Films: Abandoned Detroit / Chasing Ice


“Detropia,” a documentary film, written and directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady.

“Detropia,” created by noted documentarians (“Jesus Camp”) Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, is a powerful film about the demise of Detroit, one of America’s largest cities, home of Motown and General Motors, whose economy had been based on the automotive industry. You can’t help but think about it for a long time afterwards. It’s depressing to realize that the same situation is slowly happening to other large American cities. Many in California alone have declared bankruptcy, or are on the verge of declaring it.

Detroit—with its abandoned buildings, weed-grown lots, and streets devoid of people and traffic—reminded me of Pripyat, in the Ukraine, the closest town to the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

In the 1930s, according to “Detropia”, Detroit was the fastest growing city in the country; but by 2010, it was the fastest “shrinking” city. With a population of almost 2 million in 1950, it is now down by half. Ewing and Grady included TV ads from that era, in which fashion models swan around shiny “dream cars” in chandeliered showrooms.

An archival propaganda clip depicts an unreal, thriving Detroit illustrating “The American Dream,” where Dad pulls up in his GM car, blond, tousled-haired kids skip home from school, and Mom in her apron waits at the front door. Huge Cadillacs sail along wide, tree-lined boulevards, past thriving shops and car-dealerships, at a time when a large part of the population was Black and Hispanic.  Compared to what the city is like today, it’s hard to imagine how such a sickening, rapid ruin of a major American city could happen. Unfortunately, the film fails to explain it.

Research shows, however, that elements that triggered Detroit’s decline included the fact that Japan manufactured smaller, precision-made, fuel-efficient automobiles available to U.S. consumers for thousands of dollars less than American cars. In order to keep up with foreign competition and boost their profits, Detroit manufacturers scrambled to further automate the assembly lines, costing thousands of jobs. And finally, the automakers laid off thousands more and shifted production to low-wage countries like Mexico and China.

In his Cadillac, a local official of the decimated United Auto Workers drives the filmmakers to the former site of the Cadillac plant, which once spanned miles. As the camera pans over weed-choked lots and abandoned buildings, he speaks of the impact its closure had on employees and their families who’d worked for GM for decades.

The owner of the Raven Lounge let his employees go due to lost revenue, but he won’t close. He invites Ewing and Grady inside and we see his club now as a meeting place for regulars to commiserate as they eat, drink, and listen to live music. He feels that the economy is coming back but adds that the government won’t tell people that the country is in the same place it was during the 1930s Great Depression because “they’ll get scared.”

Attending a new car show featuring electric and solar-powered cars, the lounge owner notes that American-made cars cost a few thousand dollars more than those made in China. “How can they do that? People will buy these cheaper cars.” But no one tells him that Chinese autoworkers earn only a few dollars a day and suffer terrible working conditions (hopefully, that might change, as noted in the recent strikes and protests at China’s FoxConn, makers of tech giant Apple products).

Ewing and Grady filmed a night scene of enterprising men ripping apart an abandoned building for salvage, which will end up in China.

When the film was made two years ago, Detroit suffered, it is said, 40,000 square miles of vacant land—almost a third of the city. At a city council meeting with government urban planners it was suggested that the vacant land become farms. Though some scoffed, many residents did start vegetable gardens.

Driving the filmmakers along the Detroit River, the UAW official explains how the people’s spirit will save their city. It is quiet without traffic; you hear birds singing, leaves rustling in the trees.  There are shots of derelict, weed-grown buildings that exude a certain dignity standing in the middle of empty lots.

The film doesn’t posit any solutions, yet spirits remain high, as illustrated by the Detroit Opera’s staging of a hilarious, updated version of “The Mikado,” rewritten to reflect the hardships wreaked on the city’s people by government, financial institutions, and bureaucracy.

“The middle class serves as a buffer between the rich and poor,” the Raven Lounge owner philosophizes. “Once the middle class is gone? What’s left? Revolution!”

Photo: A scene from the documentary film, “Detropia.”



“Chasing Ice,” a documentary by photographer James Balog, directed by Jeff Olowski. 

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, which “snapped Americans to the reality that rising temperatures are a risk to their own well-being” (LA Times), the documentary “Chasing Ice”—filmed in 2009—is probably the most important film, if not the most impressive media event to date concerning climate change.

National Geographic photographer James Balog’s disturbing film deals with the dramatic and rapidly melting and calving (breaking) glaciers in Iceland, Greenland, Alaska, and in Glacier National Park in Montana (which Balog says will have to be renamed “Glacierless National Park” by the end of the decade). He speculates on the cause of the rapid meltdown and how it will affect coastal areas. Most dramatic is the superimposition of Manhattan onto one of the calving glaciers to gauge its size and impact (one thinks of Sandy’s effect on Manhattan at that time).

The film includes video clips from both climate-change believers and deniers (mostly Fox news pundits like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh).  However, the evidence is undeniable.   Balog was a skeptic until he decided to photograph and check out for himself the regression of the glaciers.

During several arduous treks, he and a small team set up special time-lapse cameras on several continents to photograph changing glaciers over several years’ time, compressing years into seconds. The results are beautiful, awesome, shocking, and frightening.

As I write, corporate and government spokespeople, meeting at the UN climate conference in Doha, Qatar, are putting generations’, not to mention planet earth’s, future at risk by not ruling for immediate action to halt this world menace.

The UN weather agency warned at the talks that an area of Arctic sea ice bigger than the United States melted this year, and that ice cover had reached “a new record low” in the area around the North Pole.

Nathan Hultman, Brookings Institution climate policy expert, told the conference, regarding Hurricane Sandy, “[That] demonstrated to a large part of the country that we are certainly vulnerable to the kind of events we might see under climate change.” Change “might” to “will.”



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[Editor’s note: We reprint this article by the Committee for the Abolition of Illegitimate Debt (CADTM). In 1989, the Bastille Appeal was launched, inviting popular movements throughout the world to unite in demanding the immediate and unconditional cancellation of the debt of the so-called developing countries. This crushing debt, along with neo-liberal macro-economic reforms imposed on the global South, has led to an explosion of worldwide inequality, mass poverty, flagrant injustice and the destruction of the environment.