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Home arrow Geography arrow Beautiful Terrible Ruins: Detroit and the Anxiety of Decline

From Industrial Comeback Story to Pastoral Paean

In a series of seductive television commercials from 2011 to 2013, Chrysler attempts to create a redemptive phoenix-from-the-ashes tale that maps Chrys- ler’s own recovery onto the more emotionally feel-good story of Detroit’s imagined revival—until this fizzles out. The first of three ads celebrates the city for its industrial heritage as a form of romantic nostalgia, casting the prosperous past forward into the future. The second ad builds on the city’s gritty endurance and expands outward from Detroit to the economically struggling nation. As the city headed toward bankruptcy, however, making the theme of resurgence increasingly untenable, a new reality emerges in the third ad, overtaking nostalgia and wishful thinking: the city is entirely abandoned for the agricultural plains. The rise and fall of the comeback narrative, as seen in the arc of these ads over the course of three years, instructively—if unwittingly— evokes the problem of American cities in crisis and the anxiety of decline.

Rolled out during the Super Bowl games when the ads would be watched by millions of people, the two-minute “Born in Fire” 2011 ad pictures Detroit as a teeming urban landscape of steaming factories, 1920s skyscrapers, the monument to Joe Louis sculpture, the Spirit of Detroit sculpture, the doorman at the Guardian Building, area figure skating U.S. ladies champion Alissa Czisny, and the Diego Rivera murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts, among other scenes, as a deep male voiceover asks, “What does this city know about luxury?” The answer is “more than most” because Detroit is “a town that’s been to hell and back.” Gesturing toward the ruination for which Detroit is known, as well as Chrysler’s own bankruptcy in the 2008 economic meltdown, this rhetoric suggests resolute endurance, along with “hard work, conviction, and the know-how that runs generations deep in each and every one of us.” If the city has been “to hell and back,” the nightmare now seems to be over with the emergence of a new postbankruptcy Chrysler; at the same time, “know-how” transmitted for generations evokes the city’s industrial legacy. Eminem’s comeback song “Lose Yourself” plays in the background until Eminem himself gets out of a Chrysler 200 sedan and stands in front of the downtown Fox Theater, with a marquee that says “Keep Detroit Beautiful.” He enters the theater where members of the Selected of God gospel choir raise their voices in stirring crescendo before Eminem declares, “This is the Motor City. And this is what we do,” which cleverly tugs at the pride of every Detroiter. A line of text informs the viewer that the Chrysler 200 has arrived, and then the tag line appears: “Imported from Detroit.”

The feel-good ad immediately went viral, inspiring hours of debate on sports-talk radio stations, blogs, and Facebook. Even the NBC Nightly News did a segment on it called “Motor City Comeback,” explaining that Chrysler sold its newest car by effectively selling Detroit as a city that is still proud and fighting.1 According to market researchers who track the impact of Super Bowl commercials, it sparked a dramatic increase in online shopping for the company’s models. Traffic at the online car research site shot up 267 percent for the Chrysler brand in the hours after the commercial aired, and 1,619 percent for the Chrysler 200.2 The message was clear: after the bankruptcies of General Motors (GM) and Chrysler—and the sex and lying scandal that led to Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s resignation—the city was prepared to overcome its obstacles; more to the point, supporting Chrysler meant

Monument to Joe Louis, 1986, downtown Detroit

FIG. 30 Monument to Joe Louis, 1986, downtown Detroit.

supporting Detroit. The ad makes the two synonymous, and the resurrection of one is merged with the other in a way that evokes a raw emotional impact— everyone loves a comeback story.

The theme of gritty working-class strength and continuity is a heroic tale supported by the images. In an era when white boxers reigned, legendary black boxer Joe Louis held the heavyweight champion title from 1937 to 1949 (ending with a loss to Rocky Marciano). The Detroit Red Wings’ hockey arena was named after him, and a giant two-ton sculpture of his forearm and fist, by Robert Graham, donated by Sports Illustrated in 1986, was installed on the corner of Woodward and Jefferson Avenues. It was officially titled Monument to Joe Louis but is known as “The Fist.”3 The camera pans around the massive latent power of the horizontally suspended and ungloved black fist as the voiceover says, “The hottest fires make the hardest steel.” This suggests strength in adversity even as “The Fist” evokes a horizontal version of the black power salute of an earlier era (figure 30).

