Chrysler and the banality of Americana

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

4 February 2014


Back in 2011, I, like a lot of other folks, thought Chrysler had come up with something really special for its Imported From Detroit Super Bowl spot. That was the commercial with Eminem riding a Chrysler 200 sedan through wintry Motown streets while a gravel-voiced announcer declared "We're from America, but this isn't New York City or the Windy City or Sin City, and we're certainly no one's Emerald City." It worked because it wrought generalities from specifics, using Detroit as lens through which to view the rest of America: its aspirations and its setbacks. Chrysler moved America by suggesting that the nations destiny, its resilience, and its nobility of character was tied to the city of Detroit and its metonymic manufacturing industry. If Detroit could come back, America could too; since America would come back, Detroit must too.

The ad had a successor of sorts, which worked reasonably, even if the rap nerd in me rebels against the notion that a song as iconically New York as Jay-Z's "Heart of the City" could be used to soundtrack Detroit footage. Spiritually, however, the spot worked: Detroit, Chrysler argued, could compete against the best the world had to offer, and therefore America could too. A 2013 ad, featuring Motown Records founder Berry Gordy, was less memorable but still accentuated the Chryser conviction that Detroit represented America at its best. (Note also that all three of these ads emphasise not just Detroit's American-ness but also its African American-ness: soul music and rap music were for Chrysler as integral to a contemporary image of America as local manufacturing and international dominance.)

The company's 2012 Super Bowl spot featuring Clint Eastwood used an actor famed for his American-ness and leaned so heavily on Zeitgeist themes that some Republicans complained that the ad sounded like an Obama campaign commercial — this was before Eastwood affixed his star to the GOP firmament with a convention address and an empty chair. But Detroit was still tied to Chrysler's identity and to America's fortune: "It's half time in America too. People are out of work and they're hurting and they're all wondering what they're going to do to make a comeback, and we're all scared because this isn't a game. The people of Detroit know a little something about this. They almost lost everything, but we all pulled together and now Motor City is fighting again."

Considering the company's track record over the past few years, then, its 2014 Super Bowl effort looks even more uninspired. In some ways, the commercial is an heir to previous successes: a male celebrity hawks a car by appealing to patriotism and the iconography of Americana. But from Bob Dylan's first blandishment — "is there anything more American than America?" — to the quasi-racism and hints of neo-imperialism in the closing "let Asia assemble your phone" (this anonymysing orientalism coming immediately after Dylan talked up the virtues of German and Swiss craftsmenship), this year's Chrysler effort has little to say about America. It makes reference to Detroit, but abandons previous efforts at tying the city's spirit to the nation's; here, Detroit is a footnote of history rather than a marker of cultural idiosyncracy.

Matt Yglesias wants to know "what's so American about Chrysler?" a a wholly-owned subsidiary of Italian company Fiat:

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One could say that Chrysler cars are American because they're made in America. But they make Volkswagens in Chattanooga, Tenn., and BMWs in South Carolina and Mercedes in Alabama, but those are definitely "German cars." Although, as it turns out the Germans tend to focus their North American manufacturing efforts on SUVs—a very American kind of vehicle. Nissan is increasingly making its cars in Mexico, and their CEO is French (though he was born in Brazil), but it's a Japanese company. Globalization and all that.

Which is the point, right? When Chrysler tied itself to Detroit, it didn't matter that it wasn't actually American; it was making an argument about itself, about its hometown, and, in doing so, about America at large. From the response to the commercial, it was an argument that resonated. This new spot throws together Baby Boomer nostalgia with shots of baseball and diners and pretends the result is Ronald Reagan's morning in America. (It doesn't help that the iconography is, compared to previous years, whiter and more rural — and along these lines, "Imported from Detroit" has become "The American import.") I like Chrysler just fine — even if, qua Katt Williams, the 300 "do look like a Phantom — until a Phantom pull up" — but when it comes to tapping into Americana at its hokiest, the company shouldn't be trying to pretend it can do like the Gipper could. They strung together all the clichés they could muster, but if you wanted to see America in a Super Bowl commercial (and what better place to look for America, right?) Coca-Cola did a much better job this year:

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Is the soul coming back to Motown?

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

11 January 2013


Detroit

The most interesting idea in Aaron M. Renn's (nonetheless worthwhile) consideration of the economic challenges facing Rhode island is this snippet about Detroit:

Some of the most dynamic grass roots urban changes, ones that have attracted global attention, are taking place in Detroit. It might be one of the most creative urban places on earth at present. And it’s attracting serious talent from all over. Why? The collapse there has actually eliminated many of the barriers that prevent things from happening in other places. Want to do something in Detroit? Just go do it! In many ways Detroit is the New American Frontier. Detroit certainly has huge problems and a long way to go, but there are definitely many positive things going on there.

