If Chrysler Really Wants to Support Detroit…

I appreciated Chrysler’s “Imported from Detroit” Superbowl ad staring the venerable Motor City native, Eminem. Check it out below. I liked it not just because I’ve been slightly obsessed with Detroit for years, but because it hinted at the idea of corporate citizenship, civic pride, and the deserved rebirth of the city from which the auto industry was born. The ad is important: it subverts the dominant narratives about the city (namely, the ruin porn, the car wreck, and the pity party). It’s positive and doesn’t sound phony. But, well intentioned as it may be, the ad deserves a bit of healthy questioning to test Chrysler’s seriousness in really bringing Detroit into the 21st century…

Detroit has been hurting for more than 50 years. The primary reasons have less to do with the decline of industry, per se, and more to do with the same suburban and political trends that hurt every non-sun belt US city since the 1950s – simply put, people moving to the suburbs and abandoning the central cities. It so happens that Detroit, for a variety of reasons, got hit much worse by these trends than almost anywhere else. Furthermore, although most midwest cities have had something of a rebound in the last 15 years – with young professionals rediscovering walkable urban centers, Detroit hasn’t had much. It’s pretty complicated to get into the details of exactly why, but suburban Detroit has always been much like suburbia anywhere in the US, relatively prosperous and growing. It’s primarily the city of Detroit that has been losing population decade after decade, with the current economic downtown only the latest chapter.

As far as Chrysler’s ad goes, it had a lot to say, but one might point out a few issues in it that Chrysler, if they really care, ought to address.

First, the issue of urban redevelopment.

The incredible Fox theatre, featured prominently in the Chrysler ad, was saved from the wrecking ball in 1988 by Little Caesar’s Pizza founder Michael Ilitch, who has contributed considerably to Detroit’s community through a variety of philanthropic means. Not only did he save the theatre, but Ilitch moved his company’s headquarters into the building around the theatre, creating an economic engine for the neighborhood and justifying the considerable renovation expenses that took place.

Chrysler’s headquarters, on the other hand, are NOT in Detroit. They lie in the suburban sprawl of Auburn Hills, far removed from the city of Detroit, in a sprawling office complex amid parking lots, strip malls and freeways: Exactly the recipe of bad urban planning that sent Detroit downward to begin with.

Given that Chrysler once created and occupied what is arguably the most beautiful skyscraper ever built, there is clearly a legacy of pride in the company that could perhaps be rekindled. Could Chrysler move to Detroit? Would Detroit even welcome their abusive ex? What if they re-occupied the now infamous Michigan Central Station, a building whose image graces every hipster photographer’s collection to the point of cliche? There’s more than enough land around it to turn into supporting buildings.

Michigan Central Station: Chrysler HQ 2012?

Wishful thinking perhaps, but taking bold pride in Detroit ought to manifest in a movement to invest into the real soul of the city, beyond the strip mall landscape that the company now occupies, and beyond inspiring TV ad spots. GM, for example, moved to the Renaissance center in the 1980s while Chrysler stayed put.

Then, the car itself.

GM has the Volt, Ford has the Focus, Nissan has the Leaf: Cars built on efficiency, new technology, and electricity. Chrysler, as touted in their ad, has… luxury? The best Chrysler can do is tout their luxury? In today’s economic and environmental climate, the future of cars lies in economy, use of new technology, and versatility, perhaps even in new ways of ownership and use. Luxury is great, but given the 21st century landscape, it’s strikes me as a tenuous business plan to cling to. Almost every other car ad during Superbowl XLV touted fuel efficiency as a prime selling point.

A new Detroit will not be built on the cars of the 20th century. If cars are to remain its soul at all, they’ll be modern, electric, modular, shared and designed to function along with other forms of transportation, including walking. If Chrysler wants to be a part of the 21st century, and 21st century Detroit, they’d best take this to heart.

Nick Aster is a new media architect and the founder of TriplePundit.com

TriplePundit.com has grown to become one of the web's leading sources of news and ideas on how business can be used to make the world a better place.

Prior to TriplePundit Nick worked for Mother Jones magazine, successfully re-launching the magazine's online presence. He worked for TreeHugger.com, managing the technical side of the publication for 3 years and has also been an active consultant for individuals and companies entering the world of micro-publishing. He earned his stripes working for Gawker Media and Moreover Technologies in the early days of blogging.

Nick holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio School of Management and graduated with a BA in History from Washington University in St. Louis.

3 responses

  1. Right on, Nick! Let’s challenge the corporate giants to put their Super Bowl ad budgets where real sustainability is…

    Here’s a challenge to Chrysler – do something like Ford did when they decided to stay in the city and redevelop their historic River Rouge manufacturing complex with the largest green roof building in the world. Architect William McDonough even went beyond green buildings when he joined the effort to restore the wider Rouge River watershed with local Champion Trees: “These trees were cut down first and we lost that genetic strength… It’s what happens when people start getting greedy and create monocultures. Bringing back the champions is really critical.”

    Quest begins to restore ‘champion’ trees by cloning

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