The city of Detroit is toying with the
idea of wrapping decaying buildings with huge banners for the
coming 2006 Super Bowl. These banners are part of mayor Kwame
Kilpatrick’s “Clean, Safe, Beautiful” strategy of
hiding some of the city’s less-than-attractive buildings from
the coming football rush estimated at 100,000 visitors. The wraps
will be modeled after those used by Ford, General Motors and
Chrysler, like the multi-story image of an F-150 pickup truck
gracing Ford’s world headquarters in Dearborn. Wrapping
decaying buildings with larger-than-life advertisements in order to
prevent visitors from seeing Detroit how it really is will only
make the city uglier and will do nothing to actually improve the
city in the long term.

Elliott Mallen

This is a quick fix designed to marginally improve a one-time
crowd’s perception of Detroit instead of an investment whose
benefits can carry over after the day of the Super Bowl. It’s
worse than putting a Band-Aid over a gushing wound; at least
Band-Aids are supposed to help heal. This is more akin to applying
a layer of makeup to the wound. Whoever is applying the makeup is
so ashamed of the wound they would rather keep people from
believing it’s there than actually doing something to heal
it. This is what Detroit is doing with these wraps. The city is
hiding a supposed embarrassment and doing nothing at all to make
the situation any better. Instead of merely covering the blemishes,
Detroit should actually invest in improving the buildings
themselves.

Another flaw with this plan is that giant billboards
aren’t all that attractive to begin with. Nobody, on a return
visit from Rome or Paris or New York, shows off photos of all the
wonderful corporate advertisements littered about the city. They
show off photos of attractive and historic landmarks, the kinds of
things that draw people to cities in the first place. Billboards
never have and never will attract tourists, and it’s foolish
for Detroit to think more of them will actually improve
peoples’ perception of the city.

Billboards are also just plain ugly. They are a blight
themselves, managing to reduce any potentially attractive view to a
frantic plea to buy something. Using them to beautify a city is
counterproductive, since it’s just covering an unattractive
building with an unattractive image. The fact that such ugly images
are going to be plastered over buildings is in a way an insult to
the city itself. The fact that these giant symbols of corporate
greed are considered more aesthetically pleasing than the city
itself shows what little faith the planners have in the city they
lead. If the mayor’s office took pride in Detroit, it
wouldn’t want to cover up the city’s faults with
hundred-foot images of PT Cruisers and bottles of Pepsi. Rather, it
would try to improve the crumbling buildings so that the beauty of
the city could speak for itself and these wraps would be
unnecessary.

Improving the city’s infrastructure would do more than
just attract tourists: It would attract investment. One of the huge
problems with the city now is that the affluent people who work
downtown sure as hell don’t want to live downtown. People who
live there want out, and people who work there but don’t live
there want things to stay that way. The billboard strategy only
encourages this thinking by acknowledging that nobody really wants
to be inside the city, and the billboards are intended to make
peoples’ stays less painful as opposed to more enjoyable. The
billboards are designed to distract and divert —
they’re not really meant to be admired; they’re just
meant to conceal. Fixing that which needs concealing will make
people admire the city as a whole instead of forcing them to turn
their eyes from its faults.

The building wraps also do nothing to benefit those who actually
live in the city. People who live in the tenements slated for a
corporate makeover will get nothing out if it except being pushed
out of the tourists’ way. If, instead of covering the
tenement, the city government would instead improve it and elevate
it from tenement status, it would directly benefit the people who
live there in addition to making the city more attractive in
general. Unimaginably huge advertisements won’t make Detroit
a better place to visit or inhabit. These quick fixes only manage
to hurt the city in the long run, and long-term investment is long
overdue.

Mallen can be reached at
“mailto:emmallen@umich.edu”>emmallen@umich.edu.

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