Detroit the New American Frontier? I've been skeptical of Pollyannaish depictions of a Detroit just about to turn the corner, though there are some real signs of a revival. (See Willy Staley and John Patrick Leary for more.) In truth, Detroiters have been predicting the rebirth of their city for decades.

Still, there are distinct pockets of creativity in the city and it's hard not to see them as a thoroughly beneficial thing. This recent Chicago Tribune piece, for instance, shows a side to the city I didn't see when I visited in 2005:

But look past the blocks of broken windows, sunken roofs and graffiti, and there is a Detroit stirring back to life. "Revitalization" might be a bit strong, but as low as the city has sunk, its subtle energy and excitement put it at a fascinating crossroad: bruised old times, meet scrappy invention.

You see it in the food and drink, the art, the rebuilt urban trails and the people. I learned it at my very first stop, the modern barbecue joint called Slows Bar-B-Q, which is widely credited for jump-starting the Corktown neighborhood west of downtown. Heavy with brick and wood, pork and beef, people wait two hours to sit during the weekends.


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Detroit's false portrait

By Danny Fiorentini in Sydney, Australia

9 November 2011


The following is a response to "Detroit state of mind," an earlier post on this blog by Jonathan Bradley about the phenomenon known as "ruin porn."

Detroit image

The Global Financial Crisis hopefully taught us that we can no longer succeed economically by artificially inflating or falsely portraying product quality at the expense of society, simply to enter or remain on the Fortune 500 list. The “Big 3” car manufacturers in Detroit are finally realizing this, and so are financial institutions. Similarly, we cannot portray the current state of Detroit in a light that isn’t exactly what it is today: a once artificially inflated economic community now ravaged by often disingenuous, profit-driven business that neglected societal impacts. I hear you, Detroit ― as a Las Vegas native, I can relate.

The truth is, Detroit isn’t the ideal place to buy a house, raise a family, or start a business. In fact, it may have only been a place to do so in the past because it capitalised on the already-existing machine tool and coach-building industry in the city, making it a virtual goldmine for the automobile industry to set-up shop and persuade workers to reside there. However, once the gold is gone, so are the primary reasons for a significant number of working-class American’s to live there (just ask Goldfield, Nevada). Let’s face it: California faces astronomically worse economic conditions than Michigan, yet even after hearing media reports of their Government Offices closing daily, something tells me people won’t exactly be fleeing the Golden State’s culture, society, and living conditions. “Ruin-porn,” does not portray Detroit poorly, but finally offers the chance for common Detroit citizens to depict the devastation exemplified when a fabricated picture of economic prosperity is overexposed, which subsequently generates awareness of the fundamental fallacy of capitalism. Portraying an attractive picture to persuade citizens to return to Detroit has to now be focused on developing genuine culture and living conditions rather than economic stability ― something “ruin-porn” is, at least, representing artistically.

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If Detroit wants to rebuild they simply have to start by building a genuine society internally and gain the trust back, not only of the market, but of their own community, who now make up its existence as a society rather than just a hub for profits. It is no secret why the support for the Honey Bee Market continues while the rest of the city nosedived ― genuine business practice that supports and understands what local people “want” rather than what they “need”: jobs. Though the city is now portrayed as a ghost-town, maybe that is reflective of what its genuine business practices once were: ghostly. To change that, the city must reevaluate why living in Detroit is beneficial to anyone, including those who are already there. Who knows, maybe Detroit has a future in being the next art and photography capital of the world?

Bringing a positive image back to Detroit cannot be artificially inflated to help progress its growth, nor should the artistic depiction of its critical condition be discouraged to entice new residents. The viral imagery of its critical state is necessary to ensure future generations refrain from engaging in business practices that may result in similar devastation. At least the creative depictions of it’s current outlook are more genuine than generating growth by pretending its a great place to bring the kids; especially for working-class Americans who all-too-often base their families around the geographical location of their employment. Capturing Detroit as it is now is eventually more beneficial in promoting its genuine culture than painting a false portrait of what it desperately wants to be: placed on a “Top 100 Cities” list. After all, we shouldn’t adopt the exact, failed methodology of what helped ruin it in the first place.

