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“Detroit: A love story:” Chuck Salter, Fast Company, and a layered, live-storytelling approach to the tale of a desperate city

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Fast Company‘s Chuck Salter recently came up with an innovative way to address the unfolding narrative that is Detroit. The city, long depressed, is now bankrupt. Unemployment stands at double the national rate; buildings have been famously abandoned; dozens of schools have closed; services are so eroded firefighters buy their own toilet paper. When Whole Foods showed up, residents lost their minds.

Entrepreneurs are moving in, to remake Detroit “inch by inch, brick by brick.” As one told himself, “You can do good for Detroit and do well at the same time. And that’s what’s happening.” In an approach that in its creativity echoes the grassroots approaches to the city’s woes, Salter, a senior writer at the magazine, addressed the complicated story in a vividly memorable way. One, he wrote a Fast Company piece, “Detroit: A Love Story,” chronicling Detroit’s entrepreneurial attempt at comeback through seven characters, oral histories and reportage. A taste:

Detroit, which was rebuilt after a devastating fire in 1805, is once again like a forest after a fire, in such ruin that anything is possible. That’s what makes it a magnet for folks like Andy Didorosi. Growing up in the suburbs, Didorosi, who favors black T-shirts and aqua sneakers, thought Detroit was dead. But now, at age 26, he finds it irresistible–the only place where he could have created something like his truly unusual business, the Detroit Bus Co.

Two, he took the story live, with a staged reading and town-hall-style chat — a “storytelling, radio/magazine mash-up,” he calls it — featuring the story’s main characters. We chatted with Salter about the project:

Storyboard: Okay, so this was cool. Tell us about the origins of this project.

Chuck Salter

Chuck Salter

Salter: I wish I could say that from the beginning my plan was to experiment with live storytelling in conjunction with a print story. But no. The opportunity popped up along the way. Initially, I just wanted to write a big feature on Detroit. At Fast Company, we look for creative problem-solvers in various industries and disciplines, and it’s hard to find a city with more problems that demand creativity.

I had been itching to write about Detroit for a while. My wife grew up outside the city and her parents still live in the area, so I’ve been visiting for nearly 20 years. What piqued my curiosity now was seeing some positive momentum at long last — a flurry of tech startups, big companies moving downtown — while crime, education and budgetary problems seemed to be getting worse. These competing narratives make for rich tension.

When I started reporting, I wanted to know: Who are these Detroiters who think they can overcome obstacles built over decades? How in the world do they keep the faith? This was months before the city filed for bankruptcy but even then it felt inevitable. I knew there had been other attempts over the years to turn things around and jumpstart the economy. This seemed different, more organic. Wild things were happening — like a 26-year-old guy with no transportation experience starting a bus company. How does that happen?

There have been other attempts to capture this phase of Detroit’s narrative, including Time magazine’s decision to buy a house there and cover the city with a rotation of staff. (That project ended in 2010.) How did previous stories influence your project from a creative and reporting standpoint?

When Time Inc. bought that house, I remember thinking, “We should have done that!” What an unconventional way to go after a big, important, complicated story.

The Time project got me thinking about what I could do that might change how people think about Detroit. I wanted to write a personal story, a story that drew readers into the life of the city and felt and sounded local, intimate, even emotional. I didn’t want a dispassionate voice that would allow readers to keep the place at arm’s distance. In a stroke of serendipity, Rick Tetzeli, one of the editors on the Time project, joined Fast Company. I thought he might have Detroit fatigue by that point, but far from it. He loves talking about the city’s contradictions as much as I do.

Of course, Time wasn’t the only publication covering Detroit. For the most part, the national coverage fell into two categories: “Detroit is back” or “Detroit is doomed.” I wanted to write a story that captured the messiness and confusion of the situation, and didn’t draw neat conclusions. Because the city embodies both storylines. That’s what makes it so confounding.

Urban reclamation is a hard subject to address via narrative — or is it? What were the challenges?