The close-ups of Rivera’s Detroit Industry murals focus on the straining muscles and density of men on the production line at the Ford River Rouge as the voiceover evokes the “the know-how that runs generations deep.” Sadly, this is an image that could only be produced by photographing Rivera’s mural and could not be made today, where automation has replaced so many men that no such density on the line exists. Ironically, it was not even representative of the production line when Rivera completed the mural in 1933, because Ford had already laid off or reduced the wages and hours of thousands of workers during the Depression. The Rouge was famous in this period for its protest strikes, including the Ford Hunger March in 1932, leading to the shooting deaths of five workers with more than sixty workers injured by Ford’s hired goons, the Pinkerton security force led by Harry Bennett. The famed Battle of the Overpass in 1937 marked the showdown between organizers of the fledgling United Auto Workers (UAW) union and the Pinkerton thugs that Ford again used to try to stop them. The poor working conditions and wages in the auto industry that led to the renowned sit-down strike at a GM plant in Flint, Michigan, in 1936-1937 forced recognition of the union by Chrysler and GM and made the UAW a major labor organization. But Henry Ford refused to sign a union contract until 1941, following yet another strike at the Rouge, known as “Master Ford’s plantation.” It brought ten thousand black members into the UAW.

The focus in the Chrysler ad on tradition and working-class pride suggests a thriving working class that hardly exists in the city; the ad naturally plays down the fact that parts and cars are mostly made in places such as South Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi, because only Detroit can claim an industrial heritage as a major manufacturing center. Detroit is the place where the automobile production line originated, and the region where the Big Three are still headquartered, although only GM is within the city limits. The thriving factories seen in the beginning of the ad provide little hint of the long history of industrial decline and abandonment.

The emphasis on luxury is particularly jarring as the voiceover suggests that Detroit knows the most about luxury because “That’s who we are. That’s our story. Now it’s probably not the one you’ve been reading about in the papers, the one being written by folks who’ve never even been here and don’t know what we’re capable of. Because when it comes to luxury, it’s as much about where it’s from as who it’s for.” Luxury here stands in for modernism itself and Detroit is a metaphor for modernism. Perhaps luxury from a badass beaten-up city (with famous T-shirt slogans such as “Detroit, Where the Weak are Killed and Eaten,” or, more recently, “Detroit vs. Everybody”) is even more authentic. Invoking a shared story of “who we are” embraces the past triumphs and difficulties of the city and asserts a clear identity that is tied to auto-making. A shared history and identity not only promotes a “community of memory” but also a shared common basis for moving forward into the future.4 This helps explain why many Detroiters loved this ad, which further states, Detroit is “not New York City, or the Windy City, or Sin City, and certainly no one’s Emerald City,” distinguishing it from New York, Chicago, Las Vegas, and Seattle. The implications are not only about Detroit’s unique identity but also about class, and Detroit—being the Motor City—knows how to get its hands dirty, transforming the ordinary into the aesthetic. Still, what explains the perverse emphasis on luxury?

Finally, there’s the tagline, “Imported from Detroit,” which suggests that American industry has become superior to foreign automobile imports, or at least as good as anybody in the world. While conveniently ignoring the fact that many foreign cars for the U.S. market are now made in this country, more importantly, the ad constructs Detroit as someplace “else,” someplace foreign from which cars can be imported. Playing on Detroit’s role in the American cultural imagination as its “dark other,” the black city that has become emblematic of America’s dystopian “dark side,” the tagline capitalizes on the frisson of fear and exoticism this evokes. As a city in the heartland that remains estranged from the host body of the nation, Detroit is nonetheless— or because of this—a force to be reckoned with, like the fist ofJoe Louis. The city and its largely imaginary black workforce, the ad implies, does the heavy lifting, providing the sweat and blood that is always the sordid underbelly of “luxury” for the affluent.

Thus, Detroit stands in for the auto industry when that industry has effectively abandoned Detroit, and it does this on the basis of a romanticized and vanished past. By constructing a thriving urban center that has overcome its obstacles and is proudly fighting back, the ad neutralizes the role of the auto companies in the city’s deindustrialization and decline. Although we are meant to bask in the glow of an unparalleled manufacturing legacy and feel the surge of renewed hope in the industrial might of America that is represented by the idea of Detroit as a scrappy fighter, this hope is founded on economic sacrifices by the workers that ensure only the survival of Chrysler’s profitability.

