Detropia: Is Utopia a Place in Your Mind or is it an Abandoned Brick Building Somewhere in Detroit?

by Mark Hahn


I knew when I went to see Detropia, the new documentary film on Detroit, that it was going to be an emotional experience. I grew up in Detroit. Detroit is my home. I buried my dad there.

Detropia does a beautiful job of showing the current desolate landscape of Detroit with its abandoned buildings and decimated neighborhoods, but as a native Detroiter, the images strike a deeply personal and emotional chord within me that others will not feel. I know all those shadows shown striking the sides of boarded up buildings. I know the lush green pungent smell of ghetto trees growing up through rooftops. I know the acrid smell of burning houses on Devils Night. I know all the names on all those street signs and I recognize all the ruined landmarks.

When the filmmakers enter Detroit’s abandoned Central Station, I feel the cold empty space inside. I remember sitting in there a hundred times while waiting for a train. I remember talking to the station master. He gave me free hot dogs once because I missed my train and had to wait three hours for the next one to come. The snack bar had been closed for years and no other food was available.

Every time I went through the station, more and more of it was shut down, broken or missing. The last time I went, there was nothing but a single ticket window and a bench. All the original ornate fixtures and statues had been sold. Broken windows were not fixed. The station now stands like a monument to some past forgotten war.

In many respects, we expect constancy in life. We expect things to only get better. We take it as an unspoken promise. In Detroit, the vacant homes, the deserted neighborhoods and the grand buildings all stand testament to the fact that there never was this promise. It doesn’t matter what the politicians, CEO’s and union bosses told us. Life is rooted in reality and not promises.

The view from my father’s grave has a little hillside of abandoned houses and vacant lots in it. I often wonder what will happen when there is no money left to maintain the cemetery. Will I be able to visit his grave when they padlock the gate and the grounds become overgrown with brambles? What happens to places like this when there is no one to care for them?

Detroit’s mayor Dave Bing, is heard telling citizens in a town hall meeting that, “the city is broke.” A woman with a minimum wage job asks how she can get to work if the city shuts down the bus line she relies on to get to work. You have to wonder how Detroit can continue to support its shrinking population with basic city services as tax revenues dry up. There is no magic pot of gold to dig into and Detroit is certainly not at the end of any rainbow. Wanting to make things better doesn’t make them so.

My family moved to Detroit in the 1970’s. At this time, Detroit was the 5th largest city in the country. It is now the 18th. Detroit has lost more than half its population and more than half of what is left is unemployed.

The government bailed out Chrysler for the first time in 1979. Detropia shows the vast grasslands where the original Chrysler Jefferson plant and showroom once stood. This had once been a grand showplace of American manufacturing — straddling Jefferson Blvd. It was closed in 1990.

The glimpses of Detroit sewn together in Detropia give us a reasonably well balanced view of the city. Detroit is a pawn to the foibles of capitalism. It has a long history of going boom to bust and back again, but it’s hard not to see the current bust as the final straw that will break of the city for good. Manufacturing has gone overseas and it is not coming back.

The problems facing Detroit are so complex, huge and dire that they seem insurmountable — and they probably are. The film brings you all these issues through the words of actual people who live there. Overall, Detropia is an intimate and touching movie treating Detroit with respect.

While Detropia completely avoids discussing the underlying racial tensions in the city, it also minimizes its discussion of the city’s violence. Detroit has been vying for The Murder Capital of the Nation title ever since the recession of the late 1970’s hit Detroit hard. Gangs took over much of the city when the economy crashed and violent crime skyrocketed.

Detroit is a typical American city. Hopes were born and died here. Life goes on. There are good and bad people everywhere.

* * *

Once, I took the train from Detroit to Kalamazoo to visit to my first girlfriend. I got off at the little station in downtown Kalamazoo and walked along the tracks toward my girlfriend’s house. The sky was filled with brooding dark clouds and the sunlight was quicklyfading.

When I reached the railroad crossing where her street was, the crossing gate stood in splinters and the street was dead darl. I looked into the the void of where the corner house had stood. All I could see was the dark cavity of the exposed basement. Bits of walls and roof were strewn across the yard and road. It didn’t seem like there was nearly enough material to account for the house that had once stood on the corner. Most of what had been the house seemed to just be gone.

I looked down the street and saw nothing but destruction. In a panic, I jumped over a smoking and sputtering downed power line that was glowing red against the dark asphalt. A shower of sparks exploded beneath my feet when I was jumping over the line.

The next two houses on the block were extensively damaged. I ran down the middle of the road. The sidewalk was full of debris. The house where my girlfriend was living looked undamaged. I pushed through the door and ran up the stairs to her room calling out her name. I had no way of knowing where she had been when the storm hit or whether she was safe.

When i burst into her room, she was curled up in a chair studying for her cartography exam. She was going to college in Kalamzoo. She didn’t know what had happened outside. She had heard the wind in the trees, but didn’t think anything of it.

* * *

There is always a storm somewhere in the world. A brick building makes a good place to find shelter. I miss Detroit.