What do we mean when we talk about Detroit?

Feb 6, 2012

Last night during the Super Bowl, Chrysler ran a follow-up to its much buzzed-about commercial from last year’s big game.

The new commercial, dubbed “It’s Halftime in America” ran, appropriately enough, during halftime.

The ad makes it clear that Chrysler is sticking with its strategy to promote the Motor City as a way to promote its vehicles.

After declaring that “it’s halftime in America, the ad’s narrator, Clint Eastwood, says:

People are out of work and they’re hurting. And they’re all wondering what they’re going to do to make a comeback. And we’re all scared because this isn’t a game. The people of Detroit know a little something about this. They almost lost everything. But we all pulled together. Now, Motor City is fighting again.

The ad got us thinking: When people say Detroit, oftentimes what they mean is “the auto industry” or “metro-Detroit.” So, what exactly are we talking about when we talk about Detroit?

Clearly, when Dirty Harry himself says Detroit “almost lost everything,” he’s not talking about the City of Detroit. Because, if the city doesn’t get its finances in order, it could still lose “everything” and fall under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager. And he’s not talking about Detroit schools, which are already under the control of an emergency manager.

It’s arguable whether he could even be talking about Chrysler, since the company’s headquarters are a half-hour drive from the city’s borders, and the company is majority-owned by Italy’s Fiat. Also, unless you’re talking about the Jeep Wrangler or Dodge Durango, none of Chrysler’s cars are actually made in the Motor City.

These might seem like minor details. After all, few of us are confused when people use “Detroit” to mean “the auto industry.” But the distinction does matter, certainly to Detroiters. And it helps explain why the city is still struggling, even though the car companies seem to have bounced back.

As Changing Gears wrote last year, there are only two auto assembly plants left in Detroit (although Chrysler is re-opening a third this year). And GM is the only car company whose headquarters is within the city limits.

When the car companies left the city, they took with them their property tax obligations, their employee income tax obligations and a whole lot of money that the actual city of Detroit could use right about now. It’s not like we can expect these decisions to be reversed, nor would it necessarily be a good thing for the region.

But we should be aware that when a company, or a person talks about rebuilding Detroit, sometimes they’re not talking about Detroit at all. Sometimes they’re talking about a suburb (where things were never as bad as they are right now in Detroit). Sometimes, as is the case with a recent Chrysler announcement, they’re talking about Belvidere, Ill.

So how is it you can hear about the rebirth of Detroit, and a minute later hear about how the city’s finances are crumbling?

Because when people say Detroit, often what they mean is something completely different.

When you use the word Detroit, what does it mean to you?