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Detroit Hustles Harder

December 22, 2014

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A year ago, I started chasing a story about Detroit. I dogged the bankers who were working on the deal until they relented, determined to make a film about the lights coming back on in the Motor City.

Last week, we made that story. Last week, a security guard in a bronze two-door Fleetwood followed us up Woodward and over to Corktown, up and down the now bright streets parking under the LED lights to keep watch over our equipment, over us. He didn’t say a word when I knelt down and stole a picture of the insignia on the side mirror of his car. He didn’t know I’d grown up in the back seat of a long succession of cars just like that one, curling up in blankets on the wide floorboards on long drives.

Ruin porn wasn’t what I was interested in us making. I’d fended off enough of that in New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina as a Red Cross worker the day families went back to their ruined homes in the Ninth Ward for the first time. I had been the one responsible for keeping watch over the cameras then: news crews from all over the planet chasing a story just like I’d now come to Detroit to do.

As we drove out of the sections of downtown where signs of life were more than evident, on our way to the old power plant to shoot a scene, the empty and burnt-out houses we passed made it clear the rest of the city is still firmly in the middle of its own aftermath. It reminded me of driving around the levees in Louisiana trying to spot the sources of the leaks.

Last week, we, the storytellers, sat in an abandoned building in front of a push-pin and string map that until last year was how Detroit managed the city’s streetlights. We sat in a row of folding chairs with headsets on and we monitored the monitors and listened for soundbites as the director asked the same questions again and again. I raised both my arms with both my thumbs up when I heard a good one, locking eyes with my co-creators of this story when we knew we’d gotten what we needed. My own earnestness punched me hard at one point with the belief we were doing more than making a tv commercial: we were recording history. Possibly we were.

“If no one tells the stories,” I said later at dinner, feeling noble and full of purpose as I sat next to a guy who’d written legislation to make the whole idea we were filming possible, “only the people who experience them will ever feel the hope they provide.” But while I was making a film the day before, he’d been making sure legislation passed so tens of thousands of abandoned buildings would come down. I could only listen as the people around me who lived here, who led this city, spoke with real passion about police response times, school buildings, what was next.

I was experiencing this story, standing in the cold with tiny balls of sleet bouncing off my giant purple coat. I was an urban explorer peering down at massive and dormant machinery marked “not for sale.” I was me in the back of my dad’s Cadillac again as we rode the glass elevator to dinner on the 72nd floor of the building where it had been designed.

“Detroit hustles harder,” a sticker on our equipment cart read. I looked for one at the airport gift shop on my way home.

We captured the story I’d hustled so hard to get us to make in Detroit. Rather, we constructed it by choreographing extras walking up stairs, down sidewalks, across parapets, along the riverfront. By interviewing government officials, musicians, bankers, retired cops, nurses, moms who are starting to feel a sense of hope.

I just hope we do it justice.

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