Midtown, a neighborhood in Jackson, Mississippi, was experiencing plummeting property values and rising crime rates like many other inner-city areas across the United States. Despite investments in community programs and affordable housing, Midtown couldn’t bounce back from the stress and residents continued to move out. It needed something different to revitalize the neighborhood.

Duvall Decker, a Jackson, Mississippi, architecture firm, was recruited to work alongside residents and community leaders to develop a master plan. Together, they transformed the struggling area into an example of healthy community revitalization.

Duvall Decker is known for strategic grassroots planning that leads to sustainable growth. “We work toward community initiatives and interventions that can instigate change,” says Roy Decker, principal at Duvall Decker and lead planner. “Midtown. A Blueprint for Better” is a short documentary film depicting the positive changes of Midtown’s master plan.

Filmmaker Riley Engemoen produced, directed, shot, and edited this short documentary, capturing this year’s I Look Up Film Challenge theme, Blueprint for Better. “I was most impressed with the love and vigor for not only preserving but bettering the community,” Engemoen says. “Getting to sit in on a neighborhood association meeting was incredibly inspiring.”

In the film, Engemoen and the Duvall Decker team share how the Midtown neighborhood improved with the help of grassroots organization and collaboration with local architects. “We got to see firsthand how integrated the architects were with the community,” Engemoen says. “Duvall Decker exemplifies what the ideal, local firm could be. Instead of imposing, they listen to who they are building for and collaborate.”

“By working on the hardest problems, like abandoned homes and vacant properties,” Decker adds, “we could change the property values with new comparable interventions, thus raising everyone’s home value. In disadvantaged and failing communities, it's often only the land that has residual value.  And the land value can be changed and can be the basis of economic growth.”

Filmmakers visit the Midtown neighborhood in Jackson, Mississippi, to tell the community's story for the I Look Up Film Challenge.

Since starting the project, Duvall Decker has designed 62 houses that are safe and support the residents. “There have been new businesses and residents moving in, plus schools and services returning,” Decker says. “Midtown truly is a Blueprint for Better.”

For the Duvall Decker team, the true highlight of the project is witnessing the community take charge of their fate. Midtown is now organizing together as a united community and even using the architects’ master plan to seek grants to negotiate with the city.

Architecture’s challenge is to use design to solve problems, creating a Blueprint for Better. The challenge for filmmakers is to share these stories. As a filmmaker, Engemoen offered advice for capturing a project like Midtown’s transformation: “Talk to people. Get out there and interact with people in real life.”

For the third year in a row, AIA has invited filmmakers and architects to team up for the I Look Up Film Challenge. Registration ends on June 26; sign up now at ilookup.org.

All submitted films will be reviewed by an esteemed panel of judges from the media and architecture world and then shared with the public for a special People’s Choice vote. Winners will be screened at the Architecture and Design Film Festival, and win cash and distribution prizes. To join the conversation, use the hashtag #ilookup.

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