08/06/2013 09:00 pm ET Updated Oct 06, 2013

Detroit: Touring the Renaissance City With Charles Annenberg Weingarten

Recently a friend told me she got a great new job in Detroit, and I was reminded of Billy Crystal joking about Ethiopian food in When Harry Met Sally: "Hey, I didn't know that they had food in Ethiopia!" Similarly, I very nearly said: "Hey, I didn't know they had jobs in Detroit!" But I thought better of it, and appropriately responded: "Congratulations!"

Congratulations, it turns out, are perhaps slightly early but also in order for Detroit. We're currently riding a compelling and perplexing wave in American history, as the boom years of manufacturing are long gone (um, unless you're manufacturing things that go boom), and our next moves are wide open to discover. With the city of Detroit around $20 billion in debt and, just a few days ago, filing for bankruptcy (by far the largest such U.S. filing both by debt and by population), the city has effectively begun transcending the financial horror of the past few years. Detroit has admitted that it has a problem. It is, in effect, starting over. We are fortunate to be witnessing a beginning.


Charles Annenberg Weingarten explores Detroit.

Detroit -- I have discovered through my research -- is in Michigan. Quoth current Michigan Governor Rick Snyder: "I know many will see this as a low point in the city's history. If so, I think it will also be the foundation of the city's future." Good perspective.

Happily -- and very conveniently -- you can check out some of Detroit's future right here, right now, in's excellent short documentary: Detroit: The Renaissance of America -- part of's Americana series. Conducted by Charles Annenberg Weingarten, the tour dives directly into the soul of the former Motor City -- Motown! -- in the eerie-yet-enchanting dead of winter, no less -- and immediately delivers stunning, sometimes haunting, visions of the industrial past, while turning up all kinds of fun and soulful potential for the future: in the arts, in culture, in much-needed renewal. "I came to Detroit to feel its soul," intones Annenberg Weingarten -- and he does, and you'll share it. Seriously, this documentary is 20 minutes of amazing.

"Detroit: The Renaissance of America": This trip is well worth your click.

Obviously the key word in this particular documentary is potential. Detroit is a place that has known greatness -- consider the cars but also consider the global popularity of the music! -- and it can know it again.


Detroit: The Past -- The Packard plant ain't doing so great.

Recently I paid a visit to the headquarters, and enjoyed a casual chat with Charles "Charlie" Annenberg (see video above, if you haven't already) and his fine crew. At once thrilling and soothing, gazing in one direction at the Pacific Ocean and in the other at a monitor delivering live "Bear Cams" (co-starring a large cast of salmon!) from Brooks Falls, in Katmai National Park and Preserve, Alaska, the organization's environment feels, in the nicest way, like "windows on the world" -- or, as Charlie calls's many carefully-placed, progressively-powered nature-cams: "Pearls of the Planet."

We have a little laugh, too, as someone suggests placing such cameras to document, live, the rebirth of Detroit. Mr. Annenberg promptly clarifies: "Right now, I've been using the cams more for escape from urban squalor; connecting with nature. One difference between nature and civilization -- and people -- is that nature doesn't sue."

Point taken. It's a fun meeting. I sense the organization's motto and mantra -- "Never Stop Learning" -- in the very essence of the place. It feels good. But a curious mind must ask questions, so I parallel the Internet of the 21st century with Cinéma of the 20th: meaning it's a world-altering medium which at this point is in its infancy (as were movies in 1913) -- and how would Mr. Annenberg Weingarten like to see it evolve?


Detroit: The Future -- The Arts of Tyree Guyton's Heidelberg Project

"Wow, that's deep," he deadpans. Grins around the room. He continues: "Making the films, to begin with -- the first time with was trying to show the interconnectedness of humanity, and how all people are connected by similar principals and values. It was good people doing good work -- and kind of replacing fear with trust.

"So when you look at our first corpus of works, for example: we went to Africa with our first project. The media portrays Africa as the world's great pity party: AIDS, famine, war, disease -- and a few cute animals sprinkled on top. But really there are amazing people, in amazing cultures, doing amazing work.

"Then our next project was China. Well, China is always portrayed as the world's great human-rights superpower: you should be afraid. (But) once again: great people doing great work. So what we're getting at is that most of our projects are almost going against the grain of the stereotypes that are found in soundbite culture. So we're trying to brand ourselves as building a telecommunications empire; and we're putting pulses in different zones on the planet that were really kind of dominated by media.

"My hope with the Internet," he continues, "is bringing voices from all over the planet that can then come together in a safe place, knowing we're safe, because I've been there, opening dialogues. So that was its initial conception." Charlie smiles. "I kind of have this belief that it was first really important to lay some groundwork to understand places that were very misunderstood."


Detroit: The Eternal -- You can't hurry love!

Indeed, it's good to have some first-hand discovery of Detroit -- a domestic but nonetheless complicated place which could become increasingly misunderstood. For myself, I once went to a Youssou N'Dour/Peter Gabriel concert there, and I once encountered honey-voiced Detroit native Smokey Robinson at the LAX baggage claim (amazing). Drove through Detroit once en route to Canada (I love Canadians). Apart from that, in terms of popular movies, Robocop and The Crow have made Detroit look like Blade Runner East. Not quite attractive.

This much I have discovered: "Detroit" comes from the French détroit (day-TWAH; not DEE-troyt) -- meaning simply "strait" -- as a few dozen intrepid turn-of-the-18th-century wandering Frenchmen dubbed their new home Fort Ponchartrain on le détroit du Lac Erie -- in other words, that strait linking Great Lakes Erie and Huron. A couple of centuries of growing prosperity pass, and today, talk about a dire strait! -- yet evidence of hope abounds, as is readily seen in the documentary above.

"Calling the next Thomas Edision!" announces Charlie from atop one of Detroit's many empty buildings. "Calling the next Henry Ford! Calling the next Rosa Parks! We need you!"

Bring it.

Photos and video courtesy of