Even a half-asleep pedestrian in Detroit would not fail to notice the new public art that materialized this week. Perched on streetlight bases and utility boxes, decorating windowsills and ledges, sunbathing on grassy patches, 3,000 small white signs stencilled with a simple black tie infiltrated the landscape seemingly overnight.
Something special must be up, I concluded on seeing a seventh one in the short stretch of Woodward I was walking. But what? I asked some friends, asked some bystanders, asked the people working parking for the game downtown. Stationed directly across from a pair of the stencils propped up against stop sign posts, the guy flicked his neon flag, shrugged, and told me he had no idea.
The black ties are the symbol of the positivity-fueled “Detroit Stay Classy” campaign, which seeks to redefine class, vaguely asserting that “class encompasses a lot of things but most importantly is defined by your character and personality.” Their sparse manifesto puts a momentary blind eye to history, and maybe reality, with its awkward truisms reminding Detroiters that “every person is born with what is needed to take that first step towards their success.” “You and your ideas are special and have to be pursued,” the site cheerleads. The idea that you have to be pursued is one all too familiar to Detroiters behind on their utility bills.
Lacking either the curiosity or the entitlement, it never occurred to me to take any of the ties for myself, which was apparently the intent of the project. The back of each has scrawled on it “for you — from me. p.s. stay classy”, the website, and the tie’s production number. Some of the ties are now displayed proudly in store windows, some have gone home to the burbs, and a lot are decorating downtown offices, reminding their keepers to keep it classy at work, judging by elated comments.
What percentage of Detroiters will never have any idea of the meaning behind these white boards? If they don’t know, then what is the point? It’s only more mysterious stuff placed in their environment by some well-meaning “other” for some other well-meaning “other.” Missing the transparency of other positive-thinking public art efforts, like Cheer Up! Detroit, where the message is accessible to any literate person wandering by, the ties bristle with exclusivity. In not addressing the people it was intended to encourage — people who are not middle or upper class, internet-literate, and nestling this cute tchotchke into their art collection — how can the project really be meaningful, something aside from more fluffy lighthearted Detroit Future boosterism?
In the depths of conversation with a very positive woman, flagging cars of Tigers fans into a small lot near the stadium, she told me about her 45 minute commutes on foot to work — a 2.5 hour job — “and that’s taking all the shortcuts,” she said, “through the fields and through people’s apartment complexes, everything.” Instead of relating happy messages about black ties painted on boards, she told me about being robbed last year on her solitary route home, the reason she will no longer work night games. “I wish I had a bike,” she sighed, looking at my rusty Peugeot.
The ties are whimsical; I can seldom argue against whimsy. Inspiring something like a city-wide scavenger hunt — thankfully, the project succeeded in not limiting classiness to the 7.2 — is the kind of fun every metropolis needs. Yet it’s not really the most clever irony by which a project all about personality and character takes an article of clothing as its symbol — an article none other than the alienating tie that encircles white collars. Perhaps these boards and their surrogate neckwear are an apt talisman in a city known for its hard-working working class, but the undertone of exclusivity persists.
Detroit’s black tie makeover is part of a broader clash between understanding and respecting a space and its people, history, and culture, and understanding and respecting one’s personal needs and ambitions, and figuring where to interpolate oneself into that history and culture. This is a struggle every time I go out on a walk, thinking always of the millions of people before me who have walked the same route — the same sidewalk, the same street, the same path, the prairie and forest before the city. Where can the black tie fit into that?
“Is There Room for Black People in the New Detroit?” by Suzette Hackney, who asks, “Still a question looms: Is there room for low income residents to benefit from the dazzling reinvention of their city?” As one resident she interviews put it, Detroit’s new development “is for the white folks and tourists. It ain’t for us.”