Knoxville does Detroit: Another view
By Bree Kessler
Johnny Knoxville can now add â€śDetroitâ€ť to the numerous dangers he has survived. The new short web film, Detroit Lives, part of the â€śExplorationsâ€ť series sponsored and hosted on the Palladium Boots website, begins with an ominous voiceover stating: â€śDetroit is a city of death.â€ť So, who better to show us Detroit than Johnny Knoxville, the celebrity of Jackass notoriety, a daredevil familiar with surviving potentially fatal (and invariably asinine) stunts? A fearless Knoxville, looking enthusiastically at the camera from an open-top convertible driving down Woodward, then explains that he is here to see â€śwhatâ€™s going onâ€ť since there is a lot of bad press about Detroit, and â€śhe canâ€™t believe there isnâ€™t something positive.â€ť
Newspapers from The Detroit News to USA Today seem to agree. The reviews for “Detroit Lives” call it an “honest portraitâ€ť of Detroit â€” one that is “actually worth viewing” (as stated on the Time magazine blog).
The film is set-up so that for each dilapidated site Knoxville visits, such as the Michigan Central Station, for every traditional history of the city provided, the viewer is then rewarded with stories of a newly rehabilitated place as told by a young resident. Most of the shock surrounding the worthiness of the documentary is in regards to the fact that Knoxville is solely in Detroit to spotlight creative activities from artistsâ€™ workspaces to restaurant openings to agriculture plots.
â€śI get enough adventure in my day job and now I gotta go down here â€¦â€ť Knoxville jokes as he is being led through the decaying remnants of Detroitâ€™s Eastown Theater. He isn’t engaging in any dangerous stunts because his usual antics are unnecessary. The onset of the film has already established that just being in Detroitâ€™s landscape is an adventure in itself.
The premise of danger and exploration in Detroit serves a larger purpose in the video, besides that of justifying why Johnny Knoxville should be there at all. In The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City (1996), Neil Smith describes how selling the folklore of settling a frontier space facilitated the gentrification of Manhattanâ€™s Lower East Side in the late 1970s and early â€™80s. Smith goes on to provide examples of real estate advertisements that literally refer to the Lower East Side as â€śThe Wild Wild Westâ€ť of New York â€” an experience that can be bought by those who have the funds to purchase it â€” and its real estate.
In that context, Detroit Lives is less than an â€śhonest portraitâ€ť to â€ścounter the representation of Detroitâ€ť as one interviewee in the film states; rather, itâ€™s a very calculated representation of the chaos and the decay of Detroit being used as a public relations tool to attract a new, targeted kind-of settler to the city.
My critique of the film is by no means an attempt to diminish the truly amazing do-it-yourself â€śpositiveâ€ť activities that are occurring in the city. Johnny Knoxville and I are in total agreement: “this total DIY city is pretty inspiring.â€ť What is problematic here is that Detroit appears a hipster paradise of lawlessness.
Larry Mongo, owner of CafĂ© Dâ€™Mongoâ€™s Speakeasy and long-time resident of Detroit, shares how he began seeing â€śwhite girls running down the street.â€ť It took him awhile, he jokes, to realize that they were merely jogging and not getting chased. Mongo then excitedly reveals that the white kids persistently bothered him to re-open his bar and one day he found â€śwhat had to be 200 white kids on bicyclesâ€ť outside to see when the opening would occur.
Mongo then shares that his friends are starting to say that â€śwhite kids are taking over the city.â€ť It does seem so from our tour de Johnny Knoxville where race appears as an obvious, albeit unexamined, factor in Detroitâ€™s redevelopment. But Mongo, the upbeat entrepreneur, insists, â€śNo, they are just filling in the gaps” â€” cut to shots of his lively bar entirely filled with white drinkers in their 20s and 30s.
Can the movement of the creative class into the city be considered gentrification if they are taking over mostly abandoned space? Do films like Detroit Lives reveal who is being left out by these improvements? I do not think that celebrity-inspired and product-sponsored movies can or will do the work of providing an accurate picture of lives in Detroit. Instead, what these movies do accomplish is upholding the myth of Detroit as the Wild Wild (Mid)West eager to be developed by the kinds of people shown in Detroit Lives and those intrigued enough to now journey to Detroit themselves.
Bree Kessler was born and raised in the metro Detroit area and is currently completing her PhD in environmental psychology. Although she recently relocated to Hawaii, she anticipates moving back to Detroit sometime soon.