Tuesday, July 14, 2009

A View of What Do You See

"This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill - the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill - you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes." -Quote from "The Matrix."

This post is the fault of two people - City Council members Ken Cockrel, Jr. and Martha Reeves. During a discussion of the sudden proliferation of billboards in the city promoting Colt 45 malt liquor and what (if any) action should be taken, the two made observations that were the living embodiment of the famous quote from "The Matrix."

Mr. Cockrel noted while he was critical of the advertisements, the breweries wouldn't target our community so heavily if the residents weren't so quick to buy the product. "We also have to check ourselves," he was quoted as saying. "I see a lot of people buying 40 ounces."

Ms. Reeves, on the other hand, decided to focus on aesthetics. She was unhappy about the way the billboards made Billy Dee Williams, who's portrayed in caricature in the advertisements looked. "He's ugly," she's quoted as saying.

Blue pill. Red pill. When you look around you, what do you see?

After reading this story, I decided it was time for me to take a look around, go down the rabbit hole if you will, and really look at my world. My drive to work takes me up Woodward Avenue, the main artery of the city. The thoroughfare passes through business districts and residential neighborhoods. It's a major transportation hub for commuters - whether by car, bus, bike, or on foot. People of all walks of life travel on Woodward.

It was also the site of my last post, the story of Jane and her daily drinking binges.

Where better to see what the world sees? I chose to study all the billboards on a stretch of Woodward between Six Mile Road (McNichols) and I-696. It covered roughly an equal distance in both the city and the border suburbs of Ferndale and Pleasant Ridge. There are several intersections along the way with a variety of businesses, meeting places, and gathering spots along the way.

My first stop was at the intersection of Six Mile Road (McNichols in the city) and Woodward. This is the border of Detroit and Highland Park, just south of the first mile of paved concrete highway in the world. The area was used for major location shooting during the making of the 2008 Clint Eastwood film, Gran Torino. It's also a snapshot of two cities in decline; surrounded by neglected residential areas, abandoned businesses, and vice. The main businesses at the intersection are Deja Vu, a strip club (their slogan is "1000's of Beautiful Girls and Three Ugly Ones"); Uptown Bookstore, an adult bookstore which features a walk-up window where patrons can purchase lottery tickets without having to enter the store:

There's also Snethkamp Chrysler Jeep, a dealership spared the threat of closure during the recent bankruptcy filing; and a Valero gas station that has a buffet soul food restaurant inside its lobby. There's also a taxi garage, a dry cleaners, two additional adult bookstores (one stays open 24 hours), a motel that advertises hourly rates, a bar, a Powerhouse Gym with attached physical therapy center, a recently closed beauty supply store, a candy shop, a hip-hop clothing & music shop, a couple of barber/beauty shops - all mom & pop operated - and three churches. There are several billboards in this area. The largest is over the gas station - one of the Colt 45 ads the Council was debating. There's also a very large billboard on top of Deja Vu promoting the club. There are smaller billboards over the garage selling motorcycles, $1 soft drinks at McDonald's, auto insurance, and the services of personal injury lawyer Sam Bernstein ("Injured? We come to you!").

On the northwest corner, is a billboard guaranteed to catch the eye:

It's positioned so that's it's easily seen by all commuters in all directions. It's next to an apartment building, right at the edge of one of the residential neighborhoods and just at the entrance to Palmer Park. The billboard promotes a service, but when you look at it what do you see? What does it say to you about the target audience for the product? The neighborhood in which it's located? What sort of feeling do you get as you view it?

Now combine those answers with the description of the neighborhood. The businesses located nearby. The other billboards surrounding it. Now what do you see? How do you feel?

Now add this fact to your thinking: Not more than a tenth of a mile away, in the shadow of La Dolce Vita (an upscale restaurant); an abandoned and vandalized landromat, and a small mosque, is a second Colt 45 billboard - smaller in size but identical in content - posted over a campaign ad for a City Council candidate.

Abdullah Bey El-Amin is being reported as the first imam to appear on a Detroit ballot. His billboard talks about making Detroit great again, and asks the community to demand good leaders. It's completely overshadowed by a caricature of Billy Dee Williams selling alcohol.

What do you see when you look at this photo? How does this photo make you feel? Does the position of the alcohol billboard positively or negatively impact your opinion of El-Amin? Does it impact your opinion at all? What does the juxtaposition of these advertisements make you think of the community where they are displayed?

About a mile north is the intersection of Woodward and Seven Mile Road. This intersection is a bit unique, in that its the meeting point of a residential neighborhood and a business district. Among the businesses you will find in this area are the Palmer Park Golf Course, a BP gas station, a McDonald's restaurant (an online search shows it may be up for sale), an ice cream parlor, Dutch Girl Donuts (some of the best donuts in town), and the Goldengate Cafe, a vegetarian restaurant and holistic treatment center. On the northwest side of the street is the southern border of the Palmer Woods neighborhood, an upscale community in northwest Detroit. The east side of the street is more working class, decaying as you continue further east. There's a construction site for a church that's been in the works for years now, and more abandoned or burned out businesses. It's also part of an area on the east side of the city being plagued by a serial rapist who has attacked four young women and attempted an attack on a fifth. As of today, he's still at large.

