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Image creates reality

Branding! It's all about branding! That, at least, is the claim of British author Simon Anholt, who thinks the United States ought to have a secretary of branding, just as it has secretaries of state and defense. To Anholt, image trumps reality; in fact, image creates reality.

Maybe he's right. Why, even here, we've been feebly trying to brand our little burg for the last couple decades. Remember our official city motto? Neither do I, but I think it once had something to do with "Creating a World-Class City." That seems to have disappeared from the city's Web site, just as Stalin's liquidated ex-comrades disappeared from Soviet history. An extensive ramble through springsgov.com, however, turns up this little gem, which prefaces the city's strategic action plan for 2005 through 2010: "Vision Statement: Colorado Springs -- the community of choice for living, working, and leisure."

But bureaucracies don't brand places. People and events do.

Last week, after 25 years, I returned to Miami. In the late '70s, it was a sunny, comatose city, full of anti-Castro Cubans, retired northerners and small-time real estate swindlers. And, especially after Castro emptied his jails in 1980 and shipped the prisoners to Miami, it was dangerous and crime-ridden. I was glad to get outta Dodge -- it was no place to raise a family.

Yet, far from skidding downhill, Miami has become one of the great cities of the world, a vibrant, dazzlingly beautiful metropolis -- Rio without the slums, Paris without the snobby French. And how did it happen? Branding.

Remember "Miami Vice"? And Scarface? Together, the TV show and the movie created a new Miami, vividly colored, where money, sex, success and cool architecture all merged into a new reality. If you were young, ambitious, unscrupulous and smart, Miami wanted you.

They came by the thousands, and created a city unlike any other in America. They sensed that there were no rules, and made their own. Skyscrapers didn't have to be boring slabs of glass and masonry -- they could shimmer and light up the night with glowing neon. Work, scheme, bully, conspire, bend the rules, bribe -- just get it done. It's a city defined by a certain merry criminality that works for it. Just last week:

A company was charged with stealing jet fuel from the airport. Seems it had the contract to dispose of the contaminated water used to wash out fuel storage tanks, for which the airport paid 13 cents a gallon. Workers hauled off the water -- and also hauled off millions of gallons of jet fuel, charging the city 13 cents a gallon to steal it!

Condominium developers on Brickell Avenue, where 40-story towers border Biscayne Bay, are required to provide a certain amount of open space. That's fine, but the developers found a sweet little loophole. The law didn't say the open space had to be at ground level, so the developers created private penthouse gardens and swimming pools on top of parking garages. Hey, a palm tree's a palm tree, isn't it?

And last Thursday, at the end of the Miami City Council meeting, a non-agenda item was introduced and approved in minutes -- without any public notice and before an empty chamber. The item? A $53,000 raise for Mayor Manny Diaz! According to the Miami Herald, "When asked whether taxpayers might get upset at not being allowed to speak, City Manager Joe Arriola replied, 'That's their problem. We always have [last-minute] items. We did five today. Why don't you ask me about the other ones? C'mon, be fair.'"

So that's Miami, first branded by Don Johnson and Al Pacino, then by fashionistas like Madonna, JLo and Versace -- a sweet, sinister, sunny place for shady people.

So what about us? Who brands us? John Denver? Dr. Quinn, medicine woman? The Olympic Hall of Fame? Nope, it's Doctor Dobson. He's our guy. Pre-Dobson, we were just a pokey little nothingburger of a town; now we're ground zero for Warrior Jesus.

And we pretend to hate it, but it's pretty cool when, in another city, people react with sympathy and horror when you tell 'em where you're from. And you can do your part to reinforce our brand with an outrageous lie or two. For instance, you could say there's only one legal holiday greeting in El Paso County:

"Merry Christmas!"

-- johnhazlehurst@earthlink.net

  • Image creates reality

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