Lessons from Detroit: Documentary Explores City's Struggle Out of Economic Ruin

The DNC hailed the auto bailout as a success, but 'Detropia' tells a more complicated story.

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In the context of Detropia, the one line from the Democratic Convention that rings truest was Bill Clinton's: "The old economy is not coming back. We've got to build a new one and educate people to do those jobs."

Discussing her film weeks before the convention, Ewing hit a note similar to Clinton's: "What we are realizing is that a lot of those jobs are never coming back, even with the recovery, so what happens to these low skilled laborers? There's no jobs for them anymore. And that's where education comes in and that's why when you look at a place like Detroit, you have an incredibly subpar education system."

[Photos: Bill Clinton Rouses Crowd at Democratic National Convention]

As winter thaws to spring, a Detroit different than the one of manufacturing and Motown lore emerges, as depicted by two artists who have moved there to join its' burgeoning artist community. While it's total population has fallen to the lowest in a century, Detroit's downtown has seen a 59 percent increase in young people.

"I would never be able to own a home as an artist, yet here I am, with a studio and an apartment, in a major city, functioning for $700 a month," one such young person explains.

But just because a new crowd has come to town doesn't mean the old one has let go entirely—perhaps best symbolized by a slab of glass clinging to a ruin of a train station. "I'm not falling. I refuse to fall of this f-cking train. Ever," as a Detroiter describes.

McGregor and his union cohorts celebrate a newspaper headline: "GM Back in the Game at Full Throttle." A cheerful McGregor drives through a greener Detroit bubbling, "I just like this place, I just love it. I just love it. I love it."

Stephens's assessment towards the end of the film is far more tempered, remarking that his brother in Florida is now complaining about the dire economic situation that he had seen first in Detroit. "What happened in Detroit is spreading out. It's coming to you."

[See a collection of political cartoons on the 2012 campaign.]

As the filmmakers see it, the rise of America in the 20th century went hand in hand with the rise of Detroit, from the expansion of the middle class to the development of Motown music, and thus the country at large should pay heed to Detroit's struggles.

"It's been an important of the American story. I would say that it's at the very heart of the American identity as far as our definition of the middle class, which is a definition that has been exported to the rest of the world. I believe a good part of it was invented, formed, sculpted in Detroit," said Grady. "If Detroit can find its way out of these troubles, then maybe we are all going to be OK."

But whether it has found its way is an open question not answered by Detropia, and unlikely to be answered by November, either.

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  • Tierney Sneed is associate editor of U.S. News Opinion. E-mail her at tsneed@usnews.com and follow her on Twitter.