The Chrysler Super Bowl ad of the following year continues the Detroit comeback story but shifts the emphasis to the economic struggles of all Americans, focusing more on faces than on cars and allowing a more elegiac quality to enter the narrative. Starring the flinty eighty-one-year-old Clint Eastwood as America’s team coach in “Halftime in America,” Eastwood intones, “People are out of work and they’re hurting—and they’re all wondering what they’re gonna do to make a comeback—and we’re all scared because this isn’t a game.” He continues, “The people of Detroit know something about this. They almost lost everything. But we all pulled together.” The feel-good boost- erism ignores Detroit’s continued decline and can only refer, once again, to the bailout of the auto industry and Chrysler’s own return from bankruptcy. Although the ad uses some previously shot footage in Detroit, the reality of the city is obscured by the new footage for the two-minute commercial, none of which was filmed in Detroit. The portions with Eastwood are filmed in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and the rest is shot in New Orleans and Northern California.5

Images include a protest demonstration in Wisconsin as Eastwood talks about “discord and division” and “times we didn’t understand each other,” which also seems to be a sly reference to his own film, Gran Torino, which was set in Detroit and focuses on the ethnic animosities between a Polish American Korean War veteran and the Hmong family that lives next door. More images of mothers and children and working-class families evoke the Farm Security Administration’s Depression-era photographs of Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, while a sober image of firefighters recalls the fall of the Twin Towers on September 11. Urging us to “come from behind,” Eastwood again maps Chrysler’s return from bankruptcy onto Detroit when he says, “Detroit’s showing us it can be done. What’s true about them is true about all of us.” He concludes, “This country can’t be knocked out with one punch. We get right back up again and when we do the world is going to hear the roar of our engines.” Despite the bravado, the intended swell of pride is subdued in this version of the comeback story, which extends the metaphor of knockdown and comeback to the entire nation. It ends with the tagline “Imported from Detroit.”

Conservatives such as Karl Rove criticized the ad as an endorsement of the auto bailout of 2008 and 2009. Additional controversy focused on the scene that was taken at a protest in Wisconsin. Originally featuring signs held by members of the Madison teachers union with messages such as, “Care about educators like they care for your child,” “Solidarity!” and “Stop the attack on public education,” the video frames were digitally edited to remove the prounion and pro-public education messages while Eastwood’s voiceover spoke vaguely about “the fog, division, discord, and blame that made it hard to see what lies ahead.” The ad replaced the messages on the signs with bland unspecific phrases such as “Think of our children,” and “Say no thanks. It’s time [inside a clock]. We don’t need another.” These changes disguise the identity of the movement to which the protest belonged. Even the description on a statue was removed, which identified Col. Hans Christian Heg, the Wisconsin Civil War hero who rallied a Scandinavian unit to fight for the Union. He became a reference point for the hundreds of thousands of protesters who rallied at the Wisconsin Capitol in February and March of 2011 to defend basic rights against the attacks of Wisconsin governor Scott Walker.6 As one critic concluded, “Seen through the lens of doctored video footage,” the Chrysler ad is more “a pro-corporate, anti-union advertisement than any other kind of political statement.”7

After Chrysler emerged from bankruptcy in 2009, it became a consolidated subsidiary of Italian multinational automaker Fiat. Olivier Francois, a French-born executive who runs the Lancia brand for Fiat in Europe, said in a 2011 interview that he “has a lot of ideas about how to make the comeback of Detroit very much a part of the story of Chrysler.”8 Yet it turns out that what has been good for Chrysler has not been as good for Detroit, which continues to decline. Chrysler provides very few jobs for Detroiters, with only about four thousand workers in the city. Government employment provides more than forty thousand jobs; other top employers include the city itself and the Detroit public schools.

In its third ad, with Detroit approaching bankruptcy, Chrysler simply abandoned the Detroit comeback story. Instead, the 2013 Super Bowl ad rolled out a new vision of “America” as an agricultural arcadia in the white Protestant heartland with tractors, pitchforks, bales of hay, and the accompanying slogan, “So God Made a Farmer.” Narrated by right-wing radio commentator Paul Harvey, who was popular from the 1950s to the 1990s, “So God Made a Farmer” was taken from a recorded speech Harvey delivered in 1978, during the Carter era, to a Future Farmers of America convention. When Harvey died in 2009, his style was described in a New York Times obituary as having “a hypnotic timbre, extended pauses for effect, heart-warming tales of average Americans and folksy observations that evoked the heartland, family values, and the old-fashioned plain talk one heard around the dinner table on Sun- day.”9 This summary well describes the recorded text of the farmer speech, which begins, “And on the 8th day, God looked down on his planned paradise and said, ‘I need a caretaker.’ So God made a farmer,” and continues as cheerful scenes of family farm life roll past.

