Detroit: A City on the Brink of Dissolution

Credit: Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady. Detropia is a 2012 documentary film, directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, about the bankrupt city of Detroit, Michigan.

When I first arrived in Panama City in 1962 to continue my high school education, about 98 percent of the automobiles on the streets were manufactured in the United States.  Now, 51 years later, the Japanese and South Korean automobiles have taken the streets by storm.  American cars are almost non-existent.  Occasionally you will see a Ford or a Chevy roaming the streets.  Not many.

After the “Oil Shock” of the mid‑1970s, the price of oil became extremely volatile.  It was the consolidation  of an oil cartel known as OPEC ( Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) consisting of twelve countries, including Iran, seven Arab countries (Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates), plus Venezuela, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Ecuador, formed at a Baghdad conference on September 14, 1960.  OPEC was organized to resist pressure by the “Seven Sisters” (mostly owned by U.S., British, and Dutch nationals) to cut oil prices and payments to producing countries.

At first OPEC had operated as an informal bargaining unit for the sale of oil by resource-rich Third World nations. OPEC confined its activities to gaining a larger share of the profits generated by the Western oil companies and greater control over the members’ levels of production. As a result of this and other events in the early 1970s, it began to exert its economic and political strength; the major Western oil conglomerates, as well as the importing nations, suddenly faced a unified bloc of exporters.

As the price for oil skyrocketed, the Japanese started to manufacture compact vehicles with a low consumption of gasoline.  The American automobile industry kept on producing gasoline guzzling vehicles which were in low demand by U.S. consumers.  South Korea followed the path of the Japanese automobile industry and began displacing American cars, (e.g., General Motors, Chrysler and Ford).  The Motor City suffered from the dwindling demand originated by Asian competition,

Detroit, also known as Motor City, is now a shadow of what it was in the “good ole days”.  It was recently in the news that Governor Rich Snyder appointed an emergency manager over Detroit finances.  Detroit has a $327 million budget deficit and more than $14 billion in long-term debt.  Detroit is an agonizing city with no money.

In 2012, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady directed a dramatic documentary called Detropia, about the decaying city of Detroit in Michigan.  This film on the city of Detroit and its woes, is emblematic of the collapse of the United States manufacturing base.  It is the Midwestern icon, actually a canary in the American coal mine.

Detropia sculps a dreamlike collage of a grand city teetering on the brink of dissolution.  With block upon block of crumbling houses, abandoned stores, and churches and theaters left to rot like ancient ruins, this old industrial city can easily seem like a ghost town of vanquished dreams.

Its residents embody the spirit of the Motor City as it struggles to survive in a post industrial America and begins to envision a radically different future.  It is a sad story of a city and its people who refuse to accept that the city is passing away. It focuses on the decline of the economy of Detroit due to long-term changes in the automobile industry, and the effects that the decline has had on the city’s residents and infrastructure.

The film’s name came from a portmanteau of the words “Detroit” and “utopia“, and was inspired by an abandoned auto parts store, where the letter “A” in “AUTO” and the letters “R”, “T”, and “S” in “PARTS” were missing from the store’s sign. The letter “I” had been painted into the part of the store front to make the sign read “UTO PIA”.

My heart goes out to the thousands and thousands of manufacturing workers wandering aimlessly through the streets of Detroit looking for jobs that have migrated to Mexico, Thailand, Malaysia, Philippines, China and other emerging economies.  I know how painful it feels to be unemployed—been there done that.  I was unemployed for more than ten years surviving with on and off moonshine jobs.  My wife had to work as a waiter in a small restaurant to put food on the table.  I know what hunger is and how the stomach aches when it is empty and you have to drink generous amounts of water to keep it full and calm its rage before you go to sleep at night.  We had no children or else the nightmare would have been unimaginable.

In my opinion, the United States is no longer a manufacturing country.  The country has now reached the stage known as the Information Age or Post-Industrial Age where information is the main producer of jobs.  Manufacturing skills will have to be transformed into high-technology skills to meet the demand of this rapidly growing sector.  Space technology, computing programming, nanotechnology, economic engineering, energy exploration, and space transportation is where the jobs are.  Training people in these information areas is where the future lies.  In that direction is where Detroit, and the country as a whole, should be heading as fast as possible.  Motors are no longer the answer to their plights.  Good Day.

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