This post is not directly about sports, but how’s this for a segue:
Last summer, a writer named Charlie LeDuff, who is currently working as a TV reporter, put together a piece where he golfed the city of Detroit, MI.
LeDuff grew up a lot of places, but he considers himself to be a native Detroiter. As you can see in the video, this is a tough time to hold that affiliation.
For those of you who may not know, in my day job I work with local governments all over the country. In this universe of people trying to help cities and town work more efficiently and effectively, Detroit is a constant beacon of distress, clearly signaling passersby for help, yet receiving none. Compared to the city’s peak in the 1950s with a population of more that 1.8 million people, contemporary Detroit is a shell of itself, currently occupied by just a little over 700,000 people:
In 1950, Detroit was the fifth-largest city in America, behind New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Los Angeles, and it was in the top 10 as recently as the 1990 Census. Now, Detroit is likely to fall to 19th, behind Indianapolis and Columbus, Ohio.
Detroit’s population has decreased 25% since 2000; the only city with a higher rate of decline over that same period is New Orleans– and its residents had to weather Hurricane Katrina.
Now, as is made clear in LeDuff’s video, most everyone who has been able to leave, has left. Detroit is empty– to the point a writer could play a round of golf right through the gut of the city and no one would get bent out of shape. It isn’t quite I Am Legend in Detroit yet, but the trend is there.
In its most basic conception, a city is its people. Yes, there are a thousand other problems happening in Detroit, and in other shrinking cities like Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh. But if a city’s people are not willing to stay and address those issues, then the problems are irrelevant– there is no city. Detroit is Motown (and Motown was the Funk Brothers), though Motown Records left for Los Angeles in 1972. Detroit is Motor City. Detroit is home of the Tigers, the Lions, the Red Wings, and even the Pistons, though they have fled the city too, moving 30 miles north to Auburn Hills. It is the place where the American middle class was invented– and where riots consumed the city during the 1960s, riots that were symptomatic of decades of shitty behavior by the city’s white population toward everyone else. Detroit was the end of the Underground Railroad— former slaves’ last stop in the US before reaching freedom in Canada across the Detroit River. And Detroit is also the place where one can stand before this statue, “The Spirit of Detroit” (Detroiters dress him up to celebrate their sports teams’ success):
The orb in his left hand is supposed to symbolize god. But in his right hand, the hand he’s facing, the Spirit is holding a family. A family of Detroiters who cheer for the Red Wings, who work in the plant, who hate people from Ohio, and who are evaporating as you read this. Detroit is a four sport city with a population less than Fort Worth, TX. And while its true the Detroit area, including the suburbs, is still home to more than four million people, the shrinking heart of the region is not a sign of vitality.
I don’t know what there is to do for Detroit. The large wheels of the world are turning and they don’t seem to be benefiting the city any time soon. Probably the population decline will level out at some point, Mayor Dave Bing will be able to tear down enough of the city’s blighted housing and industrial buildings for property values to have some meaning again, and the community will find some use for the acres and and acres of urban prairie reclaiming parts of the city. In the meantime, however, Detroiters can look to sports, that great equalizer, and root hard against Miami, Los Angeles, New York. Charlie DeDuff has a new book out this month on Detroit where he attempts to get answers; he attempts to find the culprits responsible for Detroit’s implosion. He may. But for most people in the city, reality is likely more about hoping to do better next year.