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February 7, 2011

Sarah F. Cox: Imported to Detroit

This is the first in a series of guest posts on the Urbanized blog, where we invite people we like to share their views on the state of cites.

During the Super bowl, Chrysler launched a new television ad with the motto “Imported from Detroit.” The two-minute pitch features scenes of the city and residents and culminates with Eminem driving the car up to the gorgeous Fox Theatre where the words KEEP DETROIT BEAUTIFUL adorn the marquee.

In the commercial, Detroit was used to improve the image of the product, an observation I stole from a tweet from @rustwire, a defender of Rust Belt cities. If you know anything about the press that city has gotten in the last 20 years, and especially since the foreclosure crisis and auto industry bailout, you’d have to think they were crazy. Yet here is the epic tribute to Detroit pride:



If any city has had an unfair share of negative propaganda, it’s Detroit. Examples are widespread in every medium from New York Times articles, to BBC documentaries, to a recent photo essay from PBS, entitled: Desolate Detroit, the Forsaken City. While Detroit does have plenty of problems, it’s the hyperbole used to describe the issues that gets residents fired up. Lest the images of vacant houses fool you, 800,000 people still live there making it the largest city in the state of Michigan.

It’s easy to manipulate a story with images, as a recent story in Guernica pointed out by examining ruin porn, an artistic compulsion to gawk at decaying buildings. What is it about emptiness that scares America so? I have been contemplating this question a lot as I prepare a thesis on Urban Design in Detroit, a project that has allowed me to spend six weeks of the last year there.

Car commercials are their own type of propaganda; this one pushes a product with a celebrity. But subtle moves can be revolutionary. KEEP DETROIT BEAUTIFUL it says. Not “make” but “keep.” We’re still here, it says.

Detroit, in my opinion, has a terrible motto. Many would disagree with me, but I think it’s impossible to lure new residents with the words: “We hope for better things, they shall rise from the ashes.” Chrysler now offers up, “Imported from Detroit,” which is great for lifers, but I’d like to see “Imported TO Detroit,” catch on as well. I’m moving there from New York City next spring and I cannot wait.

Sarah F. Cox writes about architecture and design for Curbed, Core77, and The Architect’s Newspaper. She’s currently working on a thesis on Urban Design in Detroit to complete her MFA in Design Criticism for the School of Visual Arts. Sarah’s thesis talk will be part of the day-long D-Crit Conference, open to the public, on May 4. She is very sad that the White Stripes broke up last week.

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MM Jones says

Feb 07, 2011

Just before the super bowl kick off, I checking out the Buildings of Detroit website, where I was struck by how many incredible buildings the city has lost. And not ten or 20 years ago, before we all knew better and appreciated them. Detroit is STILL losing incredible skyscrapers to demolition, many vacant edifices are threatened presently.

You say above, "What is it about emptiness that scares America so?" One point that was mentioned in Guernica's Detroitism essay, which (perhaps at the other end of the spectrum of the current crop of work dealing with this issue) is also mentioned in Johnny Knoxville's Detroit Lives documentary: the phenomenon of the ruin-porn pilgrim is substantially European. Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, suburban Parisians, are only the most high-profile example of this academic detachment which produces the same image of Michigan Central Station, the Michigan theater turned parking garage, etc. Aside from its endless repetitive appearances across tumblrs and the rest of the internet, I think this disengagement from the subject is part of what makes it "ruin-porn."

I think this commercial is awesome, and I really like the tagline (although is the car actually made in Detroit, or even the US?). I find it gorgeously filmed and edited. In the compact time frame of a TV ad, it alludes to the cosmopolitan grandeur that Detroit used to be famous for, when Woodward Avenue was "the 5th Avenue of the Midwest", when Mid-America's global metropolis was considered to be Detroit, which made personal saloons, not Chicago, which traded in pig bellies [I've lived in Chicago and love it dearly, don't get me wrong].

I hope this commercial does Detroit some good, but I agree that its lame how it sort of half-apologizes for its current state of affairs. Perhaps off topic, but it reminds me of the recent anti-bullying "It gets better" campaign, where I think we should be telling young gay kids that life is awesome, but just bearable]. Detroit's current conditions should actually be its chief selling point: a sparsely populated, extremely affordable metropolis, rich with history, heritage, culture, and opportunity. I don't know anything about Eminem's business affairs, but rather than doing a commercial, I hope he considers investing a part of his substantial fortune in investing in improving his beloved city.

Thanks for pointing out rustwire. Good luck with your move to Detroit and your research. Best, Matt

Anita says

Feb 13, 2011

This is a great approach by Chrysler to align itself with an underdog city, rebranding both itself and Detroit as challengers to the status quo, taking all the criticism of Detroit & turning it into a list of strengths, and then claiming Detroit's strengths as Chrysler's strengths. With an Eminem on top. Brilliant. Way to have an entire nation re-evaluate the common belief of Detroit as a ruin of a city & Chrysler as one of those failing American car companies.

Sue says

Feb 14, 2011

I'm not on the market for a car, and I don't know if I would buy a Chrysler, but this ad got me thinking about more than cars, it got me thinking about the importance of buying American and supporting the creation of jobs at home. I wish more advertisers had the sense to do that. Go, Detroit, and go, USA!

Sarah F. Cox says

Feb 15, 2011

Thanks for all your comments. I’d like to follow up by saying that yes, Detroit still loses buildings and right now that is most obvious for public schools, such as the old Cass Tech which was replaced by a new building in 2005, allowed to decay, and may now be completely gone by next summer if a developer does not buy it. These are sad stories indeed.

In conversations about this commercial many seem concerned about where the car was made and others have focused on the fact that Chrysler hired a Portland ad agency. I’ve heard people argue that Chrysler manipulates its Detroit-ness and makes them abroad and I’ve also heard that they are local. I don’t know who is right, but I wonder if we ask the same questions of other commercials. The buildings shown and the narrative formed are very authentically Detroit and I was inspired to see that Chrysler thinks that is an image worth promoting.

As a person moving there, I agree that the “a sparsely populated, extremely affordable” element is a huge draw, especially after New York. And this leads me to believe that we don’t need someone like Eminem and his deep pockets to re-invest. Its one of the rare cities where regular people can afford buildings with middle and working class salaries

For a far more eloquent discussion on the Detroit debate, I highly recommend this article by John Patrick Leary

Howard Freeman says

Dec 26, 2011

I've had a few friends move from the NYC area to Detroit starting in the late 70s (when my best friend's dad moved the family there as an ad exec) to more recently to help with urban renewal. And yet, the New York Times in 2010 showed that the top county in the country exporting citizens to NYC was in the Detroit area.

I think their big problem is defining the ethos around the car--as in the Eminem ad--when city living is about groups, density, walking. Plus, moving from some other city to Detroit with a car ethos says to me, "Another big up front cost and recurring costs to my budget."

I'd rather see them brand themselves as midwestern living, community life, near the Great Lakes, and they now have a football team they can be proud of!