Shinola is one of the luxury companies basing some of its branding on Detroit.Photograph: Mike Petrucci/flickr

It's Friday night in the heart of Detroit at the Red Bull House of Art, a 14,000-square-foot underground art gallery carved out of the basement of a 19th century brewery. Thousands of the young, the chic and the smart have gathered to celebrate a new cycle of local artists’ work. DJ Erika is spinning, champagne is flowing. Outside, a line of people hoping to enter winds around the block. 

Christopher Stevens, a good-looking 29-year-old car designer from California, is the host of the hottest after-party, in his loft above the brewery's back stairs. In the middle of the room casually rest two of his motorbikes, with a piano in one corner. Darko, the resident pit bull puppy, darts in between guests from one end of the room to the other.

“I love Detroit,” Stevens says, after declaring how depressing he finds the idea of suburbs. “Detroit is full of heritage and history. I came for its grittiness. It’s full of culture – old Americana culture.”

To Kirk Cheyvitz, CEO of New York-based advertising firm Story Worldwide, and a former Detroit Free Press award-winning reporter, companies coming to the Motor City for branding are “wrapping themselves around a mythology that is outlaw”.

“It is a safe way to be appealing to young people all over the country who embrace those kinds of feelings – of wanting to be outside of the mainstream while actually defining the mainstream,” Cheyvitz says.

Those wanting to live on the edge in Detroit might walk just a couple of blocks north-east of the Red Bull House of Art. There, after a bitterly cold winter, a few squatters have moved back into the tagged, abandoned buildings surrounding a former industrial railroad. The crumbling, urban ruins are just part of the landscape in a city where an estimated 78,000 structures are no longer formally occupied. Crime is part of that landscape; police chief James Craig went on record this year telling “good Detroiters” to arm themselves with guns against criminals and home intruders. It's a city where the homicide rate continued to take number one spot ahead of other large American cities in 2013, including Chicago. The median household income in Detroit was just $23,600 a year in 2012.

Yet, to an advertiser's eye, Detroit is cool. Gritty. Tough. Resilient. Authentic in its struggle. True in its American spirit of hard, honest work, ruins and all.

That's where it gets uncomfortable for Detroit, The Brand. Detroit, the American phoenix rising from the economic ashes, is sitting on a valuable natural resource: street cred. This has not escaped the notice of profit-driven companies see the city's rebirth as a chance to brand themselves and sell authenticity.

The airwaves and billboards are plastered with ads from Chrysler (a Detroit native), Redbull (from Austria), new vodka brand from the giant French Pernod Ricard group, Our/Vodka, and luxury watch and bicycle company Shinola. They present a romantic, nostalgic take on grit – a highly effective spin, which presents poverty and urban decay as cool. The nostalgia element is all the more evident in that ads by Shinola, Redbull and Our/Vodka are often filmed in black and white.

Shinola’s spot features bike riders and a beautiful, blonde, white female model hugging a (presumably local) young, black girl. Redbull’s spot aired during this year’s Grammy Awards features local artist Tylonn Sawyer telling a compelling story of beauty and resilience. Our/Vodka’s launching ad includes Detroit’s beautiful, eerie, abandoned Michigan Central Station, stating the brand is rooted in “people” and “community”.

These are brands that Detroiters, even the hip newcomers, likely can't afford. It's hard to imagine that many in Detroit could afford a $1,950 bicycle or a $900 watch, irrespective of whether or not the latter now comes with a lifetime warranty.

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