Motor City’s Gendered Shift: Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s Detropia

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Calina Ellwand holds a master’s degree from York University, where she focused on gender and activism.

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Image credit: Roco Films

A majestic tower, stark against the night sky and crumbling at its edges, sways on the verge of collapse. The camera cuts away before the inevitable, but a feeling of vertiginous nausea lingers. Scenes of decaying infrastructure, ghostly streets, and demoralized factory workers are among the doomsday landscapes with which filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady portray their city in Detropia (2012). Ewing and Grady’s documentary looks at a Detroit teetering on the edge of economic failure, a city reduced to the hollowed-out shells of condemned buildings. The city’s 2013 bankruptcy looms large.

The film is a cautionary tale against embracing free market capitalism without a backup plan.  Detroit’s experience is being repeated to varying degrees across North America. The city’s manufacturing industry—and the auto industry in particular—contributed to a booming economy in the first half of the twentieth century, establishing a comfortable middle-class lifestyle for what were predominantly white residents. This golden age is referenced nostalgically throughout the film. United Auto Workers local president George McGregor swells with pride as he describes how everything in Detroit was huge—the industrial plants, the roads, the buildings, the paycheques. An over-reliance on manufacturing left the city unprepared for capitalism’s cold and abrupt departure to greener offshore pastures. A city that was once the fastest growing in the country is now shrinking at an alarming rate. Ewing and Grady suggest that unless it can be drastically transformed, Detroit risks becoming an abandoned city in ruins. Crucially, such a transformation is markedly gendered, which poses new challenges for residents who have remained and must now face their home’s changing identity.

In Detropia, the city’s demise parallels a crisis of normative masculinity. The filmmakers depict this dynamic by using television ads from the city’s heyday to illustrate a bygone era of masculine “success.” In one such ad, a gold-masked charmer invites an elegant woman into his sparkling new car. “We’re about to take off on the highway of tomorrow,” he says, as he wraps her in a white shawl. Their car appears to float off the superhighway into a cloudy heaven. This ad’s imagined future is a far cry from the one that has materialized.

The city of Detroit has been characterized by the symbols of virility it once produced—cars, weaponry, and excess—which are now all but gone. Tommy Stephens, a retired schoolteacher and owner of the blues club Raven Lounge, reminisces about a time when five men would come in and order fifty wings to split. Now he shreds lettuce in the restaurant’s kitchen alone, having laid off the cook to cut costs. Driving by the Cadillac plant that first hired him, which is now full of dumpsters, McGregor says there’s been a demise of a whole way of life. This was a life defined by financial security from manufacturing jobs generally held by a male breadwinner. Contrast this to the contemporary images captured by the filmmakers of unemployed men at the scrapyard. These blue-collar men wander the yards listlessly, incisively aware that global economics is to blame for their predicament. One man comments on how the metal fragments they find will be sold to China, then reshaped and sold back to Americans at a higher price. The workers have been reduced to powerless pawns in the global economic game of late capitalism.

According to free market economics, manufacturing is supposed to be replaced by the service industry, another menace to the established masculine norm. In the service industry, “soft skills” like communications and caregiving prevail, and women are generally over-represented. The perception is that the service industry is weak and insignificant because it does not require the “hard skills” of a manufacturing job. “Service countries have no power,” McGregor claims, preferring his Leave It to Beaver ideal.

The emasculation threatening Detroit is further reinforced by the film’s portrayal of China. China, like other countries of “the East,” has historically been constructed in Western Orientalist thought as an exoticized, uncivilized “Other” desperate for salvation. This philosophy has been employed to justify a patriarchal domination of the East by Western countries. But a power shift is underway as China lords a competitive edge over Detroit. In a scene at a car show, American- and Chinese-made electric vehicles sit side-by-side. The American salesman boasts that the two are “like apples and oranges”; the American product is simply better. A Chinese saleswoman, young and eager, shows off a comparable car at a far better price. The scene is a marked by the American salesman’s resistance to the fact that the Chinese manufacturers present a very real threat to American exceptionalism. The attitude of the American salesman typifies a braggadocio that still taints certain Detroiters’ perception of their reality.

