Detroit: the ultimate reputation-rebuild challenge

As a young person growing up in the UK I always had more than a soft spot for Detroit and yesterday's decision by the city to file for bankruptcy is very sad to see.

As a young person growing up in the UK I always had more than a soft spot for Detroit and yesterday's decision by the city to file for bankruptcy is very sad to see.

In its heyday, the blue collar city's reputation was one of hope and prosperity, fueled by the burgeoning auto industry and reflected by the non-stop stream of fantastic music that came out of it, not just from the iconic Motown label of Berry Gordy, but also the energy of the likes of Iggy Pop and the Stooges and MC5.

But the auto industry started moving out in the late-1960s, and even Motown decamped for California in 1972. Motown's head office lay empty for decades before it was eventually demolished in 2006. A friend of mine would travel to Detroit from the UK and scam his way in past the local “security” and trawl abandoned filing cabinets of classic black and white promotional photos and other memorabilia that had been left unwanted, much like the city that spawned the label.

Later, he got married at the Motown museum and Martha Reeves, of the Vandellas Dancing in the Street fame, sang at his reception. It caused quite a commotion as Detroit simply wasn't used to the attention anymore – the Berry Gordy glamour had long since lost its luster.

For decades Detroit has paid its bills by borrowing money and failing to provide basic services, and it is now anywhere between $18-20bn in debt. Once America's fourth-largest city by number of people living there, its population is down from 2 million in 1950 to 700,000 now – and some neighborhoods are completely deserted.

Detroit has filed for Chapter 9 Federal Bankruptcy Protection, making it the biggest US city to make such a filing. This filing needs the approval of a federal judge, but the largest municipal bankruptcy filing in history is expected to last until the middle of next year.

Local auto firms GM and Chrysler have recovered from their brush with bankruptcy and are at least back on a sustainable footing after root-and-branch restructuring. But there will be no TARP-style money from the Government to help Detroit rebuild.

The city is suffering from a reputation deficit that is not going to be turned around quickly. Unlike New York City, which almost went bankrupt in the 1970s, it doesn't have the financial sector to sustain it. And a heavily unionized labor force has put off companies that might otherwise have invested in the area, especially Japanese auto giants Toyota and Nissan.

Its tax base is declining and crime is rife. Former Mayor Rudi Guiliani's zero-tolerance policy that was crediting with helping getting NYC back on track will be difficult to implement in Detroit, a city where it takes cops an average of 58 minutes to respond to violent crime.

I haven't got any easy answers to this: much smarter people than me have tried and failed with this conundrum. But can the city's business sector, including the PR, advertising, and marketing communities, come together and help officials build a plan that will restore the reputation of a once-great metropolis?

Back in the day, Motown legend Smokey Robinson did a great version of a song called I Care About Detroit: it's going to take one hell of an effort but, as communications pros, if you were rebranding Detroit how would you go about it and how would you start building a narrative that can get people holding their heads high in the streets again, if not exactly dancing?

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Register
Already registered?
Sign in