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Detroit state of mind

By Jonathan Bradley in Newcastle, Australia

6 September 2011


"Beautiful" by Eminem (Relapse, 2009)

Via Andrew Sullivan, Willy Staley defends "ruin porn":

With so much of Detroit about to disappear, does this not provide us with an excellent opportunity to document that which we will not be able to document in the near future? Instead of decrying voyeurism, why not consider these photographs and stories a reminder that in America we actually do abandon our neighbors and let our cities die, time and time again.

(It's actually a really thoughtful article about Detroit and the inadequacy of the policy responses designed to arrest its decline, and you should definitely take the time to read it.)

Staley's got a point. It's all very well for Detroit boosters to talk up the city's good points and shout down negative portrayals of it, but it's kind of hard to ignore the fact that Detroit really is a mess. "Those who deny Detroit’s illness benefit from it," says Staley, "and they have created a sexy counterargument (even using the word porn!) that dismisses all documentation of Detroit’s decline out of hand, claiming the moral high ground while doing so."

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Still, though photos of Detroit decay might work as reportage, they do help to shut down avenues for Detroit to improve. Staley chronicles the city's current tactic of using federal funds to tear down urban decay: "All that money can only fight blight, and blight actually isn’t the “cancer” itself but a secondary symptom of the actual illness that plagues the city—a lack of jobs, commerce, safety, and now, people."

Are photos presenting Detroit as a Midwest Pompeii likely to bring people back? Would you move to Detroit? Start a business there? Raise a family there? More than a million people might have left the city in the past 60 years, but 713 777 remain, and things aren't going to get better for them if folks are printing eulogies for a patient whose condition is critical —  not terminal. Detroit utopianism is unhelpful, but I understand why residents of the city might, for instance, want to push back against lurid news stories that theirs is a city without grocery stores

Detroit, Michigan. Photo by Jonathan Bradley

Photo by Jonathan Bradley

The challenge when presenting Detroit is to present it accurately, and both the blank canvas of out-of-town artists or the blank slate of young white creatives are unsatisfying portrayals of the city. I sure don't have an answer for the city's problems, but presenting it accurately, obscuring neither the good nor the bad, seems to be a necessary first step.

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Stirrings in the D

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

14 April 2011


Map of the Detroit area showing population change since 2000

I posted the other day about signs of life in Detroit — and the city's struggle to maintain these pockets. Pursuant to that, I found this great post this great post at the Data Pointed blog. Mapping population changes over the past ten years in various American cities, the writer, Stephen Von Worley, notes a few flickers of life in the Motor City:

Ah, the classic flight to the suburbs, but with a twist! Click through and look closely, and at the very center of the biggest cities – within a stone’s throw of downtown – you’ll see a tiny, resurgent dot of blue. Apparently, at some point in recent history, a home address amongst the skyscrapers became desirable again. Even in the City of Detroit, which dropped a full quarter of its citizens in the last decade, downtown is flashing the signs of a comeback.

The Detroit map is, sure enough, saturated in the deep red indicating large losses of population since the last census. But look closely, and you can see that downtown has a few patches of bright blue, signalling population growth. Not even Detroit is resistant to gentrification!


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The D in Detroit

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

8 April 2011


A house in Detroit, Michigan

I've been to the city of Detroit, Michigan once in my life, about five years ago. I stayed with a local friend, and when she gave me a tour of the city, she was insistent that I see that Detroit was not entirely the post-apocalyptic wasteland it's commonly thought to be. She was right too; the picture above may look a bit grim, but that was merely a function of the weather. The downtown Detroit neighbourhood in which I took that photo was ornate, comfortable, and lived-in, even though it seemed a bit gloomy at the tail end of one snow storm and the beginning of another.

I make mention of this because I've seen a few other articles showing the other side of Detroit. Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote an excellent piece last month for the Atlantic, about the wealthy black Detroit neighbourhood Palmer Woods:

Palmer Woods now sits on a census block group that, according to the most-recent available data, is 81 percent black, and it is arguably the American black elite’s most majestic enclave. When I first visited, in the fall of 2009, I was awestruck. I had seen well-heeled black neighborhoods before—the prosperous suburbs ringing Atlanta and Washington, D.C., Chatham in Chicago, Baldwin Hills in L.A. But the gates of Palmer Woods are a wormhole out of the angry city and into an opulent idyll. Sleepy curvilinear streets with names like “Strathcona Drive” and “Argyle Crescent” snake through the 188-acre hamlet and its sprawling, irregular lots. Across Seven Mile Road sits the venerable, members-only Detroit Golf Club, which remained all-white until 1986.

