Tuesday, March 08, 2011

What's So Special about Detroit?

During the Super Bowl, a two-minute television advertisement aired for the 2011 Chrysler 200 automobile, showcasing Detroit with Eminem as soundtrack. The ad was such a sensation (9 million views on YouTube so far) that the company proceeded to wrap (literally) its Auburn Hills, Michigan headquarters with an enormous banner carrying the newly legendary tagline: "Imported from Detroit." T-shirts promoting those strangely powerful words were rushed into production and sold out within hours. Chrysler promises to produce more. 

Americans can't seem to get enough of Detroit. Entire web sites are devoted to images of its abandoned buildings. Some Detroit residents--current and former--are offended by the online ogling of Detroit's "ruin porn," as it is sometimes called. But those coming to the defense of Detroit need not worry. The root of our obsession has shifted from condemnation to admiration. The metropolitan area has become a  mirror of America, and we can't tear our eyes away from what we see. Take a look at Detroit:  
                Unemployment rate: 11.1% (December 2010).
                Median housing value: - 36% (2003 to 2009, after adjusting for inflation).
                Homeowners underwater on their mortgage: 19% (2009).
                Median household income: -23% (1999 to 2009, after adjusting for inflation).

It looks bad, and it is bad. But Detroit is doing no worse than the rest of the United States--it is just a few steps ahead of us. Nationally, the unemployment rate is a stubbornly high 8.9 percent. Nationally, the decline in housing values exceeds that of the Great Depression--a 26 percent loss since prices peaked in 2006, according to the Zillow Home Value Index. Nationally, the percentage of homeowners who are underwater on their mortgage doubled from 4 to 8 percent between 2003 and 2009. Nationally, median household income fell 5 percent between 1999 and 2009, after adjusting for inflation. Detroit has been there, done that.  

The reflective power of Detroit has Hogwarts-like magical properties. In the mirror of Detroit, we can see ourselves as we used to be, as we are now, and as we might be in the future. In Detroit's world-class industries, we see our past glory. In Detroit's devastated landscape, we see our ruined economy. In the rebirth of Chrysler and General Motors, we see our resolve to make things work again.

The metamorphosis of Detroit in the American psyche occurred in three distinct stages. In the first stage we were bystanders watching the train wreck of Detroit from afar. In the second stage we discovered, much to our horror, that we were on the train ourselves. Now in the third stage, we--like Detroit--are climbing out of the wreckage and trying to figure out what happens next. That's why "Imported from Detroit" struck such a chord with the public. It called us back from a faraway land where we had become expatriates from the American experience, separated from what made us great: hard work, real products, modest goals, and good ideas. Americans are obsessed with Detroit because Detroit is us. But to make Detroit's future--and our own--something we want, we have to bet our money on it. So far, sales of the 2011 Chrysler 200 have been disappointing.

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