WHAT DO WE MEAN WHEN we say “Detroit”? It depends on context. When in reference to the auto industry, we refer to a historical legacy, because the auto industry began in Detroit. But there is a large gap between this historical Detroit and the actual Detroit, which was mostly abandoned by the “Detroit Three” car companies long ago. Henry Ford couldn’t get out quick enough. The building in which that maniac-genius-asshole first implemented the assembly line still stands collecting dust on a particularly dystopic stretch of Woodward Avenue in Highland Park (a kind of mini-Detroit, once a proud auto center, now poorer and in worse distress than Detroit; it’s where Grand Torino is set). Ford’s famous Rouge Plant, where he eventually moved his operations, is still chugging away though, looming from Dearborn over Southwest Detroit. It is just across the city line, but it is without a doubt, and quite purposefully, outside of the city.
Chrysler, meanwhile, is headquartered in a gigantic suburban compound off I-75, way north of the city. Today, 4% of the scant jobs left in the city are in the auto industry. GM’s emblem is branded on the Renaissance Center’s tallest tower, but that downtown headquarters/fortress looks out upon exactly one GM plant in the city (there’s also one Chrysler plant). So when the auto industry’s rebound is called “Detroit’s recovery,” we are not really talking about Detroit.
The meaning of “Detroit” is similarly thrown into doubt by the obligatory “like Detroit, Detroit?” when you tell someone you’re from there. And they are right to assume you mean some or other suburb of Detroit, because most of the area’s people live in the suburbs. But I’ve always believed that a suburbanite is from Detroit, and that the exact suburb is secondary. You’re not going to say “I’m from Farmington Hills,” because then you’d have to add “that’s just outside of Detroit” anyway. So even if you’re not from Detroit, Detroit, you’re from “Detroit.”
Because “Detroit” refers to a region. Yes, there is the city proper, but again you have to qualify that, as in by saying “the city proper,” if that is what you mean. The name alone, on the other hand, includes the whole sprawling metro area, which is held together by its eroded middle. But how can an eroded, and now bankrupt, central city hold together 4.2 million people, most of whom live in the relatively prosperous suburbs?
Conceptually, and by tradition. It does so because there is nothing else to do so.
The capital and wealth of the Detroit region is mostly dispersed among its suburbs. It should be noted that the suburbs are also suffering from population loss these days, and that the above formulation is simplified, but the gist is clear: whatever economic or political might still belongs to the Detroit region tends to hover just outside the darkened central city (literally darkened, as in the street lights are not on), or in a few choice areas of the city proper. Given that, it is tempting to look at the Detroit suburbs, consider that they are the economic engine of Southeast Michigan, and wonder if it’s possible for suburbs to exist on their own, without needing to be connected to the “urb.” Can we call them the “subs?”
A gullible alien could land in and drive through Oakland County convinced that this is simply a self-sustaining network of leafy cul-de-sacs, garden suburbs, malls, strip malls, 4-lane roads, 5-lane interstates, big box stores and the occasional old town center or inner-ring urban-ish strip. But it would keep sensing some other presence, and keep seeing and hearing this name, “Detroit.” Perhaps it would come to believe this is their deity, or founding mythical hero whose story contains some historical truth but is wrapped up in legend. Like Sundiata. It would notice the name is often accompanied by what must be its associated totem animals, the lion and the tiger, along with its totem mechanism, the piston, and the weird amalgamation of the winged wheel (the origins and intended meaning of which the alien can only guess at. Like Stonehenge).
So this alien particularly given to accepting myth would have to conclude that even though “Detroit” is simply an old story, it is one that is central to these people’s identity, and that at some deep fundamental level these people are Detroit, and Detroit is these people. That would be right. Detroit is a city of divides. Black-White, city-suburb, east side-west side, old money-new money-no money, etc. Yet without a doubt, a thing definitively called “Detroit” does exist. So what is it that these disparate places share? Is it simply the history, the fact that I, in the western suburb of Redford, and you, in the eastern suburb of St. Clair Shores, were both part of the same emptying of the urban center? Is the poor family in Brightmoor connected to the rich one in Auburn Hills only in so far as contrasts are connected, through the gulf between the two realities?
