Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Aaron Woolf: Director of Beyond Motor City

Aaron Woolf is a documentary filmmaker is best known for King Corn, which looks at the complex outcomes of our country’s decision to heavily subsidize the production of corn. His new film, called Beyond Motor City, takes Aaron’s incisive ability to understand interacting systems and present them in a digestible way through the medium of film.

We had a chance to speak with Aaron in anticipation of the St. Louis debut of Beyond Motor City (May 17th at the Tivoli at 7 PM). Check out what the man has to say!

The St. Lou Jew:
You have spent a lot of time looking into agricultural systems, particularly the Corn Industry, and focused a lot on local agriculture. How did you make the jump from that into looking at transportation?

Aaron Woolf:
It is actually not that huge of a leap. After making King Corn, I became really interested in the nuts and bolts of local and regional food economies so I opened a small grocery store focused on local products (in Brooklyn) to see what the challenges really are. The bottleneck in the adoption of local and organic foods isn’t lack of demand...or even supply. In fact, arable lands near big cities are the some of the only places where we’re seeing a lot of young people returning to agriculture. It is the infrastructure [of getting the food to market] that’s lacking.
We played around with the idea of listing the carbon footprint of everything in our store, but found that the truth is that a kiwi from New Zealand can have a smaller carbon footprint than an organic tomato from New Jersey, which has a lot to do with the systems of getting these items from one place to another.

So I became interested in understanding how these systems, rail and highway, get built.

It turns out that, in terms of a national vision for transportation, America has radically transformed itself before...but really only once in a generation. I think we are at that point in our generation where we can once again transform.

STLJew: How did you settle on Detroit as the focal point of this film?

AW: I was initially interested in Detroit based on the vigorous local food movement there, but the more I looked at it, from a transportation and infrastructure standpoint, the more I saw the way that, historically, the city was so much more just the place we associate with the auto industry. Detroit has actually embodied each of the previous transportation chapters our nation has been through as well - from canals and rail through to the highway dominated system we have today.

In the early 19th century, Detroit went from being a sleepy outpost to a thriving river city due to the commerce created by the construction of the Erie Canal. It was an incredibly audacious act. Prior to that point, the longest canal in the US was 30 miles. The Erie Canal was a 300 mile project – and represented the can-do spirit of the new nation. It had a huge transformative effect. It is likely that without the Erie Canal, New Orleans would have eclipsed New York as the country’s premier port and economic capital. The entire outcome of the Civil War might have turned out differently!

When you examine the introduction of rail and highways systems in later epochs, you can see that Detroit was always at the vanguard. I would like to see an audacious investment in a 21st century transportation infrastructure take hold in Detroit again and I think it’s possible.

If Detroit could rethink transportation, as they have done before, they could create an new model for what a city could be. Detroit could turn the decay, isolation, and abandonment into an opportunity. By combining new transportation infrastructures and a renewed initiative to bring real manufacturing for a green economy back to America with urban agriculture in Detroit’s abandoned sectors, Detroit could recreate the urban model and possibly be the first major city to feed itself!

StLouJew: You mention the decay and abandonment that permeates Detroit. Just recently the government of Detroit just announced a plan to raze entire areas of the city. How did we get to this point of being so spread out that our cities are that unsustainable?

AW: I think we have improperly come to conflate the car with the idea of freedom in this country. It was easier to say that cars and freedom were connected when oil was $11 a barrel and before we began to feel so un-free on our myriad clogged highways. For far too long, public transit has come to be thought of as the transit of last resort. But what form will a 21st century transportation landscape take?

You know, I was born in 1964. I remember some time in elementary school a teacher told me that in my adult lifetime we would have the metric system and physical transportation based around jetpacks. We already had the technology… Well it turns out that teacher was way wrong on both counts.

Of course if “freedom”, as in freedom of movement, were our only objective, jetpacks would represent the ultimate in freedom. But they also take immense amounts of energy to operate. Maybe when, knowingly or unknowingly, we decided not to invest in jetpack technology, we actually made a responsible choice… maybe for once we didn’t go with the most reckless and excessive way of doing things.

In my parents’ generation, everyone wanted to move to the suburbs, in your generation we are seeing a yearning to be part of a dense urban community. Maybe there’s another kind of freedom in NOT having a car. We once imagined infrastructure in a way that would make us free, but that so called freedom is totally unsustainable.

StLouJew: When it comes to food, individuals have the ability to impact the market by voting with their purchases, with transportation, change often comes from the top down. How do we take the 30,000 foot view?

AW: Perhaps we will find our motivation from the sense of competitiveness with other countries. China, Japan, Brazil and Europe are all re-thinking their transportation systems based on a balanced and sustainable future. They’re taking the long-term view, even though transportation investment can be expensive in the short term.

But perhaps we can find some of the motivation to change by looking at our own history… Creating this idea of a new American system is a powerful idea. Abraham Lincoln was a protégé of Henry Clay, who based his political thought on just that, creating a “New American System” which was based in large part on investing in a national transportation infrastructure. This is how the legislation that gave birth to the transatlantic railroad got snuck in during the civil war.

Look at what the Chinese and Spanish are doing today. They have invested heavily in the infrastructure that is going to build the next economy. The Chinese have spent $350 billion over the past 10 years on building a high-speed rail infrastructure - to put this in perspective, note that Obama just signed an $8 billion high speed rail bill into law.

We have the technology to do what we want to do. But we have to be willing to make the physical planning choices necessary and we have to understand how these interlocking systems locally, regionally, and nationally connect. We need to think long-term and think through the consequences of our choices.

In the realm of agriculture, I don’t think Earl Butz - who set us on a course of all out corn production - was “Doctor Evil” but his policies stressed productivity above all other considerations like environment and health and now we’re dealing with the unintended consequences. I don’t think Henry Ford thought cars would contribute to the disintegration of our communities. He thought he was democratizing transportation, but at the dawn of the 21st century we can see that our unbalanced emphasis on car-centered transportation has really helped remove people from each other -- and ironically has contributed in places like Detroit to a decaying sense of community. I really feel like we need to look at history to know how to move forward. That’s why we focus on that so much in the movie.

We are at a pivotal point in history, and in the world today we have countries who are hungry and willing to do what it takes to build their communities. Our greatest strength in this country is our diverse communities and our incredible reserve of human resources. But building a transportation infrastructure that supports human interaction and becomes a foundation for enterprise is prerequisite to taking full advantage of those resources.

We have the opportunity as a nation to meet that challenge. I think there are seeds of it almost everywhere in the country right now - not least of all in Detroit. Detroit is a place that has ridden the highest highs and the lowest lows of our national transportation choices. I believe the city can once again lead us toward a new vision. But it’s a conversation we need to have now.

Take the next step in the conversation, see the movie and meet Aaron on May 17 at the Tivoli!

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