T-shirts that fight for their cities

As Jeff Vines pulls down the iron on the heat press in his small studio here, he is trying something far grander than simply searing another image onto another T-shirt. Vines opens the machine and sizes up his handiwork: a cotton weapon in his quest to revive his city.

The St. Louis-themed shirts that Jeff Vines and twin brother Randy make are not for tourists. They sport neighborhood references and inside jokes. Some easily offend, displaying profanity and raunchy innuendo. But to the Vines brothers, 30, their edginess is part of their mission for St. Louis – a place many of their friends from high school fled – to rehabilitate its image from the inside out and, ultimately, to make future generations want to stay.

“You have to get the people who live there to be the best advocates for the city, or else you don't really have much,” Randy Vines said.

In cities like Youngstown, Ohio, and Detroit, damaged by the decline in manufacturing and decades of population loss, entrepreneurs in their 20s and 30s are pushing back with the simple stuff of T-shirts, tote bags and soap.

The Vines brothers' company, STL-Style, makes retro-looking T-shirts that extol and lovingly tease St. Louis; slogans include “My Way or Kingshighway,” and “Where the Mullet Meets the River.”

In Pittsburgh, Lindsay Patross, 28, offers T-shirts and aprons that read “Pittsburghers are tasty.”

At City Bird in Detroit, siblings Emily and Andy Linn, 30 and 25, make clocks, lamps, earrings and bracelets patterned with maps of their city. Another company, Rusty Waters Apparel, sells skull-adorned T-shirts celebrating Youngstown, Cleveland and Pittsburgh. A quote on the company's MySpace page says: “Don't mess with the underdog. Rustbelt Warriors!”

These T-shirt makers know, of course, that their merchandise will not cure the deep-seated problems of their cities. But they see them as one way to fight against powerful stereotypes, and consider them more authentic than city officials' public relations campaigns.

Mark-Evan Blackman, chairman of menswear design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, said T-shirts can have a profound effect on social change, and that these shirts should not be underestimated.

“It's saying we're cool, we're here,” Blackman said. “We've not jumped out of the boat, this city is cool and we're making it cooler, and look at us.”