The often subtle (and occasionally lucrative) art of expressing city pride, via t-shirt.

T-shirts are universal billboards, professing our allegiance to sports teams, universities, political candidates and rock bands. They’ve also become an expression of urban pride.

From Buffalo to Austin, Boston to Detroit, there are dozens of t-shirt companies selling slogan-decorated apparel that appeals both to locals and to people who’ve moved away. But beyond showing support, urban t-shirts also have become a ticket to entrepreneurship.

Among the best-known players in the Midwest is Made in Detroit, whose symbol is an auto worker with a wrench. The company, founded in 1991, nearly went out of business last decade until it was rescued by native rock star Kid Rock. Its shirts, stickers, patches, hats and even Frisbees are sold online and all over Detroit, at places ranging from Barnes and Noble book stores to the Motor City Casino.

A smaller counterpart is the CLE Clothing Company, whose shirts and other gear aim to instill pride in Clevelanders (CLE is the city’s airport code). Its collection, sold online and in two stores, include its basic CLE t-shirt as well as men’s briefs with the Ohio map. 

At the far end of the spectrum are the tiny, one-person outlets selling shirts with a hyper-local meaning that only an insider can deduce. These can be found on sites like CafePress.com, and some people even operate them as a sideline to their day jobs.

That’s the case with Chicago L-Shirts, a company started three years ago by designer Kyle Eertmoed. He was sitting on a Chicago L train when the idea for t-shirts featuring L stations and train lines (named by color) struck.

“Chicagoans just have an immense sense of pride for their neighborhoods,” says Eertmoed. “I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be cool to have a Rockwell Brown Line shirt, or a Damen Blue Line shirt?’”

Of course the city has far too many lines and stations to make comprehensiveness feasible, so he decided to focus on four colors – brown, purple, blue and red – and four stations, Chicago Avenue, Addison Street, Logan Square and Sox/35th. There’s no advertising, nor are the shirts available in stores. Unlike the bigger companies, he only sells basic men’s and women’s t-shirts, for $20 each, and relies on word of mouth and his website for sales.

Considering his size, sales have exploded. In his first year, Eermoed sold 15 shirts; in 2010, he sold 153 and last year, 215. Six out of 10 of his sales are to people who don’t live in Chicago.

Despite his vow to stay simple, Eermoed is looking to branch out to a very young demographic. “Onesies. People love onesies,” he says. “We’ll get there eventually.”

Below, a survey of some of our favorite classic (and perhaps less-than-classic) city-themed t-shirts from around the country:

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Design

    Reviving the Utopian Urban Dreams of Tony Garnier

    While little known outside of France, architect and city planner Tony Garnier (1869-1948) is as closely associated with Lyon as Antoni Gaudí is with Barcelona.

  2. Design

    How Advertising Conquered Urban Space

    In cities around the world, advertising is everywhere. We may try to shut it out, but it reflects who we are (or want to be) and connects us to the urban past.

  3. photo: An elderly resident of a village in Japan's Gunma Prefecture.
    Life

    In Japan’s Vanishing Rural Towns, Newcomers Are Wanted

    Facing declining birthrates and rural depopulation, hundreds of “marginal villages” could vanish in a few decades. But some small towns are fighting back.

  4. photo: A metro train at Paris' Gare Du Nord.
    Transportation

    Can the Paris Metro Make Room for More Riders?

    The good news: Transit ridership is booming in the French capital. But severe crowding now has authorities searching for short-term solutions.

  5. A photo of a police officer in El Paso, Texas.
    Equity

    What New Research Says About Race and Police Shootings

    Two new studies have revived the long-running debate over how police respond to white criminal suspects versus African Americans.

×