Media from around the world came to Detroit after the financial collapse in 2009. They took photos and video that showed abandoned factories, overgrown fields that once were thriving neighborhoods, and they always made sure to include the Michigan Central Train Station. Wherever you are from, you have seen those images by now.
Those images made me angry.
I had recently premiered the documentary Regional Roots : The Birth and Evolution of Detroit and Its People, and I understood a more complete story. The collapse didn't happen overnight; instead, there had been decades of erosion as the tax base left the city and corrupt government officials took care of themselves but not the electorate. There were also people who had been fighting for their neighborhoods all along. Urban heroes have been fighting blight and addressing the challenges of a post-industrial economy long before we reached bottom.
The media images were also ugly, the empty fields shot with consumer video cameras and every news magazine sent their crews to shoot the train station. The term “urban-porn” was coined, and while these images provoked a response, I knew if you panned the camera a bit to the left or right, you'd see Eastern Market or you could watch the international freighter traffic on the Detroit River. I met journalist John Gallagher, sailing small boats on that river.
John had recently completed the book Reimagining Detroit, and when I read it, I knew I had found my next project (which would inspire the documentary film Lean, Mean & Green). The book presented projects from around the world that were remaking post-industrial cities, success stories that worked. For Detroit, urban-farming may be our best example of what can work, but there is also Tyree Guyton and Sue Mosey, who have been, respectively, painting dots and building local businesses for more than two decades.
John’s book didn't have images to go with it, so my goal from the beginning was not only to show people what these successes looked like, but to make the photography of these places the star. I took my crew throughout Detroit, and then on to Philadelphia; Pennsylvania; Youngstown, Ohio; Torino, Italy; and the Ruhr-valley region in Western Germany (where the images of factories turned playgrounds will blow you mind).
It's a complicated, layered film that hasn't yet been seen by enough people. I hope that it serves as the best visual time-capsule of this age, one for which our cities are shifting from polluted communities to urban centers that are more environmentally sustainable. During the three-year process of making the film, the stories continue to evolve. The Brightmoor neighborhood where Riet Schumack started her work was granted hundreds of thousands of dollars for blight removal, which was then taken away. The Heidelberg Project’s battle with an arsonist who burnt several of the installations to the ground continues. But in each case, our urban heroes continue with the work they began, continuing with less money and creating new art. We didn't get to the bottom overnight, and it's going to take a while to climb back up the mountain. This kind of transformation requires decades of tenacity and patience.