The shift towards traditionally feminine activities and industries does offer a cautious glimmer of hope. Ewing and Grady introduce us to two artists, Steve and Dorota Coy, who have moved to Detroit to produce experimental art that is critical of capitalism. They have seized what they feel is a unique opportunity, and express their awe at the space and financial freedom that Detroit offers. The pair is among a growing group of young creative types moving to Detroit who see the city as a place to be reinvented and re-imagined. Another artistic institution that appears to be thriving despite the odds is Detroit’s opera. A city plan to turn vacant lots into urban farms—only briefly mentioned by the filmmakers­—represents one more pocket of potential renewal.

Despite the popularity of these artistic alternatives among the media and “creative class” urbanists interviewed in the film, Detroit residents are skeptical. In a scene in which three men sit on a porch smoking and drinking beer, the suggestion is brought up that Detroit will be covered in gardens, and they chortle derisively, imagining their neighbours fighting over tomatoes. The notion that the artistic diaspora spells out Detroit’s rise from the ashes has been criticized elsewhere as a premature, oversimplified assessment.i The majority of Detroit’s residents do not have the resources, financial or otherwise, to participate in this creative comeback as they struggle to survive amid regular layoffs, pay cuts, and disappearing city services. Gentrification, if it were to occur, would have detrimental effects on lower-income people by driving up housing prices without corresponding wage increases, forcing people out of their communities. In contemporary Detroit, where the vast majority of residents are African-American, these impacts are inseparable from issues of race and income disparity. The story of a rugged “male” culture being overtaken by the arts and boutique farms demonstrates just how detached the urban intelligentsia is from the lived reality of most residents. A café scene in which a pair of Swiss tourists tell barista Crystal Starr that they have come to see Detroit’s decay caricaturizes this disconnect. Detroit has become a stop on their disaster capitalism tour. A place to study, theorize, photograph, and then abandon.

Trumpeting the potential of alternative industries must be tempered, then, by an examination of the dynamics of race and class that are at play. The filmmakers do not delve into these issues in much depth, but they are insinuated in a number of shots. A quick pan of the camera over the audience at the opera house reveals a mostly white, elderly crowd. As the audience settles into their seats, the announcer thanks the evening’s funders, the Big Three automakers: Ford, General Motors and Chrysler. These companies have abandoned their workers, but they still support the opera. As for the young artists moving to the city, they appear to be mostly white and privileged enough to relocate to Detroit, where they can pursue their work fulltime in beautiful studio apartments with chrome appliances.

Meanwhile, the African-American men who sit idly ridiculing the urban farming initiatives are facing the extinction of the communities they call home. The mayor, David Bing, speaks at a town hall meeting, explaining his latest austere plan to cut city services to less inhabited areas in the hopes that people will relocate to more densely populated neighbourhoods. One woman in the audience wants to know if this amounts to “segregation all over again.” She makes a powerful comment on a city that has been plagued by racial segregation in housing throughout the twentieth century. Detroit is situated beside the predominantly white Oakland County, one of the wealthiest counties in the U.S. The mayor’s plan will disproportionately affect the city’s poor, who cannot afford to move, and will have to live in communities that are becoming more dangerous as public services as basic as streetlamps and emergency support are cut. The more affluent left the city behind long ago.

The personalities in Detropia have not joined the mass exodus, either because they cannot or because they have actively chosen to stay. While they ride out what they hope is a temporary lull in Detroit’s growth and grandeur, they are navigating new paths for themselves. In McGregor’s case, he envisions himself as a fighter. He will win small battles for his fellow workers and celebrate them, imagining the day when they can all proudly return to stable jobs. Starr, who explores Detroit’s past by sneaking into abandoned buildings, cannot forget the city’s former glory. In the interim, she is chronicling the present to ensure the stories of Detroiters are not demolished along with the heritage buildings. Stephens is the most entrepreneurial of the lot; he flips houses, saving them from demolition. He hopes the electric car will prompt the Motor City’s resurgence.

As much as these characters are nostalgic for the past, their current pursuits and dreams for the future are reshaping the urban environment and contributing to Detroit’s transformed identity. The city’s evolution is not happening in a vacuum. Rather, it is influenced by the pre-existing gender, race, and class dynamics—but these dynamics are not immutable. The citizens who remain in the city, as we see in Ewing and Grady’s film, possess the resilience to face the future and craft a new Detroit on their terms.


[i] Ariella Cohen, “Interview: Talking to Detropia Director Heidi Ewing,” Next City, September 12, 2012, accessed October 18, 2013.

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