Intro from Jay Allison: Zak Rosen is a radio producer. Neil Greenberg is a map-maker. They're both from Detroit, but their hearts are in a different city, a city they think is possible--at least in the imagination and maybe in reality. The radio piece they made together treats this place as if it were real. It is a creative exercise that hints at a plausible future. Fake City, Real Dreams is unlike any "arts feature" you've heard before.
About Fake City, Real Dreams
About a year ago, a neighbor of mine told me about this guy Neil’s fake place project. She said that he was mapping a really expansive, detailed metro region on 17, huge poster boards. I was intrigued. I had heard Neil’s name several times before but hadn’t yet met him. Then finally he and I were introduced through mutual friends on a Saturday morning at Eastern Market, one of Detroit’s weekly farmers markets. I expressed interest in doing a story on his project and we exchanged numbers.
A few months later I went to his apartment to check out the maps and do some recording. I interviewed Neil for about 4-hours (none of that tape made it into the final cut), without really knowing what direction the story would go. All I knew at the time was that Neil’s vision was so inspiring and creative, that a conventional profile piece would NOT do him or his project justice. I understood that though his ideas were really eccentric and quirky, it was, more importantly, grounded in something that could be used for real-life application.
After that first night, we started meeting semi-regularly to talk about his fake world. He thought of the maps as a laboratory to work on various planning ideas that could apply to Detroit, or any other city for that matter, without having to deal with the cynicism and bureaucracy we Detroiters can often encounter in the face of meaningful change.
At some point I thought about how cool it might be to climb into Neil’s head, to get an idea of what he sees when he looks at his maps. Point to any area or intersection and Neil will seamlessly delve into the history of that block, that neighborhood, that business district, etc. It’s really amazing. None of the narratives that he so easily accesses in conversation are written down. It’s all in his head, working itself out as this organic, living thing.
In doing additional interviews with Neil, I’d ask him questions like, “What’s the mayor of this place like?” Then he’d spout off this really fiery monologue about Vanessa Nawinn, the half Vietnamese/half Nicaraguan mayor who showed the people of his fake-region that you don’t have to be old and white to lead a metropolitan area (of course there are exceptions to that truism, like Detroit’s embattled Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick). He spoke of Mayor Nawinn as if she existed. As if they were good friends who hung out after work.
Neil expressed that he wanted to get other people involved with the project, people whose area of expertise could expand the scope of the map, and city. Neil’s a transit guy. I’d say he’s obsessed with it, but he’ll readily admit that he’s no expert on transforming an urban education system, or figuring out why gardening can be used to nurture an area or a people.
So we set-out to interview a few Detroiter’s who we knew devoted a lot of time and energy to working towards, and thinking about, different paradigms in their own respective lives. We asked them to think about what they would like to see happen in Detroit in the next 15 years in terms of education, politics, community building, etc. And we asked them to answer the question of what the future could be, in the present tense. In other words, their dreams for a different future became their present reality. Instead of saying, “Detroit could really use better cooperation between bikers and businesses,” it became, “Ever since the city (there are no allusions to any specific place) started meeting with different merchants to determine where bike parking should be…the merchants realized that cyclists exists as a potential market and customer base.” Neil always talks about how easy it is to bad mouth the city, or talk about a goal without really thinking about how to get there. So with his project and my audio component, we aimed at illustrating some real big dreams, but supplementing them with a sensible path towards achieving them. The bits about cycling, education, and work/gardening feature Detroiters Jack Vandyke, Mindy Nathan, and Grace Lee Boggs, respectively. My colleague, Amanda Le Claire, played Mayor Nawinn. Another colleague, Monica Issac, played Dina, the single mother. They both did this by reading a script I wrote based on interviews with Neil.
Putting It Together
I did a lot of the pre-production, conceptual work by bouncing ideas back and forth with sound artist/documentarian, Victoria Fenner. We got hooked up through AIRs mentorship program (sign up today!). Then I recorded a lot of Detroit sounds, and got some additional sounds off Freesound.org, and transplanted them into the mix. Because the world is fictional, I gave myself license to go back and re-voice my questions/responses to Neil when needed. The idea was to make it sound like he was giving me a tour of the place, telling me about it for the first time.
After asking Jay if he could help me with the post-production, he invited me to his neck of the woods (get it?) to do the final mix. Having him there to critique my tracking and editing choices was really invaluable. It was also really nice to be working on the story without having to think about anything else for those three days in Woods Hole.
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In the end, I hope the piece kindly reminds Detroiters (or anyone living in a place they love) to continue their work towards re-visioning the city they know can exist (and does in certain areas). As Neil says at the end of the piece, he knows this project isn’t going to be the exact script that will bring Detroit into a new era, he just hopes it will convey the message that it is possible to talk about the future, in a realistic and meaningful way, without getting frustrated with our present.
I want to also thank my girlfriend Shira, the entire Smitten Mitten Radio Collective + David Schulman for critiquing early versions of the piece while openly embracing them too.
I recorded a lot of the interviews and sounds on a Marantz PMD 660 with an Electrovoice RE50. Some interviews we’re also done at WDET’s studio. I did some additional tracking with Jay’s really nice Schoeps microphone. The effect on the Mayor that made her sound like she was talking into a big speaker system was made using “SpeakerPhone.” I mixed it all on Samplitude.
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