The billboards in this intersection include public service announcements for a drug treatment center and the upcoming primary election displayed, advertising for senior citizens housing, and another appearance by Billy Dee's Colt 45 billboard. That's three identical advertisements for the same product on the same side of the street in a mile span.

Looking at these facts, what do you see? What does this tell you about the community? About its residents? About the way the business community views the neighborhood?

The next major intersection is a biggie - it's the border between Detroit and its northern suburbs at Eight Mile Road. The Eight Mile rhapsodized in Eminem's movie. The Eight Mile Road that Coleman Young so famously told criminals to hit and keep going after being elected to his first term as mayor back in 1973 - a line that many feel sparked the ongoing animosity between Detroit and the suburbs for the past few decades.

At this intersection is a fly-over for traffic continuing north or south on Woodward, and turn around local lanes for those needing to access Eight Mile Road or any of the handful of businesses and homes in the area. On the north side of the road, there's Ferndale. There are a couple of auto dealerships, a cleaning supply store, a White Castle restaurant, a diner, and a hotel with hourly rates. On the south side is a Catholic church, the Green Acres neighborhood, a Chinese restaurant, a cemetery, a lawn supply shop, another hourly rates motel, and the northern end of the Michigan State Fairgrounds. The future of the Michigan State Fair is in limbo - the state is cutting funding for the fair after this year, and there's been talk of eliminating the fair completely. The northern end of the grounds have been empty for years, and plans for a shopping center have materialized and fallen apart. The most recent plans include the possibility of a Meijer store, but nothing has been finalized.

At this intersection are three very large billboards. One advertises the services of the Detroit Medical Center. One is a promotional billboard for Motor City Casino's Sound Board concert venue. The third is for WADL-TV's "Classic Comedy Block" of afternoon programming. A third of the bottom is covered in very large, very bright graffiti.

Here are some questions to ponder: How did the graffiti artist (or artists) get up on the billboard - which is brightly lit at night and positioned for maximum viewing - and paint without being noticed? If someone did notice, did they report what they saw? How come the billboard has been allowed to stay up without being cleaned up? Why vandalize this particular billboard? How long did it take to tag the billboard? Was more than one trip required?

There's is a fourth large billboard on the southwest corner of the intersection advertising the gourmet burger menu at MGM Grand Casino's Bourbon Steak, but the way it's positioned only allows for viewing when traveling south on Woodward. There's also a small, building mounted billboard on the northeast corner of the intersection advertising Everfresh juice, but it's not very visible either.

If you go a bit further north, you reach the intersection of Woodward and Nine Mile Road in the heart of downtown Ferndale. There are almost too many businesses and services to mention: two churches, three cemeteries, a gas station, two theaters - The Ringwald and the Magic Bag - a post office, a bank, a car rental agency, an insurance agency, a drugstore, a cellular phone store, Metro Parent magazine's offices, a school, a self-storage facility, an optical shop, and numerous restaurants, shops, and nightclubs. I know I'm leaving out some places in this list, but you get the idea of how it's thriving. I only saw one completely empty commercial space passing by - and it's being renovated for occupancy. Two other spaces north of Nine Mile are about to lose their tenants - the stores are in the process of holding going out of business sales.

The billboards in the area were for businesses like Body Morph, a fitness training facility (there were two for this company - one to consumers and one recruiting sales & fitness workers); TNT Televison, for a new show called "Dark Blue"; a public service ad advocating smoke free workspaces; a promo ad for Panera Bread; an advertisement for an upcoming Demi Lovato/David Archuleta concert.

I only saw two billboards advertising liquor - one over the Magic Bag Theatre for Molson Beer, and one over Flagstar Bank for Corona Beer.

Here's what I didn't see: Abandoned, boarded up buildings. Fields or lots choked with overgrown weeds. Garbage on the streets. Graffiti. Billy Dee Williams with his can of Colt 45.

In all of the neighborhoods, I saw people who were friendly - offering a smile and saying hello when spoken to. I saw people going to work, or hanging out with friends. Below Eight Mile, I only saw African-American people walking along Woodward. Above Eight Mile, the majority of people were white. There were more people jogging, walking dogs, or bike riding above Eight Mile. Below Eight Mile, there were more people waiting for busses.

No one spoke until spoken to. No one asked why I was taking notes or pictures. Very few people looked up at the billboards until they saw me taking pictures.

Here's a question to ponder: When they looked up, looked around, what do you think they saw? Do they see what's around them - and what do they think about their surroundings?

I think both Ms. Reeves and Mr. Cockrel had, in their own way, good observations. The image of Billy Dee and his can of Colt 45 are ugly, in that it promotes a way not to notice the world around you. Colt 45 "working every time" is an escape from reality - a red pill of sorts. The idea that people need to pay attention to what they consume and that marketers will only target areas in which consumers demand the products they sell is also on point. We create the reality in which we live.

Still I think both Ms. Reeves and Mr. Cockrel missed one point: What we see is often what we think we are. And the billboards I saw when I looked around my neighborhood were one bitter blue pill to swallow. We've got a lot of work to do to improve our point of view folks.

More later, but not before I invite you to take the journey I took up and down Woodward Avenue. Take a good hard look all around. Get out of your car and take in the neighborhoods on foot. You might be surprised at what you truly see when you do.

I should also mention that the links and pictures included in this post are not necessarily endorsements for products, services, or candidates by me. They're just snapshots of what I saw in my journey down the rabbit hole.

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