Screen Shot 2013-06-06 at 12.35.21 PMYou’re right. Urban reclamation, economic development and social entrepreneurship are great topics — for policy stories. The challenge for me was finding characters and making the larger narrative personal, not abstract. I had to find people who represented what was going on, and readers had to be able to relate to them. I interviewed dozens of people to find the right mix for the story I decided to tell: how this organic groundswell of entrepreneurs is working against incredible odds, and decades of disappointment, and finding reasons for hope and despair. There’s a young guy who hated growing up there but who changed his mind, stayed, and is taking advantage of the new opportunities. That’s Andy Didorosi, who runs the bus company. A longtime resident who encountered all the things that can go wrong, like her business burning down, but ultimately persevered. That’s Alicia George. A couple of outsiders who moved there to help and were met with local resistance and cynicism. That’s Jerry Paffendorf and Josh McManus. A longtime Detroiter who puts the recent developments in historical context and wonders if the city has yet to hit bottom. That’s Bill McGraw, who runs the news site Deadline Detroit. Each of them has a specific relationship with the city: They’re hopeful or heartsick or resentful or stubbornly optimistic. I was so moved in hearing them talk about their experiences. I knew if I got out of the way, readers would be (moved), too.

What makes Detroit a good subject for narrative?

Along with the tension I mentioned, Detroit works because it’s similar to other post-industrial cities. People in Cleveland and Buffalo and Pittsburgh can relate to the ongoing struggle and the fragile progress. At the same time, Detroit is exceptional. It’s unlike anywhere else because of its history. The auto industry made it richer and bigger than most American cities, so its decline has been far more dramatic and, of course, emblematic of U.S. manufacturing’s decline. Detroit was Silicon Valley before there was a Silicon Valley. It was a magnet for inventors in the late 19th and early 20th century who created an industry that ultimately changed the country and the world. That gives the story an extra poignancy, especially for our audience. Also, I’m just really interested in cities: How they work, how they don’t, how they evolve, how they offer different experiences to the people who live there. I grew up in Atlanta and have lived in a variety of cities — Nashville, London, Raleigh, Baltimore, Chicago and now New York. All are fascinating places, but Detroit’s a different beast altogether. It has more layers.

How did you initially envision the project and did you stick with that vision or shift as the story developed?

My first instinct was to focus on Dan Gilbert: He believes the path forward for Detroit is as a thriving tech scene, an affordable alternative to Silicon Valley, New York or Boston. He’s spending a ton of money trying to make that a reality. Most people know him as LeBron James’ former boss, the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Gilbert wrote that infamous email after LeBron chose Miami. But Gilbert is a Detroit guy. He grew up there, and he runs one of the biggest employers, Quicken Loans. And a few years ago, he began relocating his company from the suburbs to downtown. He struck me as a colorful central character, and he seemed to have the most at stake. He’s spent $1 billion buying and renovating buildings in downtown, and he’s courting companies to relocate there.

Often, our stories revolve around a central character, so I’m pretty conditioned to think that way. This time, Rick (Tetzeli) read my pitch memo and suggested I think more broadly. He told me to go to Detroit, talk to a ton of people, get overwhelmed and then figure out the story. That’s what I did.

The live event came later, after I’d written a first draft. We do a few conferences throughout the year. Jeff Chu, one of the editors responsible for those, asked if I wanted to put together something on Detroit, something other than a traditional panel. He knew I’d enjoyed doing a story for This American Life, and he asked, “How about doing something like that?”

When I did the piece for TAL, I’d never done radio reporting. Ben Calhoun, one of the producers, and I went to Georgia together to do interviews, and he recorded whatever we needed and handled all the technical parts. For my anti-panel on Detroit (that’s how I thought of it), I initially thought I’d do my version of a radio story. I’d go there, walk around the city interviewing my subjects all over again and play segments at our conference, somehow tying it all together. But I couldn’t work out the logistics of all that on-the-ground recording. Instead, I decided to invite a few subjects in my piece to join me on stage and share their stories. I didn’t want to replicate what would run in the magazine. I wanted to convey the essence of the print story in a more theatrical format. So I wrote my part — the narration — to create an arc for everybody else. On stage, I’m sitting on a stool and reading from a script, as though it’s a radio play. I start off taking the audience to Detroit, to places I went in my reporting. The 10th-floor basketball court next to Gilbert’s office in the heart of downtown. A huge hole in the ground in the northwest corner of the city where a crack house had been demolished by neighborhood volunteers. And then I bring in the Detroiters and they take turns telling their stories. They’re unscripted, and they face out, talking directly to the audience, not me, to make it more theatrical.

How did you go about the reporting?

