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Why Detroit Has Captured the American Imagination

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Today, a co-worker and I were discussing the explosive growth of Shinola, the upscale "Made in Detroit" clothing brand. While Shinola is every bit the real deal, the conversation prompted us to start complaining about the saturation of wannabe "Made in Detroit" goods. Detroit is developing quite the cache nowadays as a brand. The reason why Shinola located in Detroit at all was simply because after doing a market study of which brand consumers were most likely to purchase among "Made in L.A.," "Made in New York," etc., the top choice was "Made in Detroit."

The growing value of the brand is first and foremost due to how compelling the abstract concept of Detroit has become. Where other admittedly more populated cities such as New York and L.A. call to mind big business, excitement and other great associations, Detroit has captured the American imagination. This is evidenced for example in the media obsession with Detroit Detroit, the increase in Detroit-branded goods. It is seen in the at-capacity downtown residential market, and the growth of major art presences in Detroit with Red Bull House of Art and the Council of Fashion Designer-sponsored photography exhibit at the DIA. The conclusion my co-worker and I came to was that this success is due to the unique Detroit condition. The city has been at the highest of the highs imaginable, sunk lower perhaps than even imaginable, and now is arguably reviving in a way that is once more different than anything previously imaginable. Each new chapter piques the imagination and keeps the country engaged in the city's story and wondering what will happen next. And the story is one that appeals to many basic American tropes as diverse as creativity, underdogs, greed, promise and breaking from the past. The word "Detroit" conjures pictures as disparate as the old Avenue of Fashion and empty streets, luxurious Cadillacs and ruin porn, fallen glory and the greatest comeback story. And the imagination flourishes in the empty spaces from the "ghost town" streets the city used to have to its unknowable future.

I believe it is Detroit's dramatic narrative that has allowed it to capture the American consciousness where other cities have not. People are consistently attracted to New York or Boston for its infinite opportunity and excitement. The same cannot be said of Detroit. In other words, it is not necessarily a good thing that the dramatic narrative of Detroit has enabled it to capture American minds, since this means that Detroit has not had the same relatively consistent economic health as other major cities. Detroit has paid a great price for being the city that has taken American minds. And as the city rebuilds, it is not certain that Detroit will be able to sustain American interest if it becomes more stable and predictable. As the city of Detroit regains its footing, the abstract concept of Detroit may lose its mystique and power because a dramatic narrative will no longer be unfolding. Time will tell whether the next chapter of Detroit's narrative will sustain national interest, and whether stability in the city means Detroit will lose its grasp on the country's consciousness. For now, Detroit's narrative may be one of its strongest assets. Through this story it has become larger than the massive city that it is, and captured the American imagination.