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Towards the New City: Fiat Finds a Use for the Poor

In the fall of 2011, Fiat launched a series of television advertisements introducing a two-door coup to the American market. The star of these commercials was the pop singer and actress Jennifer Lopez. Singles from her album “Love?” (released in the spring of that year) provided the ads’ soundtracks.

In a spot entitled “Elegance,” Lopez motors around the streets of Manhattan in a Fiat 500c Gucci edition taking in a bevy of clichéd New York sights: avenue canyons, various tall buildings, 42nd Street as seen from the overpass leading to Grand Central Terminal, the Empire State Building, Park Avenue, dancers holding refreshing beverages presumably on their way to the rehearsal studio, an architect in a bow-tie looking serious about his work, two women in an art gallery earnestly discussing the placement of hanging photographs, a fleet of taxicabs at night, a trumpet player and upright bassist casually performing in the doorway of a grand structure that looks to be built of majestic limestone, an upscale couple (of predictable ethnicity) having their bags carried to a fancy door by a friendly porter or chauffeur (of predictable ethnicity), the illuminated Chrysler Building. At the end of all this, the high-gloss Lopez herself steps out of her Fiat in a green evening dress and steep heels, hair styled and fan-blown from off-camera to achieve the “glamour” effect familiar from shampoo commercials. After taking a few steps on the street, she glides onto a sidewalk and out of frame into the Manhattan night.

As usual in commercials of this kind, the driver encounters no traffic and has no trouble finding parking. The ad copy, spoken by Lopez in voiceover, is bland, “No matter where you’re from, elegance is hard work. It’s taking style, performance, and originality, and making them look easy.” And then there is the familiar, shortcut-riddled incongruity between the supposed uniqueness of the location serving as product backdrop (in this case, Manhattan) and the way in which the pastiche of clichéd images delivered under advertising’s perennial pressure to homogenize turns an American somewhere into an American anywhere and an American nowhere. (For example, the architect referenced above strains credulity by occupying a ground-level office through whose windows a Manhattan street with minimal car traffic (another heavy yoke on specificity of place) is visible in a way that creates the feel of a well-to-do suburban downtown almost anywhere in America that is not New York City). Nonetheless, the banal fantasy the Fiat “Elegance” commercial presents of a Manhattan evacuated of all but its shiny monuments and sanitized denizens—along with the power, freedom, and happiness accrued through automobile ownership and operation—is strictly run of the mill.

But Fiat’s partnership with Lopez was not, of course, built on the old-fashioned spokesperson model. Germane is the cross-promotional, “synergistic” blueprint that officially earned its business-buzzword pedigree in the 1990s and has been gaining traction ever since. This comprehensive relationship between Lopez, her celebrity, her music, and Fiat was more plainly evident when a Fiat 500c appeared in a prominent role in the music video for Lopez’s single “Papi,” and when, in turn, this video ran, truncated and re-sequenced, as a standalone commercial for Fiat.

It is this weaving together of the Fiat brand and Lopez’s commercial personae (up-from-nothing megastar, gossip-industry staple, strong woman loving out loud and facing down the vicissitudes of fame and romance) that was the explicit errand of the Fiat campaign, and nowhere was this more evident than in a third commercial, “My World,” that began running before the other two.

