That commercial about the Big D. The one hawking a sweet ride. That stylistic pitch that plants the words "Imported from Detroit" in the brains of loyal American-car buyers nationwide. The TV ad that first aired at a two-minute length with a 313 rapper at the wheel ... all stereotypically super-serious ... leering at the camera ... saying ... declaring ... contradicting the stereotypical portrayals of Motown as a source of decay ...
"This is the Motor City, and this is what we do ..."
I liked it.
A lot of current and former Detroiters liked it too.
It imbued us with a rare strain of pride. Not the pride that accompanies the grand achievements of athletes who play in suburban arenas, or of local boys and girls who make good and forget where they're from. Pride that comes from what the city once was, as well as from what it is. Pride that runs as deep as the pigments in Diego Rivera's Detroit Industry murals. Pride as enduring as the Spirit of Detroit statue, or that 24-foot, fist-and-forearm monument to Joe Louis. Pride that, despite deep wounds and unprecedented losses, our hometown remains tough, rough, resolute and straight-up raw.
The message was made in Detroit, but to my ears, and I expect to the ears of a few others, the pronouncement was more majestically profane. Something like: Made in #$@&-ing Detroit!
Then a couple weeks went by.
A couple weeks of reading news.
A couple of weeks of pondering whether a TV ad could do a whole town proud.
I decided otherwise.
I changed my mind because, as the commercial suggests, Detroit defies the canards. It's been there, way down there, in a place no other city has been, or wants to go. It hasn't just been down those roads, it built those roads. In some parts of the city, those roads are all that's left.
The idea of a car being "imported from Detroit" is so retro it's cool. It'd be even cooler if the car was actually built in the actual City of Detroit. But, as the car maker's Web site explains, this sedan is assembled in Sterling Heights.
No games. No lies. Sterling Heights is part of the Detroit Metropolitan Area, as entitled as any neighboring municipality to warm itself beneath the blanket brand name of "Detroit." And, as any Detroiter knows, the auto industry once put plants all over the metro area. But, to be clear, as most any real-estate agent in the region can attest, in 2006, Sterling Heights ranked as one of the top-10 safest cities in the US among cities with populations between 100,000 and 500,000, which is to say, the suburb of Sterling Heights is no City of Detroit.
When homeowners in Sterling Heights put their houses on the market, they surely emphasize the suburban identity, the safety, the schools ...
When Homeowners in the City of Detroit put their houses on the market, they don't often boast about the schools, especially now that state officials in Michigan have ordered Detroit Public Schools to begin implementing a plan to close half the city's schools.
Nothing new to Detroiters. A long time coming. Old story. Dire straits. A distraction from good news, like the recent boost in graduation rates to a four-year high. Some say such closures will never happen. But, there it is. A plan. An alternative to bankruptcy. An order. Close 'em. Close half the schools.
The Detroit News broke down the potential in terms of classroom sizes:
"Grades K-3 from 17-25 students to 29 in 2012-13 and 31 in 2013-14."Which reminds me ... "Say nice things about Detroit!"
"Grades 4-5 from 30 students to 37 in 2012-13 and 39 in 2013-14."
"Grades 6-8 from 35 students to 45 in 2012-13 and 47 in 2013-14."
"Grades 9-12 from 35 students to 60 in 2012-13 and 62 in 2013-14."
When I was a kid, growing up in the City of Detroit, back in the '70s, a booster began a campaign to improve the city's image. "Say nice things ..." The message appeared on billboards, stickers, buttons ... They figured it'd help if Detroiters thought of their city as a "nice" place. A city has to want to change. So, say "nice things" for a change.
I recall snickering.
Nice? What was nice?
My whole kid world was consumed by caution. Lock the doors ... Close the windows ... Stay away from there ... Don't go looking for trouble ...
Every Oct. 30th, an annual doomsday dubbed "Devil's Night," we stood sentry behind the bushes out front to ward off vandals as hundreds of buildings citywide were set ablaze.
When I was in the sixth grade (at a Catholic school, by the way), my class was told that a classmate's father, a public-school teacher, was in the hospital recovering from stab wounds he received when one of his students attacked him.
We were programed to flee. Getting good grades was important, we were told, not just to get better jobs, or to live better lives, but to get out. To get to the suburbs. To get to another state. Wherever. Just get someplace nice. But, oh yeah, "say nice things about Detroit."
By the time the rest of the nation began to freak out over kids taking guns to school, the metal detectors in some Detroit public schools had rust on them.
Nice things existed. Nice things remain. New money in the form of movie and TV production has transformed Detroit's bombed-out neighborhoods into post-apocalyptic backlots, though, local talk of turning the Motor City into Hollywood East seems about as likely as a return to hatchbacks and T-tops. The impressive, on-location, TV cop drama "Detroit 187" gets better every episode, and even manages to posit the possibility that Detroit is on the verge of a renaissance. But inexplicably bad ratings could send cast and crew packing come spring.
Regardless, it's all nice for now. The commercial. The movies. The TV show. But, just as I found it hard to notice nice things when I was a kid in Detroit Catholic schools, it's even harder to imagine kids in Detroit public schools noticing what's on the blackboard, let alone anything nice, when they're packed 60 to a classroom.
Sixty students ... Sixty cell phones ... Sixty iPods ... One teacher.
Detroit means a lot of things. Tough ... Rough ... Dangerous ... Music ... Motors ... Business ... The Detroit Hotel of this suburb ... The Detroit Association of that suburban group.
Being an adjective is nice, same as being Imported from near Detroit is preferable to being Imported from China.
But being Imported from the City of Detroit ... That'd be really #$@&-ing nice.
* Photo by TJ Sullivan