Detroit: Been Down So Long, It Looks Up to Me

     |    Wednesday, der 15. October 2014

In 2013, Detroit, Michigan became the largest U.S. city ever to file for bankruptcy. As of September 2014, it seemed that the worst might be over. Detroit’s city council voted unanimously to transfer power for all day-to-day decisions back to the city’s elected officials while continuing to work with the emergency manager appointed by the state of Michigan. Controversial decisions such as cutting off the water supply to tenants who haven’t paid their bills (or are unable to) led to a United Nations reprimand, and there is dispute about how to deal with the pension fund deficit – slash payments causing considerable deprivation or covering the pensions with monies that would otherwise pay off debts. These issues notwithstanding, the mood in the city is more hopeful than it has been in years, and this is also affecting creditors‘ attitudes.


Completed in 2011, Thierry Derouet’s doc DETROIT: THE BANKRUPTCY OF A SYMBOL charts the city’s long, steady decline, which culminated in the insolvency hearings, while paying tribute to the resilience of some inhabitants striving to turn Detroit’s fortunes around.

The single most striking image in the film, perhaps even more than the shots of dilapidated buildings overgrown with weeds, is a population graph. At the height of its urban development around 1950, Detroit had 1.8 million inhabitants and was the world capital of automobile production. By 2011, the curve had dipped to under 750,000 inhabitants (2014 figures cite 690,000) – below the eligibility level for federal aid to distressed municipalities. What happened?

Detroit was a success story of the industrial era. In 1903, the Ford Motor Company was founded  there. From then on, the city’s destiny became entwined with the growth of the automobile industry, arguably the defining business of the industrial age. Other car companies also opened in Detroit. With the headquarters and major production plants of the “Big Three” car manufacturers Ford, General Motors and Chrysler, Detroit became the automobile capital of the world, nicknamed the “Motor City” (or “Motown”, as former car assembly line worker Berry Gordy named his legendary record label). The car companies were also heavily involved in arms production, so during World War II  Detroit hundreds of thousands of African American workers from the South settled in with the previous generation of (largely Eastern) European immigrants. Already in the 1950’s and 1960’s, the post World War II economic boom achievements began to dissipate. First, U.S. made cars lost out to smaller, more fuel-efficient Japanese (and later South Korean made) models in the low price segment, while German manufacturers like Mercedes and BMW cornered the higher end of the market. Then, the 1973 energy crisis hit. The automobile industry was Detroit’s monoculture, so when it crumbled, it dragged the city’s economy down with it. Ironically, the automobile-driven suburbanization of Detroit led to flight of affluent, largely white, people from the city center, taking their tax dollars with them and further draining the city’s coffers. Vicious cycles and downward spirals abounded. The 2007/2008 sub prime loan meltdown merely exacerbated the urban blight.


Factory closings led to not just single buildings, but whole neighborhoods being razed to the ground, creating veritable holes that cut off parts of city from each other. Abandoned buildings were reclaimed by nature in the form of uncontrolled weed growth. Basic services such transportation, water and power supply became sporadic, crime rates increased as the city became harder and harder to police. The standard of living in some parts of Detroit was almost comparable to that of some developing countries.

When you’ve hit rock bottom, the only way is up. The film’s most inspiring moments are interviews with ordinary citizens with extraordinary commitment to their city. They tend community gardens in the huge vacant lots, set up playgrounds for children with special needs, offer employment opportunities with small businesses such as natural haircare salons and organic bakeries. They tirelessly network and advocate solidarity and change. Detroit’s music scenes have also contributed to both spiritual and economic renewal. Techno, the product of disused urban spaces and the shift from an industrial to technological information economy, attracts hundreds of thousands of music fans to festivals like the Detroit Electronic Music Festival (canceled in 2014 to due highway construction near the venue). And yet internationally renowned techno DJ Carl Craig, interviewed in the film, feels that since the festival’s inception in 2000, “the city should have grown quite a lot more.” He appeals to enterprising, adventurous souls from different cultures to get something going, citing the low real estate prices. Jérôme, a real estate developer from France, has seemingly heeded Craig’s call. He bought a building on Cadillac Boulevard in the eastern part of town for $ 21,000 and is now creating apartments and commercial spaces. Normally, the gentrification alarm bells would go off, but in Detroit’s case, any first step is better than nothing.

„This is the Motor City, and this what we do.“ Detroit native son Eminem’s commercial for Chrysler.
16 million+ views on YouTube, record ratings during its Super Bowl broadcast, impact on sales?

The film ends on a cautiously optimistic note, reiterating the interviewees‘ determination to make things work. The filmmakers note that over 100 municipalities in the U.S. are facing similar urban collapse and more will likely follow – Detroit could serve as an inspiration and model for coping and problem solving. How about a post-2014 update along the lines of “Detroit: Recovery of a Symbol”? Or „Symbol of a Recovery“?

Natalie Gravenor