The State of Brick City

We're at war -- not just in Afghanistan and Iraq -- but right here on the home front, where the battle plays out at the local level across America. Many cities are close to bankruptcy. They are laying off teachers, sanitation workers, firemen, and policemen. Meanwhile gang and drug wars escalate, while hospitals and prisons overflow.

We are now emerging from 3 years embedded in Newark, New Jersey, filming the second season of our Peabody Award winning series, Brick City, which premieres January 30th at 8 pm on Sundance Channel. Why focus on Newark? Because Cory Booker, their dynamic young mayor, promised to turn Newark into the vanguard for "urban transformation in America."

But how do you move forward in an age of austerity, layoffs, cutbacks and bankruptcy?

How do you govern in a time of partisan warfare, incendiary rhetoric, and popular rage?

How do you lead when a cynical and sensationalist media demand instant success, while constantly magnifying shortcomings and minimizing any progress?

We were convinced from the start that the key was to honestly chronicle a city's struggle to move forward through the parallel lives of frontline characters both inside and outside government. By weaving their stories into a novelistic format that highlighted their common goals and problems, while also contrasting their personalities and approaches, we hoped to stimulate a broader discussion about personal and political change.

In sports we like to root for the underdogs. Yet so much of today's news media devalues those trying to make a difference. We tried to show characters from all sides, as three dimensional people and came away with a renewed respect for those too often dismissed as "civil servants" or "community activists."

But change comes hard and in hard times it's hardcore. High stake decisions had to be made that could break careers and threaten the livelihoods and safety of thousands of people.

All the key players we followed this season, from Mayor Booker, to Police Director Garry McCarthy, to gang memoirist, Jiwe Morris, faced tremendous resistance and sometimes, outright hostility and death threats. As Jiwe, the author of The War of the Bloods in My Veins, says, "Change hurts."

We got a front row seat and unprecedented access to all of this playing out in Newark, NJ. America's hottest mayor faced a fiscal meltdown during an election year. In a grueling drama, dedicated civil servants were facing the end of an era in local government. A police director devoted to innovative crime fighting, battled his own union and community members, many of whom may never trust a white outsider. In the courts we witnessed the hair raising decision of a street warrior to defend himself, rather than take a deal. Everyone seemed to putting their personal and political lives on the line.

Our cameras were able to slip seamlessly into these scenes resulting in over a 1000 hours of footage. This gave us the material to create a new hybrid of non-fiction storytelling, shaped and styled like scripted dramas, but spontaneous like documentaries, with characters right out of reality series. When it comes to larger than life characters, Newark is a city that always delivers.

In short, we wanted to put the "real" back into reality. It takes guts to try something new and risky. Mayor Booker deserves tremendous credit for his tireless efforts. He may be the only politician in America who would ever agree to participate in a television series like this.

With the Super Bowl approaching, sports constantly reminds us that underdogs comeback, and team chemistry can produce amazing victories. But democracy is not a spectator sport. It needs an informed and active citizenry. Forget the pundits and cynics and the boring civics lessons at school. Treated with a dignity, the everyday struggle of real folks trying to make their lives better can reveal the very essence of human drama.

Join us on a journey to Brick City to see if one of our oldest and most challenging urban areas can change and lead the way into the 21st Century.

This is not just Newark's story; it's America's story.