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Original article URL: http://bridgemi.com/2013/01/filmmaker-grows-%e2%80%98antidote%e2%80%99-to-%e2%80%98ruin-porn%e2%80%99-craze/

Success

Filmmaker grows ‘antidote’ to ‘ruin porn’ craze

If Detroit were an actor walking a Hollywood red carpet, it would be having a hot year.

Two feature-length documentary films, “Detropia” and “Burn,” have gathered national attention for their looks at the deteriorating – and recovering – metropolis, with critics marveling at Detroit’s eye-popping vistas of decay and tarnished grandeur.

But to independent filmmaker Carrie LeZotte, that’s the problem.

“Those films weren’t made by people who live here,” said LeZotte, 42, now doing post-production work on “Lean, Mean and Green,” her own Detroit documentary. “Our film is the antidote to that.”

Which is to say, it’s one thing to linger on ruin porn. It’s another to show what people are doing about it.

“Lean, Mean and Green” is a film companion to “Reimagining Detroit,” a 2010 book by John Gallagher, a Detroit Free Press business writer. The book is based on the premise that Detroit, and other post-industrial cities around the world, has so much vacant land that repopulation will likely never happen. How are cities coming to grips with that reality? In different and surprising ways, it turns out.

In Turin, Italy, a wheel factory is now a contemporary art space. In Youngstown, Ohio, urban gardens dot the city. One-time graffiti vandals in Philadelphia are painting city-approved murals. And in Detroit, it’s all of the above, in one form or another.

The most interesting thing, to LeZotte, was how many of these initiatives aren’t driven by top-down forces, but are rising from the grass-roots.

“This film is about how urban heroes are transforming their cities into more sustainable communities,” LeZotte said. “The government is doing a lot of that work in Europe, but here, it’s different.”

Solutions from Germany to Philly

LeZotte led her crew to the Ruhr Valley of Germany, to the Landschaftspark, or Landscape Park, of Duisburg Nord, where a steel plant, abandoned in 1985, has been transformed into a parkland that uses parts of the plant as attractions. A rock-climbing course covers an old factory wall. A blast furnace is now a viewing tower. Scuba divers can even explore old storage tanks.

None of the U.S. cities have been that ambitious, although the recently unveiled Detroit Future City plan comes close. A Kresge Foundation-backed vision of a radically remade Detroit, it looks to remake the blighted city by coaxing residents into still-vital neighborhoods and turning much of the rest into green space, urban farms and water features. That, however, remains a drawing-board project. In the meantime, LeZotte found details in Detroit and elsewhere that show small gestures can be powerful.

In Philadelphia, neighborhood groups started putting up simple post-and-rail fences around vacant lots in its dense city neighborhoods, not so much to keep people out, but as a way to claim the space for the local residents. The fences deterred dumping, and soon neighbors were out landscaping, planting gardens and installing benches and play equipment in these “pocket” parks.

Camera operator Lora Probert frames a shot for the documentary film “Lean, Mean and Green” with Detroit’s Renaissance Center rising behind her. (courtesy photo)

In Youngstown, a group has dedicated itself to decorating the plywood used to board up abandoned houses, painting windows and doors where windows and doors once where, vastly improving the look of blocks where abandonment is common.

In the same city, where the collapse of the local steel industry, starting in the 1970s, led to a depopulation much like Detroit’s, a battle over corner stores turned out to be an unexpected lesson in community engagement, LeZotte said. Some stores had become loitering destinations, and residents were pressing for closure. One store owner met with neighbors, made positive improvements and ended up with a stronger relationship with both customers and local residents.

Those stories, LeZotte said, make her decision to stay in Detroit much more satisfying.

“I could have gone to L.A. or New York like everybody else I knew after college,” she said. “It was lonely here for a while. Someone asked me why I chose to stay, and I said why would I leave, when everything is here? I just felt the quality of life is better here.”

Detroit’s popularity with the nation’s documentarians and authors draws a weary response from the local one. Detroit’s picturesque decay didn’t come to be known as ruin porn for nothing. Looking at how people are trying to rebuild, or reinvent, communities within that disorder is another thing entirely, LeZotte said.

“It’s more complex, and we need to explore these issues,” she said. “Our film shows the other side of things.”

“Urban reinvention is a bottom-up effort,” said Gallagher, whose book inspired the film. “Most of the interesting land uses are being reinvented by the neighborhoods. It’s a side of the shrinking-cities phenomenon you don’t usually see.”

LeZotte’s film, like many of its type, hangs on a thin financial thread. Her original budget of $500,000 for a feature-length production was trimmed to $300,000, with the plan now for a one-hour piece suitable for public television. Completion is planned for spring 2013. A trailer is online, and donations to the post-production budget may be made at LeZotte’s company website.

Staff Writer Nancy Nall Derringer has been a writer, editor and teacher in Metro Detroit for seven years, and was a co-founder and editor of GrossePointeToday.com, an early experiment in hyperlocal journalism. Before that, she worked for 20 years in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where she won numerous state and national awards for her work as a columnist for The News-Sentinel.

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