Monday, November 28, 2011
Hipness is not an easily measurable concept, but its very intangibility is part of what makes in interesting. If we imagine a hipness quotient connected to cities, we would include, high on the list, places like Palo Alto, Berkeley, Boulder, San Francisco, even New York. Detroit would probably arrive toward the bottom. Recently, however, Detroit has been getting attention that may be boosting its credentials.
Not long ago, the documentary Detroit Wildlife was filmed. In it, one protagonist asserts that Detroit wasn't much affected by the 2008 blackout. People in the city were are already living off the grid, squatting in abandoned buildings, foraging for food. They didn't have electricity, so why would they notice when it was gone? Detroit is offered as a harbinger of a post-fossil fuel future, where wild animals are returning to a dessicated urban landscape.
But things seem to be changing. Last year's Chrysler advertisement, released during the Superbowl, featuring Detroit denizen Marshall Mathers, aka Eminem, didn't hurt. The ad featured Detroit as hip in a gritty hard-working kind of way, a place so exotic that its cars were "imported" by other parts of the U.S.
Other indicators preceded the Eminem spot. One was the appearance of the HBO Series, Hung, which began airing in 2009. The series features divorced father and public school teacher Ray Decker, who, unable to support his children properly after his uninsured house burns down, becomes a male prostitute.
Created by the brilliant filmmaker Thomas Payne (Election), Hung is hilariously funny as it traverses the borderlines of bad taste. And while the series does not exactly portray the city of Detroit in a positive light, the mere appearance of an HBO series tends to elevate a hipness quotient significantly. (Look at what The Wire did for West Baltimore.)
Two weeks ago, The Huffington Post launched a new section, "Detroit News and Opinion," with a heterogeneous mix of Detroit bloggers, from the worlds of political reporting, sports writing, cultural analysis, and the non-profit sector. The articles provide insightful analysis of Detroit’s continuing economic plight, sprinkled with a strong dose of optimism about the possibilities for the city’s resurrection. Detroit now finds itself as one of only six local sections in the Huff Post, sharing space with New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.
So what’s happened? Why does Detroit seem to be rising on the pop cultural hipness index? The Obama administration's decision to save the auto industry has a great deal to do with it. If the government had not intervened to save the thousands of jobs that were at stake, Detroit's utter collapse would have been inevitable. And while the domestic automobile industry is a shadow of its once-proud self, it still employs more people than Google, Facebook, and Apple combined.
Detroit, moreover, is re-writing its books on the meaning of industrial. A new generation of digital engineers is being hired by the automakers to develop the complex software necessary to run the current generation of cars. While Detroit has not exactly become Silicon Valley-on-the-river, young people are actually moving back and into downtown areas that were being abandoned.
Detroit, in other words, has the potential to create a new kind of hybrid city, where the digital, the industrial, and the green collide in interesting ways. What could be more hip than that?