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CriticCar Detroit: Reviews on the road

By Steve Zoski, Daily Staff Reporter
Published February 4, 2013

DETROIT — It’s a cold and windy Saturday night in Detroit, as a car containing three University alumni on an $80,000 mission stops at a red light on Woodward Avenue.

Outside the window is Campus Martius Park at the heart of the city’s downtown. There, underneath the gleam of a towering Christmas tree still standing several weeks after Dec. 25, huddles of skaters, bundled up in fluorescently colored coats and scarves, etch across the ice.

The traffic light turns green, and the car moves on, passing a darkened building with a glowing neon sign in the window that says “Detroit Never Gives Up.”

After weaving through more of the city’s streets, oftentimes a unique mix of vacant and occupied buildings, the car parks. Its passengers — Jennifer Conlin, a contributor to The New York Times; Shoshana Hurand, a program director at Artrain USA; and Joey Ostrander, a camera operator — enter a large, columned building that somewhat resembles Angell Hall. It is the historic Hilberry Theatre, which has stood at the corner of Cass Avenue and W. Hancock Street since 1917, and has housed the productions of Wayne State University’s theatre students since 1963.

Inside the theater’s dimly lit lobby, the three walk onto a sprawling ornate rug. Ostrander stands in the brightest area of the room, by the front doors, where photos of student performers line the wall. Conlin approaches a Wayne student standing behind a counter. He is the director of the Hilberry, wearing a sport coat and tie, and can’t help but grin as Conlin explains that she and her two companions are here to conduct interviews and record footage for a non-profit journalism company that aims to share the voice of real Detroiters — CriticCar has arrived at the Hilberry.

From the Nile to the Huron

Conlin grew up in Ann Arbor. She even has a Detroit Tigers iPhone case. But she and her husband Daniel Rivkin, a broadcast journalist, spent the last 20 years living and working abroad in cities including Brussels, Paris, London, and most recently Cairo, which they left during the 2010 revolution to return to the states.

Therefore, Conlin felt somewhat like a tourist when she first visited Detroit after her family moved into her elderly parents’ Ann Arbor home in 2010.

Having written many articles for the Times’ Travel Section about places as exotic as the Egyptian streets, Conlin decided it was time to look into what Detroit had to offer.

Conlin said she knows Detroit has had problems and high crime rates, but she said there is so much good as well. For someone who bought a plane ticket back to Egypt the day after Mubarak resigned to write an article about how Egyptian tourism had changed post-revolution, Detroit did not intimidate.

On May 5, 2011, just months after Chrysler’s “This is Detroit, This is What We Do” ad featuring Eminem aired during the Super Bowl, Conlin’s article on Detroit, “36 Hours in Detroit,” was published. It quickly became the most e-mailed article on The New York Times website, a feat that Conlin admits surprised her.

To craft the article, Conlin spent a night in Detroit’s Westin Book-Cadillac Hotel and ventured around the city’s restaurants, historic sites and art attractions. She encouraged readers to visit Detroit venues such as Cliff Bell’s jazz club, Cafe D’Mongo, Slows Bar BQ and Eastern Market.

“DESPITE recent news stories of a population exodus from Detroit,” the article opened, “there are many reasons to make a pilgrimage to this struggling city right now — and not just because Eminem’s slick Super Bowl commercial showcased the inner strength of the Motor City. No video can portray the passion one finds on the streets of Detroit these days, where everyone from the doorman to the D.J. will tell you they believe in this city’s future.”

The article praised Detroit’s most promising neighborhoods, stating “midtown, downtown and Corktown — are bustling with new businesses that range from creperies and barbecue joints catering to the young artists entrepreneurs migrating to Motown.”

Though excited with how many attractions the city offered, Conlin also saw the city’s struggles.

“Having lived in cities our whole life — in Paris, in Brussels, in London, in Cairo —we’re such urbanites that we could just see the kind of sadness that had taken over (Detroit),” Conlin said.

After the article’s success, she wanted to do more. She thought about ways she could help Detroit and considered following up “36 Hours” with more articles about the city. But her husband suggested a different approach.

