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Are Cities in Decline the New American Frontier?

March 28, 2018 in History

By Jon T. Coleman

An aerial view of a Detroit neighborhood with numerous empty lots. (Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

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The skeletal remains of an industrial city scroll across the windshield of a cruising automobile. Empty highway off-ramps loop overhead while roadside factories spew filth into pallid skies. A guitar strums the opening chords of Eminem’s “Lose Yourself,” and day blinks to night. A tough voice hails Chrysler’s 200, a ridiculously high-end four-door sedan that somehow captures the spirit of hideously lowdown Detroit, the Motown moldering on the fringes of the United States.

The advertising professionals who chose the Motor City and Eminem to star in their 2011 Super Bowl commercial for the Chrysler 200 did so for their exquisite down-and-out-there-ness. Both were damaged icons. The city was kneecapped by the auto industry’s overreliance on truck and SUV sales, hollowed out by thousands of laid-off workers escaping for sunnier climes and set aflame by the 2008–09 financial meltdown. The rapper, an addict with a taste for pills, knew hard times as well: He spent the 2000s coming to terms with the success he achieved the previous decade. The titles of his last three albums—Encore, Relapse and Recovery—hinted at his troubles.

But Detroit’s status as a car-wrecked municipality and Eminem’s reputation as a flawed human being also make them the ideal prisms through which to reconsider the history of the American West. When placed in the continuum of Americans’ relationship with their frontiers, the Chrysler 200 commercial suggested a break with the past as well as a hold in pattern. The commercial indulged in the American cultural habit of looking to the margins for inspiration, renewal and authenticity. While Americans might abhor and denigrate blighted places and broken people, they often staged their comebacks from the fringes. Thus, Eminem and Detroit belonged to a string of down-and-outs or far-and-aways that rebooted the nation. Think a humble cabin on the Kentucky frontier or a rough inner-city neighborhood slated for redevelopment. Detroit evolved from a fur-trade outpost to an industrial powerhouse, almost single-handedly pulling America from the depths of the Great Depression, to an urban cautionary tale.

An aerial view of a Detroit neighborhood with numerous empty lots. (Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Western historians of 20 to 30 years ago organized debates around a set of either/ors. Was the West a distinctive locale, defined by its aridity, its mountainous …read more


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