“My World,” begins with a sequence of shots that include the Brooklyn Bridge as seen from a car moving beneath it on the FDR Drive, a white Fiat 500c traveling over the 59th Street Bridge, an elevated outer-borough subway train (the 6), and then Lopez (who we are to understand has been driving all along) traveling past a wall filled with examples of graffiti art, the most prominent of which reads “I ♥ BRONX.” For the remainder of the commercial Lopez passes by feel-good images of Bronx pluck, moxie, and flavor as she speaks in voiceover about the inspirational properties on offer in the borough (“Here. This is my world. This place inspires me. To be tougher. To stay sharper. To think faster.”). Shots of Lopez in the driver’s seat alternate with the full catalog of clichéd shots of “urban” outer borough life: a barber shop, a bodega, a grandmother in an apartment window, a teenager drumming on an upturned plastic bucket (later a breakdancing teenager joins him), graffiti artists at work on the closed steel door of a hardware store, teenage girls enthusiastically listening to music on the shared headset of a smartphone, elderly men engaged in spirited but good-natured discussion behind a parked yellow cab, a benevolent-looking cop on the beat,a no-nonsense cook leaning in the doorway of a diner and wiping his hands on his apron, kids playing ball in an empty lot, enthusiastic and elaborate handshakes between young men, other young men playing playground basketball, teenage girls dancing, children playing in a spraying fire hydrant, children in school uniforms jumping rope, and, finally, Lopez emerging from the car in front of a brownstone apartment building—glossy and glamorous in heels, but with an overall style more suited to the “street,” with her capri pants, sweater top, leather and metal bracelet, and simply parted hair—and embracing the children who meet her there.

Soon after the “My World” ad began airing, a minor contretemps arose when it was revealed that Lopez—who was born and raised in the Castle Hill section of the South Bronx, who in the ad refers to the borough’s streets as “a playground,” and who, in one of her more famous songs, implores her listeners not to be “fooled by the rocks” in her possession (a reference to her jewels) because she remains “Jenny from the block”—had not herself traveled to the Bronx for the production of the ad, but had instead achieved the effect of seeming to be there by way of digital processing and a body double. An additional issue arose when a group of graffiti/mural artists known as TATS Cru objected to their “I [HEART] Bronx” work (which had been commissioned by the Bronx Borough President, and then copyrighted) being featured in a car commercial. TATS Cru threatened suit against Chrysler (which is owned by Fiat), and Chrysler quickly dispensed of the matter by confidentially settling with TATS Cru.[1]

Aside from being the site of Jennifer Lopez’s birth and childhood, the Bronx—particularly the South Bronx—occupies a unique place in New York City’s contemporary configuration. As the Community Service Society wrote in its January 2008 report “Mapping Poverty in New York City”:

“Half of the city’s 1.4 million poor people live in neighborhoods where the poverty rate is at least 24.8 percent…and one-quarter [sic] live in neighborhoods where the rate is at least 34.1 percent. These neighborhoods are all found in Upper Manhattan, the South Bronx, and Central Brooklyn. Much of the geographic aspect of poverty in the city can be summarized simply in these three place-names… .”[2]

Since that report appeared, the number of New Yorkers living in poverty has grown to at least 1.6 million according to the Citizens’ Committee for the Children of New York.[3] The nation’s poorest Congressional District, New York’s 16th, is firmly ensconced in the South Bronx, with 37% of residents afflicted by food hardship.[4] Bronx Community District 9, which includes Jennifer Lopez’s Castle Hill neighborhood, has a poverty rate of 25% and a child poverty rate of 33%, while neighboring Community Districts 1 and 2 (combined poverty rate: 41%, combined child poverty rate: 54%) and 3 and 6 (combined poverty rate: 44%, combined child poverty rate 59%) fare worse.[5] But unlike Central Brooklyn or Upper Manhattan, which have seen gentrification approach and change the borders of poor neighborhoods, the Bronx, and the South Bronx, have been differently affected. While rents have increased, enclaves of poverty have had their borders less aggressively challenged by gentrification (in contradistinction to Brooklyn or Manhattan). Those areas of the Bronx that are more wealthy have, like those areas that are poor, more or less been so for years.

Courtesy Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York. South Bronx annotation added. 