He suggested not to “drive your editors crazy” with more Detroit articles and encouraged her to try something more permanent.

Challenge Accepted

So Conlin and Dan Shaw, a friend who had worked with her at the Times, began to formulate the idea for a proposal to submit to the Community Journalism Challenge, a national competition funded by The Knight Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, which funds programs combating the diminution of the arts in American cities.

“What would the city need?” Conlin said she wondered. “Dan knew about this kind of photo booth that had been in this theater in Pittsfield, Massachusetts where people would go into this booth in the theater and just leave a little review. So then we said, ‘What if you made that mobile?’”

They began to formulate an idea. Instead of a photo booth, a team would drive around to different art events in Detroit and capture patron’s reviews with a portable camera. With traditional journalism struggling and the day of the traditional art critic expiring, why not allow anyone to say how they felt about a play, concert or exhibit?

This team, CriticCar Detroit, would collect video reviews of plays, concerts, festivals and other events, publish the reviews in one place and help elevate the discussion of arts events in Detroit. The real, genuine people of Detroit could have a voice, and maybe their appreciation for art could increase, Conlin believed.

CriticCar would be like a Yelp or Rotten Tomatoes, but instead of restaurant or movie reviews it would be the go-to place for on-the-scene reviews of Detroit’s cultural events. Conlin said culture is the reason people go to a city.
While Conlin said people easily make emotional attachments to music or television, Conlin hoped to explore the idea that “you can have that feeling in a museum with paintings, or in a sculpture garden, or through dance.” Maybe CriticCar could show that.

After an intense competition, it became apparent that the Community Challenge’s judges agreed that CriticCar could help elevate the arts in Detroit. In April 2012, it was declared one of three winners, beating out 232 other proposals from across the country to win an $80,000 grant. The Cultural Alliance of Southeastern Michigan, a local National Endowment for the Arts agency, receives the funds, funneling them to CriticCar and Artrain, a non-profit with a mission to bring the arts to developing communities.

In a city that has a suffered so much, perhaps CriticCar could revolutionize arts journalism and bring art to the community.

Before hitting the streets of Detroit, the team tested elements of their idea, and the plan evolved. After finding that people did not necessarily like the idea of getting into the back of a strange car, it was decided that reviews would take place in the lobby or on the sidewalk outside where events are held. And after a normal video camera seemed troublesome to transport, it was decided that the team would record the interviews using iPads and a microphone, which people seem to find more personal. Lastly, while the original idea of the concept had the team driving around in a big orange-and-black CriticCar vehicle, the team does not yet have a car, other than team members’ personal vehicles.

“I’m not going to be as obsessive about getting a huge, vintage, cool, outfitted car because I don’t want to blow my money on that,” Conlin said.

Conlin said the NEA was concerned during the competition, wondering whether CriticCar could actually elevate the arts, but so far — a month into the program — she is “amazed by how articulate how people are.” She added that the Detroiters who understand the legacy and greatness of the city, and those who she seeks to interview, might be underrepresented in other media outlets.

“You could have somebody sitting there going, ‘The allegory of the cars shaking as Detroit is rattled by the changes in the automotive industry,’ but this is what I wanted. These are real Detroiters,” Conlin said.

Lights. Camera. Action.

Back inside the Hilberry, the blood-curdling screams of a dying character onstage erupt from within the auditorium, and the CriticCar team waiting out in the lobby stands to attention upon hearing a loud applause. They’re ready when the large brown metallic doors of the auditorium open, and grinning faces — young and old — pour out into the lobby.
Conlin approaches the patrons and quickly asks if they would like to go on camera and provide a thirty-second review of the play they had just seen — “Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet)” — a comedy inspired by Shakespeare’s tragedies “Othello” and “Romeo and Juliet” that has been running at the Hilberry since last November.

If they are interested, and they usually are, Conlin’s associate from Artrain, Shoshana Hurand, approaches them with a clipboard, release forms and a pen. After signing the forms, interviewees are lead over to Ostrander, who stands with an iPad and microphone in one of the lobby’s few favorably lit areas.

