Detropia in Lowell

Robert Forrant in front of movie screen

UMass Lowell history professor Robert Forrant introduces Detropia.

Saturday, UMass Lowell history Professor Robert Forrant and the Lowell Film Collaborative hosted a screening of Detropia, a 2012 documentary about Detroit. It was directed by the filmmakers responsible for Boys of Baraka and Jesus Camp.

Detropia is less of an examination of the history and forces that lead Detroit to its recent bankruptcy, and more of a snapshot of the moment of time the film was made. In it, the Mayor tries to advance an agenda of “repurposing” mostly-but-not-entirely abandoned neighborhoods into urban gardens; a labor organizer deals with lower salaries in the wake of auto bailout negotiations; an owner of a club near a factory muses on worldwide economic forces; two young artists take advantage of inexpensive housing; and a video blogger tries to capture it all.

As she surveys an impressive view from the upper story of an abandoned, gutted high-rise apartment, the blogger says,

Can you imagine, like, having breakfast right here? …Look at your view in the morning. Like, “yeah, I’m going to go out and conquer the world, because I can damn near see it from right here. Motown right up the street. Can’t leave, man. Can’t fucking leave.” …I feel like maybe I was here a little while back. Or I’m older than I really am, but I have this young body and spirit and mind, but I have the memory of this place when it was banging.

Late in the movie, the club owner talks with his wife while watching news about GM moving operations to China. She says, “They’re more advanced than we are. And they’re more economical than we are.”

He adds, “And their standard of living is lower than ours… so, shall we lower our standard of living?” When his wife responds that Americans must lower their standards in order to compete, the club owner ends the conversation with, “I don’t think the American people are going to like that.”

Through vignettes like these, the movie establishes a mood of wistfulness for when “middle class” meant owning a boat or a summer place, and a mood of vague despondency regarding the future. On the other hand, the discussion facilitated after the film by Dr. Forrant was quite concrete. He suggested a serious problem overlooked when folks ask, “Why don’t they move?”: residents aren’t only attached sentimentally, but also because their greatest asset is their house, something they can’t move or sell for its original value. However, their hope for a return of well-paid, semi-skilled manufacturing jobs may be futile.

The audience also discussed similarities and differences between Detroit and cities around Massachusetts. Lawrence was reliant upon wool manufacturing, Springfield upon precision machinery, and Lowell on cotton manufacturing. The entire region struggled when these industries left, then again when computer manufacturing left. However, a key difference is that the Massachusetts cities, near the coast, became magnets for immigrants, stabilizing population loss. Additionally, cities with large research institutions could more easily adapt and innovate. Perhaps this is a reminder to anyone who bristles at UMass Lowell’s extensive and growing tax-exempt real estate holdings.

This flexibility contrasts with Detroit’s doubling-down on automotive plants at perhaps the cost of other opportunities. However, I believe it does raise a question: How much can a city flexibly respond to the times before it loses its identity? Detroit was built around cars; can it attract urban pioneers who prefer walking? And even if a city can respond, does this response help those who were left behind? For example, prosperity may follow young artists such as those in the film as they create and attract businesses to cater to them, which attracts more residents and bigger businesses. However, if this occurs, how much prosperity will radiate to residents who once worked in factories and now search for scrap? I wonder if this is a question Lowell grapples with, as businesses develop and downtown refills, but the median income remains lower than MA’s average. As the filmmakers said in an interview, “We hope that the rest of America can see that they may have more in common with Detroit than they thought.”

On a final note, I realize those who watched the movie but are unfamiliar with Detroit might not realize that there are still millions of people in Detroit’s suburbs. In fact, while houses can’t sell for $500 in Detroit proper, suburban Detroit is hot (link to recent WSJ article). The reasons for suburban success are likely a mix of factors including race, land use economics, and consumer preference–notably, Corey Sciuto recently wrote a bit about suburbs and cities. However, I shouldn’t fault the film for the omission–there’s only so much you can say in an hour and twenty. If you missed the screening, you can check your local video store or find Detropia streaming on Netflix.

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