Daily Archives: July 13, 2008

Idea of the Day: Turning to t-shirts to spiff up downtrodden cities

Modern Phoenix

From time to time, we’ll throw out an “Idea of the Day” culled from sources here in Arizona and elsewhere.  The following idea was passed along by Brian Kenny and written about in a July 13, 2008 New York Times article, Turning to T-Shirts to Spiff Up Downtrodden Cities, by Catrin Einhorn.  Here’s what it’s all about:

As Jeff Vines pulls down the iron on the heat press in his small studio here, he is trying something far grander than simply searing another image onto another T-shirt.  The machine hisses, Mr. Vines opens it and sizes up his handiwork: a cotton weapon in his quest to revive his long-challenged city.  The St. Louis-themed shirts that Jeff Vines and his identical twin, Randy, make are not for tourists.  They sport neighborhood references and inside jokes unintelligible to those not from here.  Some easily offend, displaying profanity and raunchy innuendo.  But to the Vines brothers, their edginess is part of their mission for St. Louis — a place many of their friends from high school fled — to rehabilitate its image from the inside out and, ultimately, to make future generations want to stay.  “You have to get the people who live there to be the best advocates for the city, or else you don’t really have much,” Randy Vines said.  “So you need to change the psyche and change the way they see their own city.”

The Vines brothers, 30, are not alone in their effort.  In cities like Youngstown, Ohio, and Detroit, damaged by the decline in manufacturing and decades of population loss, entrepreneurs in their 20s and 30s are pushing back with the simple stuff of T-shirts, tote bags and soap.  Faced with condescending attitudes from outsiders and grumbling from many locals, they are determined to peddle in pride, and hope to convert others in the process.  “It’s reframing the identity of these places that have been misrepresented,” said Abby Wilson, a co-founder of the Great Lakes Urban Exchange, a new group dedicated to bringing post-baby boomers together to work for the health of postindustrial cities in the Great Lakes region.

The Vines brothers’ company, STL-Style, makes retro-looking T-shirts that extol and lovingly tease St. Louis; slogans include “My Way or Kingshighway,” and “Where the Mullet Meets the River.”  In Pittsburgh, Lindsay Patross, 28, offers T-shirts and aprons that read “Pittsburghers are tasty.”  At City Bird in Detroit, siblings Emily and Andy Linn, 30 and 25, make clocks, lamps, earrings and bracelets patterned with maps of their city.  Another company, Rusty Waters Apparel, sells skull-adorned T-shirts celebrating Youngstown, Cleveland and Pittsburgh.  A quote on the company’s MySpace page says: “Don’t mess with the underdog.  Rustbelt Warriors!”

Another Rusty Waters Apparel design depicts a downtown Youngstown building, the Home Savings and Loan, hanging upside down from the neckline, with birds flying around it.  “The fact that it’s upside down signifies the struggle that Youngstown has gone through,” the shirt’s designer, Kate Butler, 24, explained.  But the birds are flying right side up, symbolizing hope, she said.

These T-shirt makers know, of course, that their merchandise will not cure the deep-seated problems of their cities.  But they see them as one way to fight against powerful stereotypes, and consider them more authentic than city officials’ public relations campaigns.  Mark-Evan Blackman, chairman of men’s wear design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, said T-shirts can have a profound effect on social change, and that these shirts should not be underestimated.  “It’s saying we’re cool, we’re here,” Mr. Blackman said.  “We’ve not jumped out of the boat, this city is cool and we’re making it cooler, and look at us.” [Note: To read the full article, click here.]