Ed Driscoll

'Unlike European Cities, No Bombs Fell on this American City'

Back in 1995, Theodore Dalrymple toured one of England’s public housing projects. He arrived independently at many of the same conclusions about England’s public housing that Jane Jacobs did in the mid-1960s regarding America’s then still-burgeoning urban renewal projects, in her classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities.  It’s probably not all that surprising that most of her findings translate all too well across the Atlantic.

As Dalrymple wrote in his piece:

Until quite recently, I had assumed that the extreme ugliness of the city in which I live was attributable to the Luftwaffe. I imagined that the cheap and charmless high rise buildings which so disfigure the city-scape had been erected of necessity in great gaping holes left by Heinkel bombers. I had spent much of my childhood playing in deserted bomb shelters in public parks: and although I was born some years after the end of the war, that great conflagration still exerted a powerful hold on the imagination of British children of my generation.I discovered how wrong I was not long ago when I entered a store whose walls were decorated with large photographs of the city as it had been before the war. It was then a fine place, in a grandiloquent, Victorian kind of way. Every building had spoken of a bulging, no doubt slightly pompous and ridiculous, municipal pride. Industry and Labor were glorified in statuary, and a leavening of Greek temples and Italian Renaissance palaces lightened the prevailing mock-Venetian Gothic architecture.

“A great shame about the war,” I said to the store assistant, who was of an age to remember the old days. “Look at the city now.”

“The war?” she said. “The war had nothing to do with it. It was the council.”

The City Council—the people’s elected representatives it transpired, had done far more damage to the fabric of the city in the 1950s and 1960s than had Goering’s air force. Indeed, they had managed to turn it into a terrible visual ordeal for anyone with the most minimal visual sensibility.

While England’s City Council turned much of its public housing into a Le Corbusier-inspired dystopian béton brut concrete wasteland, it’s remarkably functional compared with much of Detroit. (QED) England’s Guardian recently published a series of tableaux titled “Detroit in Ruins” that make the city really look like it had been overflown by a fleet of Messerschmidts and Heinkels.

Or as Mark Steyn noted while sitting in for Rush Limbaugh on Monday, and then in a follow-up interview yesterday (audio here) with Detroit talk radio host Frank Beckmann:

Steyn, a conservative commentator filling in for Rush Limbaugh on Monday, said the commercial wrongly placed Detroit in a positive light. “We’re now being told that this is the model for America in the 21st century,” he said. “If it is, we’re all doomed.”

Beckmann, who interviewed Steyn during his show today, said he missed the point of the ad and said suggestions that it falsely hid the decay that has gnawed at the city were ridiculous. The goal of the ad, Beckman said, was to sell cars, not tell the world the seamy details of Detroit’s problems.

“We know those problems, he’s not the first to notice them,” Beckmann said. “(The ad) shows a gritty side of Detroit. It shows us how we are.”

On Monday, Steyn referred to a book published last year that showed the city’s ruins, comparing Detroit to European cities reduced to rubble during world wars.

“Unlike European cities, no bombs fell on this American city,” he said. “This American city did it to themselves.”

Beckmann said he agreed with Steyn on some issues: the roots of the city’s decline lay with unions, liberal political leaders and a sense of entitlement.

Beckmann asked Steyn, “What would you have us do, just quit trying?”

Gee, somewhere between abandoning all hope and trying to present a dystopian wasteland as some sort of glittering Michael Mann-style Michigan Vice Big City at Night, within which you half-expect an Armani-suited Sonny Crockett to zoom by in his Ferrari, there has to be a happy medium. Say what you will about GM’s ads, but they don’t remind you of the horrid environment that their cars are produced in and use it as selling point.

My post on the topic on Monday was an extension of my immediate take upon watching the ad during the Super Bowl and being rather surprised at both its dissipated theme and its “edgy” pitchman. But the reaction was somewhat divided in its comments, with perhaps a third of the readers defending the ad.

Incidentally, contrast the initial emotions the Chrysler ad generates with the commercial that was the hit of the Super Bowl. The Volkswagen ad leaves you with happy Gen-X images of family, childhood and Star Wars. Watching those ads, I’m not immediately pondering the unemployment rate in Wolfsburg, or whether VW’s pension plans are underfunded, or if unionization is dragging the company’s revenues downward.

The Chrysler ad has consumers going at each other hammer and tongs in blog comments and on Twitter over how badly the images of a bombed-out Detroit hurt the reputation of the commercial’s underlying product. And speaking of going at it, on his Website’s homepage, Mark quotes some of the Motor City’s more …enthusiastic… defenders.

I wonder if this is the sort of buzz Chrysler wants associated with their product:

Michiganders stand tall against Steyn’s outrageous assault on Detroit
~see also The Detroit News: “Beckmann blasts elitist!“; and The Wall Street Journal: “Eminem fires up Steyn” – and more from the Inside LineDaniel Howes, and Small Dead Animals
~On Monday’s Rush Limbaugh Show, Mark pointed out that 44 per cent of adults in Detroit have a reading comprehension below Grade Six level. In response, Detroiters say “F**k you, Mark Steyn” (South-Eastern Michigan Sports), “Mark Steyn is a Faggot” (Brandon A Jiles), and “Has anyone fed Mark Steyn a dick?” (Rufio Jones)
~Don’t forget, in a few weeks’ time Mark will be live in Michigan – though probably not for long.

Kathy Shaidle’s take on Mark’s more enthusiastic detractors is characteristically succinct.

Update: Welcome Steyn Online, Power Line, Insta-readers. For proof that Chrysler can produce an ad that reminds viewers of more positive connotations of the 20th century than the Welfare State in maximum overdrive, check out the other commercial they made in time for the Super Bowl. Note how swanky the visuals are, and how they’re geared towards such style icons (real and imagined) as Don Draper, Grace Kelly, Sinatra and JFK, rather than Eminem:

[youtube HkzoAhAS0Kg]

Of course, this ad’s slogan is neatly answered by the Super Bowl ad. Whatever happened to style? It got mugged on a side street by a wannabe Detroit rapper in a sweatshirt and hoodie.

Update (2/10/11): More more here: “Detroit Mock City: Mark Steyn vs Motown.”

Join the conversation as a VIP Member