Want a glimpse of what the Republican vision for downsizing government could mean for America’s cities? You could do a lot worse than visit Detroit. Ravaged by the decline of the auto industry, Detroit’s population has shrunk by a shocking 25 percent in the past decade alone – leaving the city unable to pay for basic services, from garbage collection to the fire department. In the powerful, beautifully filmed new documentary Detropia, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady – directors of the Oscar-nominated 2006 film Jesus Camp – map the rise and fall of America’s greatest industrial city. “Detroit is the largest city to teeter on the brink of bankruptcy, but every day you read about another one,” says Ewing. “Like Stockton, California, or five other cities in Michigan. It’s just a climate where we’ve all maxed out, including major cities.”
The film follows a handful of local characters, from a union official and a blogger who photographs Detroit’s industrial-age ruins to a married pair of artists taking advantage of the city’s dirt-cheap housing. But the star is Tommy Stevens, the charismatic owner of a tiny blues bar, who brings all of the movie’s threads together. “His business rises and falls with General Motors because the plant is up the street,” Ewing says. “He’s renovating low-cost houses. He ventures into the auto show and is very interested in the rise of China. He glides through all these different scenes.”
So what’s the takeaway? “If you don’t think that Detroit has anything to do with your life, you’re totally wrong,” says Ewing. “It’s coming to you.”
This story is from the September 27th, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.