Author Toby Barlow Tells Detroit: 'Stop the Loathing'

Detroit branding. Yep, we’ve encountered a lot of it over the years. Thanks to Emily Gail, we said nice things about ourselves in the '80s. In the '90s, we liked that it was always a great time here. Now, we’re starting to warm up to our D brand and its cars, culture, gaming, music and sports.

But listen up. We’ve caught wind of another pretty potent tagline floating around town. So before you go spraying bus stops with a new slogan, listen to what idea one experienced brand man has in mind. 

Toby Barlow’s an ad guy who landed here in October 2006. He left the Big Apple for the blue oval and is now executive creative director over the Ford business at JWT Team Detroit. (Which, if you’re new to the whole advertising thing, makes him kind of a big deal.) Naturally, you’d think someone rocking this kind of title on his business card would run quickly for the gentrified coziness of the suburbs. But Barlow didn’t even give Oakland, Macomb, or Washtenaw a nod. He’s a New Yorker, after all. And naturally, a New Yorker loves the city.

Barlow now swears by the eggs at the Clique. He raves about the meat counter at Honey Bee in Mexicantown. He’s even based some home improvements for his Lafayette Park pad around a SubZero he pulled from a scrapyard on Grand River. In short, he’s become a typical Detroiter who doesn’t rely on the suburbs for his everyday tasks. And after a few cocktails with a guy like Barlow, you soon realize that he thinks like a Detroiter, too.

STL and the ATL

"Stop the loathing is my new tagline for Detroit," says Barlow, in a mix of seriousness and snark. He's of course talking about it being a good time for that feeling of contempt in, out, and around the city to just sit down and shut it. It’s not an ad campaign, but more of a mantra. "My mission is to find a city that becomes the new cliché for failure," he says over a sip. And as quickly as he sets his glass down, a replacement player comes to mind. "I’d actually like to take on Atlanta," he jokes. "In its success, it’s more of a failure than Detroit."

Industrial failure for Barlow is as much about uncontrollable sprawl as it is about pilfering natural resources. No wonder the poster child for both those crimes springs to mind so quickly (as do the names of many other U.S. cities). In a recent post on his Huffington Post blog, Barlow wrote about a WTF-moment he had upon hearing the news that home was now the most dangerous city in the United States. But luckily, he’s got some different ideas on safety.

"Danger has no water, no natural resources, and insufferable heat," says Barlow. "And Michigan may become the most hospitable place in the U.S. if you look at topography and weather patterns." Even though our Great Lakes are shrinking, he writes in his post, our fresh water supply is still A-OK. Add in the fact that we sit well above sea level (and north of Canada—a geographical truth that’s still a head-scratcher for most) makes Detroit a pretty optimal place to ride out the future to Barlow.

OK, but wait. What’s that got to do with ix-naying the loathing? Well, our economic picture may be bleak and we may now be the most miserable place in country, too, (thanks Forbes!), but if we pull a little switcheroo on what misery is going to look like in the future, who knows how things might change around here.

Kung-fu fighting and canines

What else for Barlow makes a case for the loathing to stop? The people, of course. Instead of making this place a temporary stopover, Barlow’s made a bunch of friends. From shop owners, bartenders, curators and designers, you have to commend him for so quickly getting into such deep like with his adopted home. "It's a big, fun, ambitious community that thinks like one," he says.

To that end, Barlow’s got something up his sleeve just to prove how much. "I've got a big screenplay for Detroit," he says. "It's about rebuilding community and taking responsibility." He goes on to explain that it’s also a script about a little kid that turns into Bruce Lee when he hears a Hammond organ; and the story revolves around how the kid moves the organ around town. Which is good thing to hinge a plot on given that Barlow is no stranger to turning “cityscapes” into storytelling. Case in point, his first novel, Sharp Teeth. Besides love and lycanthropes, it also has a lot to do with Los Angeles.

"People who don’t embrace the loathing, I think they sense what a great city Detroit was," he says. And Barlow feels that Detroit is five decisions away from being a great city again. They range from building up the Riverfront, doing something with the train station, enticing more big-named business to the area, and developing an area that encourages small, quirky business.

And the fifth? Well, that’s an easy one.

"Stop the loathing," he says.

Check out Barlow’s novel, Sharp Teeth, at

Toby Barlow Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger

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