Visit 'Detropia'

Festival favorite doc premieres on PBS tonight

For years now, Detroit's name has been associated with urban decay, with the decline of American industry, and with desolation. It's almost too easy to forget it was once the fastest growing city in the world.

But as we sit here in our comfy, practically recession-proof city recently named the 11th largest in the nation, we'd do well to remember those who've gone before. After all, Detroit held the 10th spot as recently as 2000.

Enter Detropia.

The documentary, directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, premieres tonight on PBS, and it's a perfect introduction to that Midwestern city.

Detroit has always been a city of duality – black and white, rich and poor, industry and arts, glitzy suburbs and deserted buildings. Certainly, in recent years, the chasm between the upper and working classes has widened, but one thing remains constant: There's something beautiful about the city. Even from the busted-out windows at the top of a long-since looted building, the skyline impresses, the trees glow green. And when something beautiful is being destroyed, as in an early scene when a vacant home is crushed easily by a (very busy) demolition crew like nothing more than a pesky ant under your thumb, you can't help but feel a deep and visceral loss.

I've had the opportunity to visit Detroit and its surroundings twice last year, given the tour by locals who've lived all or most of their lives there, and Detropia viewers get similar treatment by the doc's three primary subjects, interviewees who've seen the city at its absolute worst: a video blogger who goes exploring in vacant buildings, an auto union president facing the closure of a plant, and a club owner whose shop is just a few blocks from the aforementioned auto plant. The latter two are old enough to have seen the city at its prime, too, so they've got plenty of perspective to offer there. But most of all, they all just love their city, for better or worse.

And there's been plenty of "worse."

The film was shot largely in 2010, at the depth of the recession. Of the city's 142 square miles, 40 sat vacant, with no immediate hope for repopulation. City leaders drafted a plan to try to consolidate residents into smaller areas so as to be able to cut maintenance costs for city services that were spreading the already tight budget far too thin. An influx of young artistic types, drawn to Detroit by affordable homes and wide open spaces for experimentation and art, has presumably helped, but consider this: In the last three months alone, former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was indicted on federal charges of racketeering conspiracy, extortion, and tax fraud; Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder declared the city to be in a state of financial emergency, necessitating the appointment of an emergency manager; and Mayor Dave Bing announced he would not seek reelection.

But at least there's Detropia.

Detropia premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2012, where it was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize, and it's easy to see why. Each shot is imbued with warmth, the archival footage is well-used, and the entire piece is scored by a delightful combination of hip-hop, Motown, opera, and some ambient tracks by DIAL.81. There's no commentary from the filmmakers aside from simple overlaid text every now and again; for the most part, they let the city speak for itself.

And you can't help but realize, as you stare down the impressive Michigan Central Station – now covered in graffiti and almost directly across from an unfairly good barbecue joint and craft cocktail bar in a gentrified strip of downtown – that it has a lot to say.

Watch Coming to Independent Lens: Sundance Award Winner Detropia on PBS. See more from Independent Lens.

Detropia premieres tonight (Monday, May 27), at 9pm as part of the Independent Lens series.

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PBS, Independent Lens, Detropia, Detroit, Michigan, Michigan Central Station, urban decay, recession, Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady

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