The disadvantages of living in a neighborhood afflicted by poverty are relatively well understood. Blight, high crime rates, poor schools, hunger, and so on are typical concomitants. In New York, as in many other American cities that haven’t yet completed the pricing-out of their poorest residents, these disadvantages are magnified by the relatively close proximity of more affluent neighborhoods. One simple example of the acute disparity in the dispensing of privilege occurs in varying policing practices between rich and poor neighborhoods. As Jim Dwyer reported in the New York Times in June of 2010:

Nearly nine out of ten people charged in New York City with violating the law [against “displaying or burning marijuana”] are black or Latino, although national surveys have shown that whites are the heaviest users of pot. …

On the Upper East Side of Manhattan [poverty rate: 7%, child poverty rate: 2%] where the mayor lives, an average of 20 people for every 100,000 residents were arrested on the lowest-level misdemeanor pot charge in 2007, 2008 and 2009.

During those same years, the marijuana arrest rate in Brownsville, Brooklyn [poverty rate 40%, child poverty rate 53%], was 3,109 for every 100,000 residents.


No doubt this is, in large part, a consequence of the stop-and-frisk practices of the Police Department, which [Mayor] Bloomberg and his aides say have been an important tool in bringing down crime.

Nowhere in the city is that tactic used more heavily than in Brownsville. On average, the police conducted one stop and frisk a year for every one of the 14,000 people who live there… . More than 99 percent of the people were not arrested or charged with any wrongdoing.[6]

A further example of the sort of difference of advantage enjoyed by residents of rich and poor neighborhoods occurred on February 2, 2012. Aggressive, but also vague, policing practices of the sort not uncommon in less wealthy enclaves led to the fatal shooting of an unarmed teenager in the Wakefield section of the Bronx (poverty rate: 21%, child poverty rate: 31%) after police pursued him to his home, knocked down his door, and shot him in his bathroom (where a bag of marijuana was found in the toilet next to him).[7]

Within this broader context of poverty and its occasional disadvantages, it may be tempting to view the Fiat-Lopez “My World” spot as grotesque or worse. After all, turning Manhattan into a flat, dull, and empty recapitulation of its own hollow clichés in “Elegance” is one thing—for this is the very direction towards which its enlightened helmsmen have been guiding it for nigh on twenty years. But to do the same with the Bronx whose clichés derive less from notions of big-city “elegance” and more from getting by with less (money, food, education, and so on) may strike one as a bit inelegant.

But to entertain ideas like this would be unfair; such thinking fails to recognize the generosity of spirit inherent in the Fiat-Lopez joint vision. For what better moment is there to inquire into the role the poor will have in the affluent cities of the future—where the long-term national trend towards extreme inequality will only be more pronounced and apparent—than while being entertained watching a colorful Fiat ad whose soundtrack (the single “Until it Beats No More”) is a testament to the power of the human spirit to fight back from adversity and learn to love again? What better time to consider how to fit the blank, affectless stare I once saw gazing out at me from a ground-floor, dilapidated residence in Hunts Point into the bland, physically and ideologically cleansed, homogenized, self-congratulatory hubs of insularity, technocratic certainty, and excess capital of the future?

If the poor are to have any role at all in the affluent cities led by indispensible mandarins who, like Michael Bloomberg, embody capital’s rectitude, sapience, and data-driven inevitability, it will surely be in but one of two areas: (1) as background set pieces in the never-ending celebration of the wisdom, munificence, and humanity of great wealth, and/or (2) as eager sales representatives on the floor of a showroom whose goods they cannot afford, but whose mere existence (that of the goods, that is) testifies to the superiority of the status quo.

In order to seize this opportunity pursuant to the visionary work of Fiat, the poor need do nothing more than don the appropriate costumes and, if and when asked to speak at all, give the appropriate line readings to the bromides of bootstrap-ism, being sure to make no mention of the way the game is rigged, its rewards narrowly allocated, its punishments differentially enforced and disproportionately applied to the weakest and most vulnerable. And as no one job is ever sufficient for those on the lower rungs, the spear holders in the grand drama of capital’s successful—and, a value even more hallowed, efficient—march forward towards even greater concentration will also be charged with the stage hand’s task of holding up the incongruously juxtaposed flats that constitute the kaleidoscopic and clichéd Potemkin Village of tolerable and inspiring poverty behind which actual suffering occurs out of earshot.