The problem is, however, that even these successful enclaves have been hit hard by the recesion:

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Even as Detroit groaned under the weight of crime, failing schools, and high taxes, Palmer Woods held steady. But the country’s financial straits, particularly the collapse of the real-estate bubble and the struggles of the Big Three automakers, were a direct assault on the region’s twin pillars: houses and cars. The neighborhood association considers approximately 15 out of its 292 homes to be in jeopardy. Problems that were once rare—crime, for instance—are cropping up, as Palmer Woods at last succumbs to the gravity of the city.

More recently, the New York Times chronicled Detroiter resilience in the middle class neighbourhood of Grandmont Rosedale. There residents are stepping into fill roles abandoned by poorly-funded city government. It would be a tale of good old American self-reliance, but it comes off more as desperation:

But here, along the tidy, tree-lined streets that wind through a collection of neighborhoods known as Grandmont Rosedale, where owning one of the stately brick homes has long been a local symbol of success for the city’s striving middle class, residents are digging in to fight the flight and hold their community together. They chip in for services the city has trouble affording, like snow plowing. They band together for neighborhood crime patrols. They run sports leagues, hold block parties and circulate community letters.

And they try to keep the place filled with people.

Marsha Bruhn, a longtime resident and retired director of the Detroit Planning Commission, watched with alarm as several nearby houses fell into disrepair after their owners departed.

First she paid to have the lawns mowed. Then she ran off squatters. Finally, she took a bolder step: buying, renovating and reselling two houses. And she is in the process of trying to buy a third.

Detroit is a common site for the photographic genre colloquially dubbed "ruin porn"; pictures of beautiful buildings decaying from neglect. This is a real part of the city, and a fascinating one; I never cease to be entranced by Michigan Central Station, the grandiose, disused train terminus minutes from downtown that has stood empty for decades. But as neighbourhoods like Palmer Woods and Grandmont Rosedale make clear, Detroit isn't actually the husk suggested by carefully-framed portraits of its falling-apart architecture. This is a city where people still work and live, and they'd prefer people not to be writing its eulogies yet. That sentiment is why Chrysler's standout Super Bowl commercial resonated so widely, particularly amongst Detroiters. 

The suggestion is that Detroit's (and Chrysler's) fate is intertwined with America's, and just as the country is struggling to bounce back from the recession, Detroit is struggling to recover from a much deeper and longer downturn. What articles like the above — and commercials like the Chrysler one — are saying is that the city is struggling, and that means it's still living.

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King James edition.

By Jonathan Bradley in Seattle, WA

9 July 2010


The news gripping America these past few sweltering days has been primarily concerned with the future career prospects of now ex-Cleveland NBA player LeBron James. I would tell you more about the situation, but, other than informing you that he has signed with the Miami Heat and is now more likely to win a championship, I can offer little that would be enlightening. Of the four major American sports, basketball is the realm in which I am at my weakest. 

Being a politics guy, I turn to FiveThirtyEight for my sports analysis, and they do not disappoint. But being an urban geography nerd, my favorite portion of Nate Silver's post over there was this one:

According to commoncensus.org; the New York Knicks are the favorite team in 10 markets totaling 23.1 million people, the Chicago Bulls in 19 markets totaling 18.0 million people (the Bulls are popular in Missouri and Iowa, which have no NBA teams), and the Cavaliers in 14 markets totaling 11.8 million people. By contrast, the Heat's market is relatively small at 8.3 million people, and has a smaller percentage of African-Americans than do Chicago and New York. (Black Americans are two-and-half times more likely to be NBA fans than the population average, according to polling conducted by YouGov.)

One tends to think of Cleveland as a small and shrinking Midwest city, but such conceptions obscure how populous states like Ohio are, despite internal immigration flows heading south and southwest. It's a similar circumstance to that of the city of Detroit and the metropolitan area of Detroit, I suppose; while the former dwindles to 900 000 citizens, the latter remains a Sydney-sized metropolis of, depending how you measure it, 4-5 million people. Meanwhile, the city of Cleveland is home to just 450 000 people, but it has a metropolitan area of 2.25 million, many of whom will be disappointed by James's announcement. Meanwhile, Miami has a similar city size, but a metro population of more than twice that of Cleveland, and it was this awareness that caused me to misconstrue the size of these teams' markets. I had, of course, disregarded the many, many residents of smaller cities scattered around Cleveland's vicinity. The rust belt may be shrinking, but it is doing so from a formidable size.


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