Tuesday, August 03, 2010

New Rust Belt Ethos

Late last night, a commenter asked me what I thought about the Levis "Go Forth" advertising campaign. My response is mostly positive. I think outsiders are ready to embrace the upside of Rust Belt decay. John Slanina made me aware of a New York Times article that emphasizes the point:

“There’s an excitement here,” said Dale Dougherty, editor and publisher of Make magazine, which spawned Maker Faire. “There’s a sense that it’s a frontier again, that it’s open, that you can do things without a lot of people telling you, ‘No, you can’t do that.’ ” Maker Faire follows that ethos; it drew over 22,000 people for demonstrations of wind-powered cars and fire-spewing bicycles to the parking lot of the Henry Ford Museum.

Detroit hardly needs encouragement to do-it-yourself; it has a lineage of makers.

Scott Hocking, an artist who creates works out of materials salvaged from the many abandoned buildings here, said that the D.I.Y. culture is “in our DNA.”

Levis is catching up to the Rust Belt Chic trend. I don't see the exploitation angle. The campaign represents something very real and celebrates Rust Belt culture. It's a good image for a region suffering from decades of bad publicity.

Much worse are the calls to focus on the supposed good parts of shrinking cities, the so not Rust Belt neighborhoods. You can find such places anywhere and that won't attract talent from Montana or Oregon (more from the above NYT story):

Even during a few days spent here, it is obvious how tight and welcoming the community is. A guy like Kevin Putalik can arrive alone from Montana with an interest in urban agriculture — a booming part of life in Detroit, where grocery stores are scarce — and within three weeks find himself making sausage at a party in someone’s home. “It’s the land of opportunity,” said Mr. Putalik, 28, who described himself as “funemployed,” as he rinsed casings at the sink.

The party’s host, Brian Merkel, 25, is an arriviste from Portland, Ore.; he’s been here since October. “I moved here blindly,” Mr. Merkel said. “I was an artist in Portland and I became more interested in food. I decided that when I moved here I would be a butcher. Within the first two weeks we had a charcuterie club.” People move to Detroit, he said, “because they have a sense of purpose.”

To be sure, Detroit Chic has class and race issues. Urban revitalization for whom? Perhaps that's the gist of the concern about the Levis ads. That's a structuralist critique I'm not willing to entertain. I don't see the value in discussing how we can torpedo capitalism because it ravaged inner city Detroit. As far as Marxists are concerned, I'm part of the problem.


Elizabeth said...

While I do love that Levis is making Jane Jacobs' "Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings" philosophy into a quick and easily grasped angle for its publicity... and it does stay away from portraying the Rust Belt as inhabited by sagely simple folks who are still caught in the "good old days", it is a little difficult to digest coming from an internationally iconic company. All buying, selling, and image aside, Levis is basing their new marketing campaign on the ideas of "heritage" and "Americana" to sell jeans made in China/Costa Rica/generic "over seas". To cities blighted by the dramatic loss of industry, this should be a strong slap in the face. Levis cares enough about Braddock to publicize its struggles and bring it national attention, but that 2 million dollar gift probably but a mere blip in the 2010 budget. I won't hold my breath for them to move their manufacturing plants back to US soil, pay all of their workers a living wage plus benefits, and act in an ecologically responsible manner. I don't think this counts as torpedoing capitalism so much as it is calling a spade a spade.

Jim Russell said...

I don't think you are suggesting we blow up capitalism. I can appreciate your criticisms of Levis. I recognize that this multinational corporation isn't practicing what it is preaching in the ads. But I'm not harboring any delusions about Levis as a Rust Belt savior. It's greed, not altruism.

However, Fetterman didn't sell Braddock's soul to Levis for $2 million. Yes, Levis will profit much more from the campaign than Braddock does. That's not the point. Braddock and the rest of the Rust Belt are getting a first rate branding campaign, a media blitz. I doubt anyone will be lining up to thank Levis. Frankly, I don't care if anyone does. Hands down, this effort is better than anything served up by a Rust Belt city to retool its image.

I've been getting some hits thanks to search terms such as "move to braddock". The buzz isn't about Levis jeans. It's about Rust Belt Chic.