With the disappearance of the city, the ad also drops “Imported from Detroit” and ends with the tagline of “Guts, Glory, Ram.” No longer attempting to capitalize on Detroit’s former role as a manufacturing center or insisting on the working-class grittiness of the city as a basis for “luxury,” the ad instead evokes rugged individualism and offers a paean to the pastoral charms of the Farm Belt. In the interest of selling Dodge Ram trucks at a time when housing construction and truck sales were picking up, the ad reincarnates the postindustrial era as a preindustrial idyll. It returns the viewer, without irony, to the kind of late-nineteenth- to early-twentieth-century existence that was slyly satirized by artist Grant Wood in works such as his 1930 painting American Gothic. The Chrysler ad’s idealized pastoral images attempt to reify a kind of mythic status that is aimed at an urban/suburban audience, not because they would want an agricultural life but because it plays on the desire for lost plenitude and seems to promise its return—another kind of comeback story. In 2014 Chrysler changed the “Imported from Detroit” marketing line for the Chrysler 200 to the more generic “America’s Import.”

In similar fashion, part of the post-World War I impulse in the 1920s and 1930s was to seek a nativist tradition that was typically American as an anchor in a world of shattered illusions, especially during the Great Depression, to which the 2008 financial crisis and its continuing aftermath has been repeatedly likened. By returning to the preindustrial, the Dodge Ram Chrysler commercial also tries to find a stable heritage and salvage a “usable past” that connects the bleak present to a more prosperous era. Providing a sense of reassurance and continuity with this more usable past, the ad suggests that midwestern farm life, not the urban metropolis, now stands in for American national culture. The grit and hardiness formerly associated with the workers of the city is shifted to farmers and their families, mapping their hardworking “guts” and “glory” onto “Ram.” To be American and to support God and country, the ad implies, means buying a Chrysler truck. Or a Jeep. Chrysler premiered another commercial during the same Super Bowl game that featured Oprah Winfrey narrating scenes of happy domesticity for returning American veterans, identifying Jeep with a nation united (“When you’re home, we’re more than a family; we are a nation that is whole again,” followed by the Jeep logo). The overall message that buying Chrysler products is patriotic is not unlike George W. Bush’s suggestion to the country after the 9/11 attacks that the best way to patriotically support the nation was to “go shopping.”10

The problem is that, for the past several decades, selling cars and trucks by appealing to “luxury” and guilt-tripping patriotism is not as effective as it once may have been. Books such as Bill Vlasic’s Once upon a Car and Micheline Maynard’s The End of Detroit tell the stories of the changing fortunes of the car companies and their tin ear when it came to hearing what people wanted in a car and slow-footed response to the superior quality and economy of foreign competition, which quickly became domestic competition as those companies built factories in the United States at the domestic companies own insistence. Toyota and Honda focused on engineering and fuel economy while the Detroit companies focused on style and luxury; the Japanese focused on what the customer wanted while the Detroit companies told the customer what he or she should want.n As a result, the Big Three have become the Big Five.

Nostalgia for American styling can be seen every summer in Detroit during the annual Dream Cruise, when classic cars such as Cadillacs and Corvettes slowly roll up and down Woodward Avenue from Ferndale to Birmingham in a summer parade of chromed-up, finned-out, block-long cars. Onlookers from the city and from out of town line the avenue in lawn chairs with beers in hand and T-shirt stands behind them in a nostalgic extravaganza. Yet, as Maynard notes, “The fact is that there is no longer a single segment of the car market where Detroit is clearly the leading player, either in profits, quality, or buzz.”i2 This includes small, mid-sized, and luxury cars. Today, Birmingham, Alabama, seems to be the capital for a growing number of car companies from Japan, Germany, and Korea. Despite the fact that “Detroit” remains a metonym for the car companies, there is only one auto factory fully within the city limits of Detroit/3 The shift of factories to areas outside the country altogether, where resources and labor are cheaper and more easily exploited for higher profit margins, has led to the shuttering and abandonment by the Big Three of at least thirty-eight major factories and plants nationally just since 2004.14

