Saturday, February 08, 2014

[Detroit] Genuine Detroit

Genuine Detroit: Up until now I thought Detroit had nothing to offer. I thought the only positive attraction for outsiders was how easy it was to scam the authorities into providing tax breaks. That, and the ability to murder someone without getting caught. I was wrong, slightly. Detroit does have something that money cannot buy: Authenticity.

Authenticity is a rare and highly prized commodity. It is a common theme of the middle and upper-middle classes that they seek authenticity. In this context, you can loosely define authenticity as an image of counter-consumerism. Anything that can position itself as being sourced from an impulse unaffected by marketing, profit, or mass appeal can be authentic. Bear in mind, something may be mass produced and ubiquitous, but still be authentic. It's all about the purity of intent behind the object, or at least the perception of such.

  • Orlando, FL is not authentic. Sanibel Island, FL is.
  • The University of Arizona (the largest public university and a dedicated diploma mill) is not authentic. Notre Dame is.
  • A Carnival cruise to Cozumel is not authentic. A river cruise along the Rhine is.
  • Lou Malnati's is authentic. Papa John's is not.
  • A vintage Saab 900 is authentic. A GM-made Saab SUV is not.
You see, it is not the quality of the experience or the value that makes it authentic. It's the genesis of the thing.

Mass produced and popular items can be authentic. Guinness Stout is ubiquitous and authentic. I would argue Las Vegas is probably one of the most authentic places on Earth. There can be no question of the purity of intent behind Vegas: using vice to make money. It may not be laudable, but it is pure. Nike is perhaps the most skillful company at keeping themselves positioned as authentically dedicated to their field (athletics) while keeping equal focus on the bottom line.

Apple and Google also work hard to maintain their authenticity, the image of purity in their purpose. Apple works hard to be the artist of technology, the people dedicated to visionary design above all else. Google puts a lot of effort into not losing their reputation as the techno-geek paradise, the place where high-IQ daydreams become reality. As long as they do that, they know they will be authentic. Their products are not better than Microsoft's, but they are authentic. Microsoft is not.

It turns out, Detroit is dripping with authenticity. It makes sense. Now that it's mired in bankruptcy and has been turned over to a State-appointed administrator, Detroit can no longer pretend to be in the middle of rebirth, a phoenix rising from the ashes. It is the ashes. It is the endgame of a crime and corruption death spiral that has been going on for over half a century. It no longer has any deluded defenders who claim it isn't bad, or that it's just a perception problem. And in the decades it took to reach that point it became something: honest. It started with all the Ruin Porn. Then bankruptcy captured the headlines. But however it came about, the image of Detroit synced up with reality. In perception Detroit became a place without pretense. Detroit can't afford to keep the lights on so it has to sell off it's art works. Detroit is now a hero of day-to-day survival; a no-frills place where nothing useful wasted. It's a place where gritty celebrities like Eminem and Bob Dylan buy Chryslers. It is what you would be if all the luxuries and consumption that are the stuff of Liberal guilt were stripped from you. A place where dreams and delusions are not worth your time. Tough and unsparing. Serious and desperate. More than a little dangerous. It is what it is. Authentically so.

A thoughtful person, one unmoved by the contemporary authenticity fetish, would be happy to keep such a place far, far away, but we are not a thoughtful people. Although it does the city little good, some folks are hitching a ride of Detroit's authenticity to enhance their own. There is a hotel/casino in Las Vegas (downtown on Fremont street) called The D. It is acknowledgedly Detroit-themed. I visited it last fall and the Detroit theming amounts to having a Detroit-staple American Coney Island Restaurant (the first outside Michigan) and being a gathering place for Lions fans during football season. But still, the association with something glitz-free like Detroit positions the hotel as a spot for people who want none of wanton bling of The Strip. If your self image is one of no nonsense and you'd prefer a place and audience that puts on no airs, The D will flip your switch.

Another clever business using Detroit to make it seem real is watch maker Shinola. Formed by a founder of Fossil, they proudly stamp "Detroit" all their watches, which all have a clean and simple design, implying a company and that is devoted to its product, no nonsense or pandering to shallow fashion. The final assembly of the watches is in Detroit and if you're going to set up shop in a place as unglamorous as Detroit, you must be serious, right? I'll let the auto blog The Truth About Cars tell it:
Shinola, a brand name revived from the former shoe polish company by Fossil watch founder Tom Kartsotis, was founded in part to take advantage of Detroit as a brand. All Shinola products are branded "Shinola Detroit" and Kartsotis leases a floor in the Taubman building of the College of Creative Studies in Detroit's midtown section, where they assemble watches from Swiss movements and Chinese components.…Detroit, the city, the culture and the image, are important parts of Shinola's overall branding as is sourcing as many American made supplies as is possible.
This is not to say any of this is going to "save" Detroit, any more than urban farming or tax breaks for Hollywood or a new arena for the Red Wings will. There is no "saving" of Detroit to be had. It is just a curiosity; an odd, irrational signpost of our odd, irrational times. In our world, you can use failure and destitution to sell quality. It's in such a world that Detroits happen to begin with.