I started by reaching out to people who knew Detroit intimately. One of my friends, Steve Henderson, is the first Detroiter I knew who moved back. He felt this pull, out of obligation, loyalty and love to return to his hometown to improve things. He’s the editorial page editor of the Detroit Free Press. He suggested a bunch of people I should meet. And when I talked to them, they suggested other people I should contact. I kept it simple at first: I asked who was doing interesting work to fix Detroit, who was having an impact, and what outsiders didn’t understand about the city. I scheduled as many appointments as I could and then I’d go to Detroit for a week. (My interview with Gilbert wound up taking a few months to arrange.) I’d come home with more names to follow up with by phone or on my next trip. I started identifying character types. I was casting, looking for people who best represented the different facets of this attempted turnaround. Once I identified that core group, I did multiple interviews, some in person, some over the phone, to get a deeper understanding of them and to find out what was happening with them over weeks and then months. At the same time, I was reading a few books for background: Reimagining Detroit, which lays out the local problems well; Say Nice Things About Detroit, a new novel that captures residents’ weariness and hopefulness; and Triumph of the City, which looks at cities as a remarkable and evolving human invention.

What storytelling tools did you use?

The magazine story alternates between monologues from a handful of subjects and then a section of narration where I try to put him or her in the broader context of Detroit. In that sense, the character sections are mini-narratives that drive the larger narrative about the city.

What was on your wish list of tools that you didn’t have, if anything?

I wish I’d had more scenes with dialogue. The ones I have are included in the character monologues so they’re more streamlined. Initially, I thought of having the main characters drive me around their Detroit and point out where the bus company launched, where they carry a gun for safety, where their business burned down. I thought it would give me some action and maybe a scene or two. But it felt forced. Instead, I asked people to draw me maps of what I should I see. And then I drove around, sometimes alone, sometimes with my subjects. It’s a city of such extremes that it’s hard to get a handle on. Before this story, I had spent most of my time in the suburbs, which can feel utterly removed from the city’s troubles, aside from the lingering “For Sale” signs. Now I was driving in areas that were so abandoned and overgrown it almost felt like being in the country.

Did you have a model or models for this project?

For the story itself, I didn’t. And I certainly looked around. Once I decided I was writing about seven people, I had to figure out how to structure the story. Do I feature each character more than once? If so, how do I make them memorable so it’s not confusing when they reappear? Or does each person appear once, in his or her own section? And if I do that, how do I say everything I need to say without losing the larger momentum? I was creating a mosaic, but it wasn’t anything like the movie Traffic, which is what I was hoping for at one point. That would have been amazing: You know, multiple storylines adding to and intersecting in one suspenseful narrative. I looked back at other stories about groups that I’ve done over the years: about residents in a small town getting the Internet; about gun owners from all walks of life. I decided to give each Detroit character his own section and just make the storytelling as vivid as possible, and then tie them together in the sections in between these portraits. I could back up and provide context there. And whenever possible, I did mention connections between characters to convey the entrepreneurial network that’s developing. Margarita Barry, who runs the site “I Am Young Detroit,” attended Gilbert’s entrepreneurial training program and went on to open a pop-up retail shop in one of his downtown buildings. And she profiled Jerry Paffendorf on her site and later found her house in a city auction by using his site, “Why Don’t We Own This?”

For the stage event, I was inspired by This American Life’s live shows and by The Moth’s live storytelling format. I talked to Seth Lind, the production manager at This American Life, to pick his brain. He also used to host his own storytelling show in New York that I performed at once. There’s such an energy when someone is telling a personal story to a live audience. It’s intimate. It’s confessional. And it feels spontaneous even when you’ve written it out and rehearsed beforehand. I wanted my live Detroit story to have that. All my characters needed to be good talkers.

How did the live event contribute to the package? What impact did it have?

Originally, the print story was scheduled to run before the live event, but the magazine lineup can change, and the opposite wound up happening. At that point, I’d written the character sections in the print story in third person, from the point of view of each person. After Rick heard a recording of the stage event, he suggested creating monologues from my interviews and even from the event itself. So part of the performance wound up in print, which I never would have foreseen. Even though I had had multiple interviews with my subjects, in the moment, before an audience, they added new details to their stories.

What did you learn from doing the project?

