Digging Deeper Into Community (Re)Building Through Interactive Storytelling

The struggle for urban justice—and now the conversation around equitable rebuilding—is happening to a city near you.

In 2006, I relocated to New Orleans to document how the iconic city would rebuild after the massive devastation of Hurricane Katrina. My co-producer, Micheal Boedigheimer, and I filmed the stories of people who were on the front lines of this unprecedented reconstruction—public housing residents, developers and planners, unregistered Latino laborers, community activists, and displaced youth, among others. We captured hundreds of meetings, protests, rallies, demolitions and groundbreakings, where disparate visions over the “new” New Orleans clashed in sometimes violent ways. After filming full-time for five years, we built a substantial archive of more than 1,500 hours of footage that was culled into the 97-minute documentary, Land of Opportunity, which we released in 2011.


Long before the film came out, however, I realized that the themes and tensions in the stories we were documenting went far beyond post-Katrina New Orleans. Climate disasters, economic collapse, and conflicting agendas for development and space resonate from Detroit to the Gulf Coast, from New York City to Chicago. The topic of how our communities are (re)built in the face of crisis seems to grow more and more relevant. We wanted to continue to tell this evolving story in a dynamic way that reflected the diversity of voices and stakeholders involved. We needed a new way to showcase these issues—one that drew connections across time, place, and community.

We started by reaching out to technologists who were developing new interactive storytelling tools online. Then we partnered with filmmakers, educators, and advocates in sister communities (New York, Boston, Detroit, Chicago and the Gulf Coast) to create layered multimedia narratives that connect the dots between the people and processes shaping our increasingly fragile and fragmented landscape. And so the next phase of our project was born: LandofOpportunity, an experimental web platform (currently in beta*) that merges multimedia storytelling about community rebuilding with data, research, and calls to action in one collaborative interactive space.

This experimental platform invites users to dig deeper into multifaceted stories linking post-Katrina displacement to the effects of the BP oil spill on the Gulf Coast, public housing redevelopment in Chicago to gentrification in Brooklyn, youth organizing in Boston to participatory budgeting initiatives in New York and New Orleans, and more. By housing these diverse stories in one interactive space, LandofOpportunity encourages users to think beyond single-issue silos and contribute to a growing dialogue around solutions to the complex and systemic issues that impact the daily existence and future growth of our communities.

These interactive stories feature content from an accomplished and diverse group of mediamakers, including Kelly Anderson and Allison Lirish Dean, (director and producer of My Brooklyn, the acclaimed documentary about gentrification in Downtown Brooklyn), Mark Lipman and Leah Mahan (producers of the documentaries Holding Ground and Gaining Ground about the power of community organizing in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston), Ronit Bezalel (director of the films Voices of Cabrini and 70 Acres in Chicago, on the redevelopment of the Cabrini Green housing development in Chicago), and Bridge the Gulf, a multimedia site devoted to fostering citizen journalism on the Gulf Coast. It also features reports, research, and calls to action from educators, advocates, and researcher partners (including National Housing Institute/Shelterforce, New Orleans Coalition on Open Governance, prominent author and housing expert Edward Goetz and more).

As we learned in New Orleans, how we (re)build our increasingly vulnerable communities just might be the defining challenge of the 21st century. We’re excited about how this platform can broaden and deepen conversations about urban justice and community rebuilding, and allow for more informed and connected analysis and action. We encourage users to explore how crises (economic, natural, or manmade) are shaping their communities—and to add their voices to those demanding a role in determining the future of their homes and neighborhoods. The struggle for urban justice—and now the conversation around equitable rebuilding—is happening to a city near you.

* Note: The platform is a work-in-progress in beta and currently works best on laptops or tablets with a high-speed internet connection and updated browsers.

Julian Meehan

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