Another Take on the Motor City Mess

November 7, 2005
A U.K.-based film historian, Michael Chanan, and a University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, sociology professor, George Steinmetz, have released a new documentary. Called Detroit: Ruin of a City, the film briefly backgrounds the history of 19th-century Detroit, then finds its main thread in 1913, when Ford Motor Company actually began making its own films. Keeping a rather steady pace, the 2005 film tells the story of Detroit boom and eventual bust through 1967, when the riots signaled to the nation the grim fate for the city that continues today.

The film, which is promoted as “a road movie about Detroit and the automobile industry,” moves forward through an even-keeled mix of meticulously arranged archival reels and an “on-the-road” narrative. With excellent footage, the film covers the rapid expansion of the city in the early part of the century, especially focusing on the rise and fall of “Fordism,” and the racial tensions it later introduced. Throughout, there are comments from a few local residents, and also an “on the road” narrative of the present state of the city, much of it done through choppy in-car dialog between Steinmetz and visiting French sociologist Loïc Wacquant.

While the archival footage is well presented and impressive in its own right, the narrative is sometimes insightful but more often revealing of the narrow scope through which the film’s producers are seeing Detroit — and bordering on pretentious. Many of the off-the-cuff observations from Wacquant — like when he says that a neighborhood feels like the rural South, and when he giddily muses about finding the “one” traffic jam in Detroit — deliver quick chuckles but ultimately seem hollow and seem to miss the mark, at least contrasted with the deeper statements the film is trying to make. Then there are underlying motives of where certain clips are sequenced in the film, like footage of an ice-skating, care-free Henry Ford.
But the quest seems more genuine when the filmmakers look at the isolated pockets of fortress-like casinos and offices, struggling to find any evidence of “the rebirth.” Other present-day shots are skewed heavily toward painting a bleak though only anecdotal picture of a neglected city, focusing mostly on condemned houses, dilapidated storefronts, and abandoned lots. The feeling is enhanced by a spare, tense soundtrack by Michael Nyman, who’s provided many major-movie soundtracks including The Piano and Gattaca. Later, the film briefly mentions the tumultuous image of Detroit as painted by popular movies like Robocop and 8 Mile, visual artists, and the gritty image brought by the many prolific post-Motown Detroit musicians.

While the film might fail to give those who’ve never been to Detroit an accurate picture, it succeeds in explaining some of the reasons why the city saw such a rapid decline — and corrects a common misconception in Detroit pop history. While it’s often said that the 1967 Detroit riots were the start of a rapid downfall for the city of Detroit, the riots were in fact the final straw in a long buildup of tensions in the city that dated back to the city’s 1943 race riots, an incident that even today is often downplayed. Furthermore, the film points out that it was the post-war movement of decentralization in the auto industry, toward smaller assembly plants in outer suburbs and in other cities, was the real indicator that Detroit had passed its peak by the late ’40s.

Detroit was once the fourth largest city in the United States, and its population has plunged from about 1.7 million in 1960 to less than 900,000 today. Steinmetz pointed out after the screening that despite a real gentrification trend in parts of the city, the effect is very insignificant, as there’s still a net outflow of 50 people per day from the city. Move into the city of Detroit, and U-Haul should be paying you.

My advice: Grab a cup of coffee when you see this one. There were a lot of people nodding off at a local university hall where a screening was hosted. While the pace is admittedly a bit slow, and the shooting and editing amateurish, Detroit automotive history buffs should find this worthwhile. For the rest of us, this is just the latest in a long stream of accounts on the much-maligned Motor City that offer plenty of insight on how Detroit was “ruined,” but few answers to the question: What now? —Bengt Halvorson

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