Another irony in Chrysler’s shift from an urban manufacturing to a rural farming identity is the fact that most large farms are not family owned but corporately owned by agribusiness conglomerates. This means they are dependent on migrant labor even as migrant workers are under perpetual attack. In Michigan, reports note “plump red cherries and crisp apples rotting on the ground because there aren’t enough workers to pick them” and an asparagus crop left in the field for the same reason/5 Farmers nationally, from Christmas tree growers in the Appalachians to Wisconsin dairy farmers to fruit and vegetable producers in California, are pleading with lawmakers to ease restrictions so that the forty-five thousand migrant workers needed to pick crops may return. The farming industry insists that its chronic labor shortage is due to the fact that few Americans are willing to deal with the long hours, hot weather, and other hardships of farm labor. “The truth is, not even farm workers are raising their children to be farm workers,” said Tom Nassif, a Republican and the president of Western Growers/6

The farming industry, among other corporate employers, has come to depend on migrant laborers because they offer subservience and are easily deported and blacklisted if they protest abusive conditions; they are part of a broader phenomenon of subcontracting that shields employers from legal liability for the mistreatment of workers and from labor-organizing efforts. The National Employment Law Project reports that 58 percent of jobs added since the crash of 2008 have been in low-wage sectors, which have high levels of contingent and subcontracted jobs. The New York Times reports, “Today, almost all production in global manufacturing involves subcontracting. It is central to the structure of employment in the American construction, warehousing and agricultural industries as well.”i7 So much for the slogan “So God made a farmer,” as well as the myth that highly exploited and mistreated migrant laborers take jobs from Americans or constitute a menace to the nation; on the contrary, they are crucial to its agricultural success, even as the retro family farm is idealized and mythologized. Of course it would not be nearly as heartwarming to suggest that “God made an agribusiness conglomerate.”

Moreover, the business of U.S. agriculture has not prevented or addressed hunger and food insecurity, which is rampant across the nation. Such food insecurity has inspired a different version of the pastoral paean imagined by Detroit’s oldest and most famous living radical, Grace Lee Boggs/8 Boggs leads a group of devoted acolytes who envision Detroit as a collective of communal farms and the world’s largest wholly self-sustaining city. Although Detroit has an estimated nine hundred urban farms and community gardens, this remains a far-fetched ideal. Socialism in one city is not a viable option.

Moreover, as David Harvey points out, “While small and localized enterprises can work under the radar and beyond the reach of the laws of competition (acquiring the status of local monopolies, for example), most cannot. So worker-controlled or cooperative enterprises tend at some point to mimic their capitalist competitors, and the more they do so the less distinctive their practices become. Indeed, it can all too easily happen that workers end up in a condition of collective self-exploitation that is every bit as repressive as that which capital imposes.”19

Nevertheless, the proliferation of urban farms speaks to the ongoing crisis of food insecurity, a critical concern in Detroit and across America, where fifty million people face hunger in a country that has enough food resources to feed them. The adverse health effects of food insecurity are well known, including obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. There are even more dire effects on the cognitive and physical development of children who go hungry for even short periods, compromising health in preventable ways while unnecessarily raising health care costs. The food insecure often live in “food deserts,” which are big geographic areas that have no large grocery stores, and 75 percent of food deserts are in cities. The convenience, fast food, and liquor stores that are available to the city poor primarily offer processed foods with little balance in the way of fresh fruits and vegetables, which are far more expensive in any case. This is due to the massive government subsidies to the agribusiness conglomerates that raise crops such as corn, soy, and wheat in order to produce processed foods, while those who raise fresh fruits and vegetables do not enjoy such subsidies. Fresh food is thus out of reach, even when available, for people with food stamp benefits, which average $4.50 per day for recipients in Michigan, or $1.50 per meal.20 The problem of food insecurity is thus one of poverty, not food shortages; 85 percent of food insecure families have at least one working adult, but they do not earn a living wage, thereby transforming the basic right to food into a daily struggle.

Wayne County, which includes Detroit, ranks fifteenth in the nation for child food insecurity. Los Angeles ranks first, followed by the combined five boroughs of New York City.21 While the government spends $20 billion to promote processed foods made from corn, soy, and wheat, and has an agricultural policy that supports wealthy corporations and agribusiness, hunger continues to rise in the nation.22 Urban agriculture groups in Detroit such as the Greening of Detroit, Earthworks Urban Farm, Detroit Food Justice Task Force, and Detroit Black Community Food Security Network have helped increase access to healthy food for impoverished black citizens. In order to resolve the problem of food insecurity in America, however, it must be addressed at a national scale and begin by radically transforming agricultural policy.

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