Heigh-Ho, Heigh-Ho

Wieden + Kennedy for Levi’s.
Crumbling Cities Have Never Been So Cool
You may have seen the ad online. Grainy black and white, backed by a plucky roots-flavored rendition of the classic Snow White tune “Heigh-Ho.”

The scene: Braddock, Pennsylvania.

We see, in succession, people climbing into well-fitted denim work clothes, busting up a wall with sledge hammers, and pushing a wheelbarrow through a community garden as Braddock’s punk-visionary mayor, John Fetterman, explains the operation. “90% of our town is in the landfill, so reinvention is the only option.”

Sponsored by Levi’s.

It’s the most flagrant example I’ve seen yet of “ruin porn.” As a reporter, I have covered the considerable debate about how best to reinvigorate communities saddled with the contaminated remnants of heavy industry. (See “Strange Sanctuary” and “Dirty Secrets under the Schoolyard”). Across the country, business leaders, government regulators, environmental activists and community residents are hashing out competing visions for recovery. It’s a provocative discussion I plan to return to in future blogs.

In fact, the debate has grown so animated that it’s spun off a separate, and no less worthy, sub-debate about how these ruinous cities and towns should be depicted.

Levi’s campaign is called “Go Forth,” and it’s intended to market the company’s Work Wear collection. According to a company blog, the ad campaign features a dozen actual Braddock residents.

Down-and-Out Is In

If you needed any further proof, this is it. Ruins are now chic. In the midst of the worst recession in 30 years, it seems that images of shuttered houses and collapsing warehouses capture an essential part—nostalgia? determination?—of the national mood.

De-industrialization has been unfolding for decades, but suddenly the heroic efforts of local leaders like Fetterman have gained a much broader resonance. Their gritty, bootstrap determination to remake life can speak to everyone facing long odds—which, in this rotten economy, includes just about everyone. As Levi’s asserted in a press release about the campaign, “Braddock has become a model for how any city, in any part of the country, can prevail as a symbol of hope and change.”

That’s a zeitgeist that companies want to capitalize on. If they can cast themselves as the ally of underdog communities, well, maybe we’ll all go out and buy more jeans.

Nor is Levi’s the only company making this kind of calculation. Palladium Boots recently sponsored a pretty decent documentary about grassroots revitalization in Detroit.

Ruins have a certain appeal in any economy. Every time I have been to an art festival in the last decade, I’ve found least one, and usually several, photographers, painters and print-makers who specialize in depicting urban ruins. This fascination in all things rusty isn’t exploitative per se. Personally, I like to see the insides of these places. I like to know what they made and how they worked. I’m as curious about the boarded-up storefronts, decrepit rail yards, and silent machine shops in my neighborhood—and there are plenty—as I am about those in Detroit. Cumulatively, they represent a history that should not be forgotten as we try to green our cities and economy.

But putting the ruins aesthetic to work selling a product is another matter entirely. There is something truly deceptive, something pornographic, about promoting the pleasant side of a ruined place like Braddock. Sure, Braddock needs publicity, but what kind of publicity? Do Levi’s ads convey anything of the crime, health risks and poverty that come with having such ruins?

Even so, someone has to help Braddock, because it turns out that Uncle Sam has not been doing a very good job. Blogger Willy Staley discovered that Levi’s had given Braddock four times more money than the federal Recovery Act. It turns out that ruin porn is valuable. Not unlike regular porn, I guess.