Understanding Detroit: Detropia (documentary review)

I watched the documentary Detropia on Netflix Streaming recently and I highly recommend it.  With the recent news of Detroit declaring bankruptcy, something shocking for a major city, the stories and images from the film rose again in my mind.

If you want to understand how a great city has fallen and how good people have been struggling to turn things around, this is the film for you. Film has storytelling powers beyond what headlines and news reports can match. If you’re interest in cities, economies, globalization, design and the future of America, don’t miss this.

I visited Detroit in 2010 and it was an urban experience unlike any I’ve ever had. The city had a population of 1.8 million in 1950, but now is barely half that. Walking the downtown streets past abandoned buildings that happen to be some of the best art-deco architecture in America was both disturbing and mesmerizing. If you have any interest in design or urban planning, you can’t help wonder: how would you turn the city around? How would you redesign infrastructure of a huge city to work now at a smaller scale? What policies and failures set Detroit on this course and what can other  cities in America learn?

The film deftly frames the story of the city around the lives of a handful of citizens, a business owner, an artist, an activist, and a union official, and lets them lead the telling of the story, anchored lightly by facts, history and some stunning cinematography. Even if you don’t agree with the assumptions offered, I guarantee the film will raise plenty of excellent questions to make it worth your while.

Watch the movie trailer below. The film airs on PBS and is downloadable from various online stores:

3 Responses to “Understanding Detroit: Detropia (documentary review)”

  1. Sean Crawford

    Knowing human nature, I would guess that despite the surplus of housing to move into, people are still living too close to the airport.

    I would love to see a science fiction writer tackle your questions.

    David Gerrold is writing a masterpiece where the US and the world has suffered a population recede, (the war against the Chtorr) but the first person hero is seldom in the city where he might ponder such questions. Gerrold has many other thought experiments to try.

    Maybe some other writer will give it a go. (Gerrold’s hero is usually in the countryside fighting the Chtorr eco-infestation)

    1. Nate

      Maybe they could make a movie starring Peter Weller and call it Robocop.

      Seriously, though, it’s a little scary how much reality has in common with those movies.

      1. Scott

        Detroit has been in decline for a long time – I’d guess it wasn’t that tough a choice. NYC was the poster child for decay in mid/late 1970s, and a fair number of dark movies were made there, when it was also the best choice. There was no better city for a film like Taxi Driver than late 70s NYC.


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