When I was in high school I took painting classes in an abandoned amusement park. In the ’50s there had been bumper cars, roller coasters, a Ferris wheel and a merry-go-round. By the time I got there in the late ’90s the park was empty and rusted. But artists built grass-topped yurts scattered around the park, from which they offered pottery classes and photography. There was a children’s puppet theater. An old barn was converted into a painting studio.
I remember walking around the empty park one day in the fall, when the ground was damp and the leaves were changing, listening to a particularly moody mix tape on my walkman. The feeling it gave me to be in this place was a kind of melancholy mixed with equal measures of deep satisfaction and rootedness. The earthy smell of the leaves, the squish of the ground, the mottled rust of the swing sets, the crackling of the music playing through my Walkman — this is my first and strongest memory of an overwhelming sense of place.
I have been trying to conjure this kind of feeling and this sense of place in my work ever since. In college I similarly spent my time biking around the abandoned mills of Providence, admiring ghost signs peeling off brick walls and the glitter of broken glass on the sidewalk. I could not quite articulate why I was so drawn to these places, but they appeared in my work again and again.
It took another 10 years or so before I figured out what was going on. During that time I became a reporter, and in most ways, an adult. I read Neil Smith, Mike Davis and Stuart Dybek. I learned what ruin porn was and I knew enough to know that wasn’t what I liked about these places. That wasn’t what my work was about.
I was drawn to were sites of crisis. Something dramatic and devastating had happened here, something that started with a massive investment of human and literal capital, and ended with that capital being suddenly and devastatingly withdrawn. These places were the beginning and the end of a story. I was drawn to them because I desperately wanted to know: What happened here?
This question has driven my work as an investigative reporter and documentary maker for more than a decade. It’s also the impetus behind my new project, The City.
Title design by Rosa Gaia
The City is a podcast I will pilot this fall with WNYC, the public radio station best known for producing shows like Radiolab and On the Media. Producing this pilot is the prize I get for winning WNYC’s Podcast Accelerator (along with producers Kathy Tu and Tobin Low, who also got the green light to pilot a separate show called Gaydio).
I’ll have a lot more to say in the coming weeks and months about what this show is and how it will come together. But here’s a synopsis, based on what I pitched to WNYC:
Each season of The City will be a dive deep into one American metropolis. We’ll approach each season of the podcast like a six to 10 episode documentary mini-series, following one cast of characters and investigating one story that unfolds chapter by chapter.
Podcasts like Serial and Startup paved the way for this approach. But I was also inspired by documentary TV shows like The Jinx, Brick City and David Simon’s entire oeuvre.
Think of it this way: If The Wire, Treme or Show Me a Hero were a podcast and all the stories were true, this is what you’d get. Complicated, morally ambiguous characters. Nuanced storytelling. An inside look at the inner workings of a city. A deep, immersive sense of place. All the drama you’d want from premium cable, and all the hard-hitting honesty you’d want from public radio.
Just as The Wire went deep into the drug wars in Baltimore, Season 1 of The City would dive into the environmental battles raging on Chicago’s Southeast Side. This forgotten corner of Chicago is closer to the steel mills of Gary than the corridors of power in the Loop. It has what’s left of Chicago’s factories – but also its landfills and toxic waste dumps. There are lives at stake here, but livelihoods, too.
Logistically, it makes sense for us to start in Chicago for the pilot. It’s my home base and I’ve been reporting on this set of issues for the past six months. But with this model, we hope to explore a different city every season—maybe even partner with a different public radio member station every season. That means in future cities we could go anywhere: Miami, Detroit, D.C., Newark. Anywhere where there’s a compelling story to be told. Anywhere that makes us want to know: What happened here?
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