Arts and Culture

Through Jewish filmmaker’s lens, Detroit revival looks much less sunny

DETROIT (JTA) — Take heart, America. Together we can save Detroit while earning some fabulous prizes. For a mere $500, you can have an abandoned home. Pony up $25,000 and get your name name engraved on City Hall. A cool $50 million will earn you the deed to the Detroit Zoo.

That’s the offer pitched by an enthusiastic, earnest-looking young woman in the first episode of the satiric web series “Detroit (Blank) City,” which appeared on the Kickstarter fundraising site early this year.

The campaign left many viewers scratching their heads. Was the $500 million campaign to save Detroit for real? Was filmmaker Oren Goldenberg serious?

Turns out, he was — sort of.

The Kickstarter effort was legitimate, though its goal was to raise $15,000 to fund a six-part video series, not millions to bail out a city that was soon to declare the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history. And it ended not with the restoration of a great American metropolis but with a private donor’s pledge of $3,000 to create the first two episodes.

“For me, it was really cathartic,” Goldenberg, 29, told JTA. “I needed to laugh about the tragedies that are happening to the city because it’s unbearable to think of how absurd it is.”

Goldenberg witnesses those tragedies daily. He lives in downtown Detroit and has created countless films about a place that once was an emblem of American industrial might and now ranks among the country’s fastest shrinking cities.

Through his company, Cass Corridor Films, Goldenberg has won widespread acclaim — most recently from the prestigious Michigan-based Kresge Foundation, which awarded him $25,000 and named him its 2013 Visual Arts Fellow.

The satirical style of the Kickstarter videos is new for Goldenberg, but the point is much the same as much of his other work. Rather than jump aboard the Let’s Save Detroit bandwagon — a mantra repeated often in these parts — Goldenberg laments the privatization of a city once renowned for its public sector, questioning the motivations of those who have made its renewal a cause celebre. In so doing, he makes a lot of people uncomfortable.

“I go against the grain here,” Goldenberg says. “People think I go against everything, which is not true. I just think that we can do better.”

One of his “Detroit (Blank) City” videos pokes fun at the relentless branding of the city and features a succession of logos read by a robotic voice: Grown in Detroit. Invest Detroit. My Jewish Detroit. Reclaim Detroit.

After three minutes, the point is clear: The city’s name can be used to say just about anything.

“The idea that you can use the pronoun of Detroit to mean something for your cause is really fascinating and ridiculous to me,” Goldenberg says. “This idea of blank slate, that you can do whatever you want, like the Wild West, and just state your claim? No. There are people here. There is history here. There are issues here.”

Goldenberg is a Detroit native who grew up in the nearby suburb of Huntington Woods, attended the Hillel Day School and graduated with honors from the University of Michigan. He was the only one of 300 students in the university’s film and video program to move to Detroit, where he worked on a documentary about the city’s public schools called “Our School.”

His latest project involves creating a requiem to mark the razing of the city’s public housing.

Five years ago he became involved with the historic Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue, the last remaining Conservative Jewish house of worship in downtown Detroit. At the time there was barely a weekly minyan. He and a few friends began working on synagogue programming.

Their efforts paid off. The 92-year-old synagogue is experiencing a revival, fueled in part by Jewish communal efforts to repopulate the downtown area. Isaac Agree Downtown attracts hundreds of regulars to its daily programs and recently raised more than $150,000 to update the building and plan for a full-scale renovation. Goldenberg is a member of its board.

“We are going to be perpetually fundraising until our building is full and occupied,” he said. “This place should be a medallion of what Judaism can be in Detroit.”

But while the city’s Jewish life is experiencing a rebirth, Goldenberg is not optimistic about Detroit’s future. He cites fraudulent elections, cut pensions and the bankruptcy filing. He and his friends came to Detroit to do social justice work, he says, but they no longer feel the idealism they once did.

“The way we are treated in the media, the economy, how they treat buildings here, how they treat people here, what they do to them — it’s horrific,” he said. “These are the deep problems in our society, shrouded over with a lofty ‘Let’s Save Detroit’ and kids smiling. It’s delusional.”