I recently did another live story, this time on New York City’s response during Hurricane Sandy. Having two under my belt hardly makes me an expert, but I’m getting a feel for what works. I treat the live stories like a magazine feature. For Detroit, I had interviewed everybody over several months so I knew what each person represented. That’s how I cast the piece, covering the main themes and thinking of everyone’s best stories. Then I wrote a script. It’s different than a magazine story in that it’s more conversational and more theatrical. It’s meant to be performed. But just as with a written piece, structure is everything. Because I had four people and because the audience could see them and remember their voices and faces, as opposed to a name on a page, I could bring them in and out of the piece more freely. The format was more flexible.

The trickiest part is that I’m asking my subjects to be storytellers and performers. It’s not like sitting on a panel, which is what business people expect when I first ask them to participate. I tell them to think of the live story as the opposite: Instead of cramming everything they want to say into their first answer because they’re not sure if they’ll get another chance, they need to break up their story into different parts. I lay it out in the script: “Tell the story of how your business burned down and how you felt, but don’t tell them you found another location. We’re saving that for later.” They tell their story in their words but I’m a director, keeping the group on the path I’ve laid out for dramatic effect.

So far, the most popular participants in the live stories haven’t been those with the most public speaking experience. It’s the people who don’t seem like they’re performing at all. They have distinctive voices. And they speak from the heart: “I was born and raised in the city of Detroit. I’ve been here 41 years. I love my city. I am in love with my city.” I didn’t write that. That’s Alicia. That’s how she feels and how she talks. It’s no wonder that people applauded and teared up during parts of her story about spending 10 years trying to open a business in a neglected part of the city. The live story was so well received that we were asked to take the show on the road. We did an encore in Detroit and then at the Food for Thought conference in Greenville, S.C.

What advice would you have for other storytellers attempting a multilevel approach?

Figuring out a new storytelling format is like writing a story. You have to start experimenting in order to figure out what works, what doesn’t and what you don’t know. The day before we did the Detroit story at our conference, we went to a tech rehearsal in the auditorium and did a full run-through. We had never performed before, and I had no idea how much time my storytellers would need. I hadn’t figured out how to interrupt a rambling story without ruining the dramatic moment. They’re not looking at me, after all. But we agreed on a discreet cue: When I said, “Right,” that meant it was time to wrap up what they were saying.

For a live story like this, the casting is just as important as the structure. You need good talkers. Just because people work in print doesn’t mean they’ll work live. Someone with strong opinions might give you compelling quotes that sing in a story, but if that’s all he brings on stage, the audience can’t relate to him. In the setting of a live story, they want to see a human being.

You don’t need high production values to create something powerful. You need a story with punch and an authentic subject. But I’d like to enhance the experience going forward. For the live Sandy story, we opened with a video clip — a time-lapse — and then incorporated photos and tweets that complemented the story. Dan O’Donnell, who helps produce our events, pulled together the images at the last minute, and I marked up a script with cues to ensure the timing was right. Next time, I want to take things even further and use music and lighting to set the mood.

What’re you working on now?

I’m trying to nail down another live story for the next Innovation Uncensored conference, and I’m helping launch our ebook business. I’m creating anthologies from the magazine and online archives. The first collection, Hacking Hollywood, explores the creative process behind shows like Homeland and Girls and behind companies that have changed the industry in recent years — HBO, Hulu. Along with the text-only book, we did an expanded version with photos and graphics as a special edition of our iPad app.

Whether it’s live events or ebooks or the iPad app, I want to keep branching out and experimenting. Each platform offers a different way to tell stories and captivate the audience. The only way to master these is to keep playing around, keep trying stuff.

Chuck Salter is an award-winning senior writer at Fast Company. His work has also appeared on This American Life and in the New York Times magazine, Sports Illustrated, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times. Follow him at @ChuckSalter.

This is the final installment of our Detroit Week series. In case you missed it, on Tuesday the New York Times Book Review‘s Jennifer B. McDonald looked at Rebecca Solnit’s “Detroit Arcadia,” from Harper’s, for our Why’s this so good?” series. On Wednesday, Motor City native Glynn Washington, host of the hot NPR storytelling show Snap Judgmenttalked to us about narrative

 




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  1. [...] the entrepreneurs rebuilding the city—and it was so successful, the writer turned his piece into a live staged reading/town hall event.  photographers have been flocking there for seemingly endless images of decay (which could be [...]

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