Again and again, playgoers come over to Ostrander, pick up a microphone replete with the orange-and-black CriticCar logo, and stand in front of the iPad’s gaze, where they say what they think.

Two college-aged friends, Denzel Clark and Shane Nelson, come up to Conlin and say they would like to give a joint review. Standing next to each other, they take turns offering their comments.

“I was very impressed with the overall cast as a whole, to kind of go back and have that mix of modern, as well as Shakespearean language — they really did a great job at doing that,” Nelson said, before putting the microphone toward Clark’s mouth.

“I thought that helped keep it moving,” Clark said, making a face. “If it was, like, all Shakespeare people would have been like ‘what?’”

Conlin said she has found it does not help to give people a long-winded explanation about what CriticCar is, how it has a grant and how it will help Detroit. It’s pretty effective to just prompt them for a short review. Ostrander silently holds the iPad, and interviewees have a lot to say.

Over time, the team hopes that the CriticCar presence will draw people to Detroit’s events by feeding the desire people have to get their opinions on camera.

“(Venues) want us to come in and promote their space, but they also want CriticCar to do well,” Hurand said.
CriticCar left the Hilberry that night with eight interviews, adding to the 12 interviews recorded earlier in the day at the Detroit International Auto Show, an event that Conlin notes might not fit in with CriticCar’s usual itinerary.

In the Detroit Cobo Center, amidst the crowds, loud music and parade of people wearing paper mache costumes of famous Detroit figures like Sparky Anderson, CriticCar weaved its way around to interview attendees of all ages about the vehicles on display.

“The main thing is I just want to get a diversity of opinions and personalities,” Hurand said, while holding the clipboard of release forms and scanning the crowd for people who look particularly interested in the cars on display. “I want the people who are often in that scene and the people who are experiencing that scene for the first time.”

On CriticCar’s YouTube page — the current platform for the project — users can already see diversity in the growing collection of reviews CriticCar has collected in its first month. In a 27-second video, Emily New, a girl who looks to be of elementary-school age, stands in front of a car, looking into the iPad.

“I’m at the Detroit Auto Show, here in front of the smart car for stars,” New said. “It has a sunroof that goes from front to back, and it has beautiful color. On the front it looks like it has a smiley face, and the rims look really cool, because they are black and orange and very shiny.”

Next, a grinning Rahid Chowdhury, who appears to be in his 20s, offers another enthusiastic review of a BMW, talking about the car as if he just purchased it.

“I’m on the BMW Z, Z-4. Oh, yeah — this baby’s sick! There’s this crazy-ass car right here, ya know? I love the CD player, leather interior — it’s an amazing car ... driving on the freeway with the roof down, oh, man, this is like luxury, going 110 down the freeway, the speed limit, the V8 engine.”

And another video takes the CriticCar team to a DLECTRICITY puppet performance in October. On Oct. 5 and 6, DLECTRICITY hosted a nighttime art festival across the city that aimed to highlight antique architecture through new art technology. After attending a puppet show that was part of the festival, a young girl, Amara Small, gave her review.
“I like the show after they showed all the puppets; this was a very fun day at the puppet show, and I like Detroit because Detroit is very special.”

Though Conlin recognizes the growing care people have for Detroit, she’s realistic about the challenge the city faces.
“(You) can’t think this automotive sector is going to save it again because it’s just not, can’t pretend the creative community can save it because they can’t and you can’t pretend community gardens should be everywhere because they shouldn’t,” Conlin said. “It’s a combination of all these things.”

And for Conlin, she hopes CriticCar can show how, in the midst of adversity, creativity has taken hold in the city.
“I think a lot of people are drawn to Detroit because it doesn’t have all these things that other cities have,” Conlin said. “Now it’s getting a Whole Foods and a Meijer, and that is good in terms of employment … But on the other hand, Eastern Market has become this place that feeds everybody, Honeybee’s has become this place in Mexicantown that feeds everybody. There’s all of these cottage industries, guys making bagels because there’s no bagel place. And you see the fact that the city doesn’t have a lot has made people be really creative, and now they don’t necessarily want it to have everything.”