Should not rich and poor both rejoice at this more-than-incidental benefit of commercial culture—that a role has been found for them in so humble an expression of market activity as a car commercial? But then such is the wonder of the market writ large—even its secondary and tertiary effects are first rate. And if the poor can be put to work selling cars, surely they can sell the time-honored, though presently tatterdemalion, American story that with enough moxie, and no matter the odds, every man can profit in his own land. Just so long as, to use Lopez’s words, one is sure to “be tougher,” “stay sharper,” and “think faster.” (This, not incidentally, may also be an admonition well worth remembering while walking sidewalks with high crime rates or when dealing with the police—especially if you are poor, or, worse, if you are poor and not white.)

Precisely how, and how many of, the poor will be fit into this role in a way that is mutually beneficial to poor and rich alike is a question for another day. As Americans who like to tinker and innovate, it is hoped that we will build on Fiat’s important preliminary work. It is up to the far-seeing members of the ever-widening but still stagnant pools of the poor and superfluous to recognize that they have been put on notice, and to seize the opportunity when it finally comes, however it comes, if it comes at all.

Of course, like any real job, security will by no means be assured. With a little more financial, governmental, and technical sophistication, the bottom might drop out of this market too. An intensification of already gaping inequality coupled with a relaxing of the notion that lower-income individuals have any real part at all to play in cities like New York, could lead the merry inhabitants of Lopez’s “playground” to relocate outside of the city altogether in deference to the exigencies of the very market forces that produce empty lots, boarded-up shops, street prostitution, Fiat 500s, high-rise luxury buildings along Manhattan’s Riverside Park South,[8] and the popular culture in which Jennifer Lopez’s vocal stylings and thespian turns are so richly rewarded.

But surely the market would point to a solution to this problem too, should it arise—indeed, should it even be perceived as a problem. After all, we may one day lament the disappearance from our cities and our screens of the useful poor—those who help the higher classes and their various fractions affirm their own merits; those who are occasionally able to help those who have money sell things to others who have money (or in any case, access to financing). But then, if we think about it, would such a disappearance really be so much a tragedy? After all, were the poor to be pushed out of the elect, luxury cities of the future altogether, along the lines of a sort of favelization in the Brazilian style, they, and all we remember of them, could surely be recreated through technological means for the purposes of entertainment and salesmanship, if there is even a difference between the two. The same means that placed Lopez in the Bronx from Los Angeles could surely be put to use for the poor outside the city in the event that there was ever a perception that they were needed inside the city once more.

In anticipation of such an eventuality—and perhaps just to get into the habits necessary to help forestall its seeming a necessity to their betters—those on the edge of “the luxury city” should always remember to keep their voices down, their crime and complaints to themselves, and their willingness to serve wherever they’re needed always at the ready. Separate, if not inelegantly equal, the rich shall have their playgrounds, and the poor theirs.

[3] Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York, Inc. “Concentrated Poverty in New York City: An Analysis of the Changing Geographic Patterns of Poverty.” April 2012.

[4 ] According to the Food Research and Action Center as reported by the New York Times. Dolnick, Sam. “The South Bronx, Plagued by Obesity, Tops a Hunger Survey.” New York Times, 12 March, 2010. Rate rounded to the nearest whole number.

[5] All poverty rate statistics come from the Citizens’ Committee for Children report referenced above amd are rounded to the nearest whole number.

[6] Dwyer, Jim. “A Smell of Pot and Privilege in the City.” New York Times 20 July 2010.

[7] Goldstein, Joseph. “Police Unit Faces Scrutiny After Fatal Shooting in the Bronx.” New York Times 22 Feb 2012.

[8] Gregor, Alison. “All This Neighborhood Needs is a Name.” New York Times 24 Feb 2012.

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