By **Justin Alvarez**
You know the ads. Wistfully shot photographs and filmed footage embedded with a nostalgic sense of old-school patriotism that apparently runs rampant in today’s Millenial youth. Shirtless girls with American flags in their pockets and the tagline attached, “This country was not built by men in suits.” Or the empty fields perfectly lit at golden hour declaring: “$100,000 is buried somewhere in America.” The Levi’s “Go Forth” advertisements appeared during the opening previews of every film I saw in theaters last year and overlooked my walk to work every morning from the 33rd Street PATH station to my office in Times Square. Even though the campaign tried hard to be cool—real hard—they were compelling artistically (who wouldn’t be stirred by Walt Whitman’s own voice reciting his iconic poem “America”?). However, I could never put my finger on what Levi’s was trying to say in the campaign besides highlighting the free-spirited youth of today. There was always an air of inauthenticity permeating the ads due to the fact that they were completely ungrounded in the heritage they were in fact trying to evoke: good old-fashioned work. It’s as if Wieden + Kennedy (Levi’s creative agency) accepted the fact that our youth today no longer participate in the same pioneering duties that, to paraphrase Levi’s press release announcing the “Ready to Work” campaign, built America.
Instead of its original ethereal approach, the new advertisements featured the city and residents of Braddock, Pennsylvania, a “distressed municipality” as declared by the state. Once the location of Andrew Carnegie’s first mill, the prosperous town hit hard times during the decline of the steel industry in the 1980s. Every time I see the ads now—a young boy helping his father get ready for work with the tagline “Everybody’s work is equally important” or the various Braddock residents staring pensively into the distance stating, “We are all workers”—I can’t help but think of my girlfriend’s hometown of Vandergrift, Pennsylvania, yet another victim to steel’s demise. And there are hundreds of other towns like Braddock and Vandergrift along the Rust Belt, a mix of boarded-up storefronts, vacant lots, and abandoned homes. Once rising populations after World War II, the numbers have significantly declined to less than half. Vandergrift used to be home to the largest sheet steel mill in the world, with a peak population of 10,725 people in the 1940s. Now, only a little over 5,000 are left. Literally, these are towns living in the shells of what they once were.
I support Levi’s new approach, putting its money where its pants have been. They are donating more than a million dollars over a two-year period to Braddock to help renovate its community center and further develop an urban farming program that will put to use the town’s numerous vacant lots. Additionally, the town will receive international attention through the campaign’s commercials and hour-long film featuring the town’s renewal that will appear online on IFC and Sundance cable channels. Will this help Braddock in the end? It can’t hurt —especially the money. But what about the other towns that don’t have a multi-million dollar advertising campaign behind them? How do they move forward?
In her book Capital’s Utopia: Vandergrift, Pennsylvania, 1855-1916 (Creating the North American Landscape), geographer Anne E. Mosher details Vandergrift’s history, whose plot could fuel an epic film one day with a cast of characters including Frederick Law Olmsted (yes, that Olmstead, who designed New York City’s Central Park), George McMurtry, and Jacob Jay Vandergrift. Near the end of the book she speaks of the town’s recent steps in the 1990s to rejuvenate its livelihood, including the local high school’s Historical Society raising money to build a metal placard at the town’s main square detailing its storied history. However, when I spoke to my girlfriend about the Historical Society—she went to the same local high school the following decade—she had never heard of such a group ever existing (the club disintegrated in the late 90s). And regarding the metal placard, she knew it existed but never looked at what the sign even said. Speaking to other friends of ours, they had no idea Vandergrift was the first town in the U.S. to be built solely by a corporation, and that without the town there would have never been a Pullman, Illinois, or a Gary, Indiana. Furthermore, there was no acknowledgment of how pivotal the town’s history is in understanding how capital should interact with labor, as well as “ the curvilinear streets, comprehensive infrastructure planning and service provision, and owner occupation of single-family detached homes that are all Vandergrift hallmarks that have now become fundamental to American suburban design,” as Mosher describes the town.
The thing is, almost all the families that bought property when Vandergrift was first built still live in the town. However, most of them have nothing to do with the steel mill anymore. They were fired years ago, and U.S. Steel now only uses a quarter of the original mill with skilled workers they hired from Pittsburgh. Many of these men who dedicated most of their lives to the mills watch as they continue to function outside their windows. To the children of these workers, the town is nothing but the dying one they’d written off years before. How can you revitalize a city if its own residents see no worth? Maybe the Levi’s “Go Forth” commercials had it right—today’s youth isn’t playing in the fields but instead running away.
Copyright 2011 Justin Alvarez
Justin Alvarez is a blog intern at Guernica. Read more about him here.