki Films.
Seelye, K. (2011, March 22). Detroit census confirms a desertion like no other. The New York Times, p. 1A.