Is the American Dream Dead or Alive?

James Marshall photographed by Jaesung Lee for BlackBook Magazine

If you listened strictly to the news pouring out of televisions and newspapers across the country, you’d think America was in the pits. Political tensions run high, incomes are low, and that’s to say nothing of the inequalities rampant in minority communities. It’s bad news all around. James Marshall, whose other projects include West Village restaurant Whitehall, wanted to know if the bad news rang true: Was the American dream dead? Marshall called up Cole Haan and recruited friend and photographer Todd Williams to accompany him on a monthlong motorcycle ride to visit eight American towns and cities and staying along the way with people met entirely through social media. The resulting series, The American Dream Project, shows a more hopeful, persevering side of the United States not often seen in the news. Marshall, by the way, learned to ride a motorcycle only three weeks before embarking on his journey. 

What gave you the idea for The American Dream Project?

I had one too many of those days spent barraged by bad news in the media. This is such a great country. I’m from Windsor, about 25 miles west of London, but moved here seven years ago. I thought, No, I’m not going to just listen to this. Let’s find out if this news is true. Is the American dream dead? That seed grew into The American Dream Project.

What were your views of America before you moved here, what did the American dream mean to you then?

Actually, when I came to New York with a little bit of cash, I was so convinced I would be robbed that I split my money–it wasn’t so much, a few hundred dollars–into socks and distributed it around my apartment. I was living in the West Village. I just had an address and a key, and I moved here with that worry. JaesungLee_JamesMarshall_ColeHaan_BB
James Marshall photographed by Jaesung Lee for BlackBook Magazine

I’m surprised you had those worries about moving to a safe neighborhood like the West Village.

But within a few months you realize it’s the safest city in the world. You realize that Americans like people who work hard; they want you to succeed. And if you work hard, you can go somewhere, you can be successful.

Were you ever afraid this project wasn’t going to happen?

This was the biggest project I’ve done so far. I didn’t fully understand how expensive it was to pull a crew together and go across the country for a month. I approached Cole Haan because their philosophy and mine were almost identical. Like me, they believe that substance and quality mean something in today’s world. Cole Haan is also an iconic American brand, founded by immigrants just like me. This project would not have happened without them.

In filming The American Dream Project you met your hosts through social media.

I wanted this to be as genuine as possible. I wanted to meet real people, and the best way to do that was via social media. We sent out blasts on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, hashtagging like crazy in the hope that people would reach out.

Were you surprised at how warm and inviting these total strangers were to the request of hospitality for two guys on motorcycles riding across America?

I was blown away. Complete strangers invited Todd and I into their homes, and in some cases, they put up the entire crew.

We’re all human; we want to connect. Yet it’s always a surprise when you connect with people outside of your normal day to day.

The media fills your mind with whatever they are putting out. We are bombarded with sensational or salacious news that doesn’t really feed us anything positive. If you’re not careful about what to listen to, we do tend to, or I tend to, think we are very different. But actually, we’re not. Most people want the same things: security, safety, validation, and to dream. My experience was that we really do have much more in common than we are told we have. It is kind of liberating. ColeHaan_JamesMarshall_JaesungLee_BlackBook_3
James Marshall photographed by Jaesung Lee for BlackBook Magazine

Was allowing social media and chance to dictate your project a different kind of creative process than what you are used to?

I’m used to having an idea and being able to direct something well produced. Here, I didn’t know what the end was going to be. It was refreshing because it was, “Who am I going to meet today?” It was very exciting and nerve-racking because this thing could have been a bust. It could have been one sad story after another.

How do you view creativity?

The new creativity is freedom–people are making movies on iPhones. Social media allows you to collaborate globally. You could have musicians in one country provide music for a Web series that is being made in another country. Everyone can be a creative talent. That could be good and bad because there is a lot of content out there. We need a creative revolution, which we’re in the midst of. With so many online outlets and cameras on every phone, people can make what they want, when they want, and get it out there.

How has this new wave of creativity altered the American dream?

The new wave of creativity has actually enabled people to dream and be inspired by other people’s work because they can see it within minutes of being made. It’s doesn’t have to be an executive in Hollywood but a kid in bumblefuck nowhere making things happen. There are no walls anymore; the walls have come down. 

Did your idea of the American dream change throughout filming?

It definitely evolved as I went along. But I think before I left, I had a view of the American dream that I think most people have, which is this postwar idea of a big house, white picket fence, 2.4 kids, and a dog. That is a prescribed American dream that is put in the minds of many of us, and that’s gone. But what I’ve seen replace that is staggering because it’s evolved into something better. Rather than people aiming for a preprescribed dream, it’s become an individual pursuit. People have now taken up the mantle to think of their own dream. Now the American dream is absolutely individual to each person, which I think is great. For people to be enabled to really dream is exciting. Discover more about the series here.

This story appears in the spring 2015 issue of BlackBook Magazine on stands now.