A new ad
running in Arkansas, funded by the Conservative War Chest Super PAC, uses Detroit as a verb to express the idea of killing a place through taxes and debt and lack of jobs. It's actually a very brief cameo by our fair city, visible at 1:42 for those who want to skip the right-wing scaremongering.
Our immediate reaction is typical of editors: an objection to verbing a noun. Especially a proper noun. That's just illiterate. What's next? Will we be New Yorking stuff? Or Houstoning something? Perhaps we'll be struck with the urge to Baton Rouge something? Is there no end to ugly coinages emanating from marketing professionals and their focus groups?
Of course, these ad people are savvy folks, and they know that there's a national mythology about what happened to Detroit. It was given to the Democrats and left-wingers, and whenever they're in charge, houses lose windows and badly worn tires drop out of the sky onto your front lawn.
But what happened to Detroit? (Or, to use this ridiculous language, how were we "Detroited"?)
Well, it's complicated, but it seems that we had a good run of almost 20 years of Republican mayors in Detroit while Detroiters of means were rushing to the suburbs beginning in the late 1940s. It was during this period that a Republican president, Dwight Eisenhower, signed the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, which ushered in a rush of new development, almost all of it outside Detroit's city limits, sapping the strength of the city and propping up suburban governments with generous subsidies. Disinvestment and unfair policing, all supported by right-wing Detroiters, finally culminated in the rebellion that took over the city's streets in 1967, which is where many right-wing mythologists would rather start their clock.
The truth is, no city could compete against the kind of policy-dictated gold rush that took place here, unchecked by natural boundaries or a truly "free market." So it would seem that to "Detroit" a place is to undermine it by subsidizing its neighbor. We'll forward our suggested definition to Webster and the OED, for all the difference that's going to make.
Because this is the sort of history that is going to be lost on most people in Arkansas. They're not going to plow through a book by Thomas Sugrue to learn all this. It's closer to the truth to say that people in Arkansas must really, really fear and loathe Detroit for the Conservative War Chest Super PAC to use Detroit as shorthand.
But let's at least take a moment to note the truth behind the matter, before the matter is fully Arkansassed.