Blog: Toby Barlow

Toby Barlow is co-president and executive creative director of JWT Team Detroit where he oversees work on both local and national accounts. He is also the author of "Sharp Teeth," a novel about werewolves.  Toby lives downtown in Lafayette Park and will be writing about his vision of a better Metro Detroit.

Post No. 4

The Most Worst Place

I remember in college being in love with Montana because it had a reputation as "The Last Best Place." With that simple phrase, the whole state just nestled into my consciousness as some kind of national Eden.

Two decades later, I believe one of the things holding Detroit back is the universal perception that we’re "The Most Worst Place." Newspapers talk up how we are dangerous, corrupt, plagued with troubled industry, etc. It’s like we are forever typecast, over and over again, as the down and out kid who can’t tie his own shoes.

In the narrative flow of American history, right now we symbolize the worst than we can do. We are actually serving a purpose, anchoring down one end of the spectrum, if New York is the tops, we are the bottom. I’m not saying if that perception reflects reality, I think to the collective unconscious, reality is largely irrelevant.

Honestly, until someone beats us in last place, it doesn’t matter what we do, we’re stuck. GM’s business model appears to be the best it’s been in years, Chrysler is making bold management moves, and Ford’s quality now rivals Honda and Toyota. These should and could be bright days for Detroit. But we’re stuck in some larger narrative, one that we’re going to have to bust out of if we want to succeed.

So I think it’s time we broke the cycle.

I would like to suggest we all work together, collectively, in an open and cooperative fashion, as a true community, and find another national scapegoat to pick on, some wretched urban center than can signify everything that is wrong with our country. Because once that’s done, once we have a worse national boogieman than Detroit, only then will we be free from the shackles of our nation’s imagination. And only then will be able to symbolize more aspirational things like industry, innovation, hope and excellence. The stuff that made us great to begin with.

Here are the nominees:

Buffalo: I thought I should mention this early, because whenever I bring this subject up, people always say “Yeah, Buffalo!! Let’s make Buffalo the bad guy!!” But I actually don’t think it’s a good choice. It’s really too similar to Detroit. It’s actually just a smaller version of the same town. So, we should leave Buffalo well enough alone. The same goes for any city in Ohio. We’re all in this together.

New Orleans: Now they could easily be a symbol of failure. But, boy, that city has some immense troubles, challenges I hope we never know, and so it doesn’t seem right to kick that town when it’s down. In fact, I might nominate it for sister-city status. In any case, New Orleans is not going to be our scapegoat, so let’s keep looking.

Baltimore: If you were addicted to “The Wire” like I was, you probably see Baltimore as a city facing a lot of similar issues to ours. So, for the same reason we can’t pick on Buffalo or Ohio, we have to give Baltimore a pass. Karmically speaking it’s just not a good choice. Sort of that whole “pluck the splinter out of your own eye before you throw the stone at the glass house” thing.

We’re not making a lot of progress here. So, what’s left? Atlanta, no. Denver, no. Portland, no. Spokane, Sacramento, Fresno, no, no no. But then there’s one city down near the bottom of the map. And it fits the bill pretty nicely.

Albuquerque: Nobody knows much about this town. Can you name one trivia fact about Albuquerque? I can’t. For all we know, it very well could be a whole lot worse than Detroit. It’s just nobody has taken the time to notice it. Last I heard, Bugs Bunny took a wrong turn there, so it can’t be all that good.

I would like to suggest we start trash talking Albuquerque immediately. Maybe we can begin by saying "Well sure Detroit may not be perfect, but at least it isn’t, you know, Albuquerque." Or "Could be worse, we could be in Albuquerque."  If anyone asks you what you’re talking about, just roll your eyes and say, "Oh, you know." and then walk away.

Yes, finding another city to disparage isn’t the ideal way to cure Detroit’s woes. But it is a start. And while I’m sure Mitt Romney and the Dalai Lama have a whole host of more noble and enterprising solutions to our problems, frankly last time I checked, they weren’t helping. Not one bit.