Five Questions For: Phil Lauri

The founder of Detroit Lives! and director of After the Factory on the future of the Motor City, re-inventing great metropolises, and life in Lodz.
P
hil Lauri founded his creative agency, Detroit Lives!, to shift how people perceive of the Motor City: he wants it to be seen as a city of opportunity, not a city of ruin. So in January 2011, when Lauri got a Facebook message from a man in Poland pointing out similarities between Detroit and his hometown, Lodz, Lauri was inspired. He raised more than $11,000 via Kickstarter to film a short documentary in Poland raising awareness about two of the world’s largest post-industrial landmarks.
  • Lauri_lead-image

Nine months later, After the Factory premiered, and Lauri and his crew began hosting international screenings. This fall the film will embark on a screening tour through the Rust Belt, and it’ll show as part of the Global Peace Film Festival and Chagrin Documentary Film Fest. Recently Lauri showed it to ?What If!, and we had a chance to sit down with him afterward to discuss it. Edited excerpts:

Wong: All of this started with a Facebook message. What exactly did the man from Lodz say?

Lauri: He said it might be cool to do some sort of cross-collaborative project between the two cities. I watched the footage he sent over, and it was kind of eerie, the similarities. The next message I shot him back was that we could start with a short film.

What surprised you most when you were making the movie?

Our political similarities. Both Detroit and Lodz had mayor’s offices that were more or less very similar—they were both sort of hoping for that grandiose, higher-level strategic plan that wasn’t there. They were trying to formulate it—and still are. When you look at other post-industrial cities—Berlin, Turin, Manchester—the politicians seem to have it figured out; they’ve injected a large amount of resources at the municipal level. Detroit and Lodz are wading through the trenches. They’re in the trial-and-error phase.

As you point out, there are quite a few cities that are suffering or have suffered from the decline of industrialization. What makes Detroit unique?

Detroit’s strongest calling is that it’s open for business. Most American cities have their identities carved out for them. This is a city that is open to being shaped. How many cities are like that right now? The idea of reinventing a once-great metropolis only comes once every hundred years.

What advice would you give to those who want to come?

I would advise people to just come and exist for a while before you get straightaway into things you want to do. It’s not for everybody. You can’t just show up, sign on the line, and lead a fulfilling life. It’s hard to make a living. There’s no jobs. You have to do something yourself.

What would you like to see happen to the city in the next five years?

I want us to be at the forefront of thinking about the makeup of next-generation cities. I want to be the laboratory that begins to start answering what comes after the industrial age. How do we rebuild our middle class? How do we create the right corporate balance? If we can figure that out, if we have the metrics and the rulebook, it could revolutionize the country.

FROM the greenhouse