Pondering that, it’s tempting, again, to conclude that “Detroit” is simply a coincidence on a map, an area these diverse, disconnected places just happen to share. This hunch is supported by the lack of institutional interaction within the region. The region’s governments—or more precisely, the city’s government and the suburban powers-that-be—have rarely interacted in non-divisive ways, and have in fact promoted separateness more than unity, although there has been some movement in the other direction lately.
But while city and suburban hostility and competition has been the norm, there is one thing around which the region as whole can gather. The family in Brighmoor, the parents drinking Red Dog, and the family in Auburn Hills, the parents drinking a French Pinot Noir with overtones of leather, violets and fresh cash, both hate themselves for believing the Lions might be decent next year. They all still love Rasheed Wallace. They all freak when they think they spot Justin Verlander. They share this from afar, and it does little to bring them in contact (they can’t both afford to attend a Pistons game), but they share it nonetheless.
Detroit is not without other worthy and enduring institutions, like the Detroit Zoo, the Detroit Institute of Art (both regionally supported), the Detroit Opera House, The Eastern Market, Belle Isle, the beautiful Guardian and Fisher Buildings, Wayne State University, Detroit Medical Center and the rebounding Downtown and Midtown areas in general. But when many Detroiters rarely leave the city limits, and many suburbanites disallow their children from even passing through the city limits, the sports teams have always lent a desperately needed cohesion to the whole and supported the myth of a unified “Detroit.”
At some level all sports stadiums feed the human need to congregate, to be amidst a body larger than ourselves. As such, they must be filling the same void that camp meetings fill. In Detroit, where the dream of individual autonomy was so marvelously achieved—to each his own car, yard and responsibility—this function is all the more pronounced. To sit with 60,000 of your closest friends and watch the Lions blow another one in a city designed for separateness feels like a collective unconscious acknowledgement that the Detroit way of life—isolated, private, independent—is somewhat unnatural.
In so many ways, sports fill in the needs we’ve tried to dismiss. Football lets men to watch men dance (note the perfectly choreographed corner route) while allowing them to maintain their manly status and say they don’t watch dance. Likewise, sports have helped hold together the culture of Detroit while the institutional, racial, economic, and governmental forces within the region have tried to tear it apart. That everyone—Black, White, Latino, Middle Eastern—misses Barry Sanders but understands why he’d retire early from such a shitty organization suggests that there can be common ground that cuts across this seemingly divided region. Sports are capable of generating that commonality because people realize that it’s just a game, and so they can approach it innocently, without baggage, ideological or otherwise. If only that could be transferred to politics and economics.
A bare wall of the Cadillac Tower looms over Campus Martius, the newly revived traffic circle at the heart of downtown, and the city’s “origin point.” After the fire of 1805, Augustus Woodward designated this as the focal point of the rebuilt city. The bare wall of the Cadillac Tower held a giant poster of Barry Sanders from 1994-2000. Then it was replaced by one of Steve Yzerman. It was perfect. Detroit was designed to look like a half-wheel, with its wide avenues—Grand River, Gratiot, Michigan and Woodward—shooting out from Campus Martius like spokes. To have our most beloved sports star of the moment commemorated there perfectly summed up the fact that this, at its heart, is a sports city. It is not a huge stretch to say that if you loved art growing up in Detroit, then you probably considered sports to be art, and to be our shared art, and our shared commitment. And it is through that shared commitment to local sports that Detroiters imply a rare admission: that they care for each other.
Detroit’s love for its professional teams meets an equally vibrant culture of youth sports. The region’s spread out design is at least good for packing in fields, arenas and rinks. And youth sports provide a venue through which otherwise unlikely interactions between different parts of the city might occur. Without travel hockey, for instance, I’d know nothing about Downriver, the industrial (and post-industrial) hockey-mad region south of Detroit (and also the only plausible area that Journey’s “South Detroit” could be referring to, there being no place called “South Detroit”).
Not that the rinks we visited Downriver were much different than any other, but it is nice to know it as a place, with real people in it, and not just some spot on the map. The more glaring interaction, though, occurred when the Downriver teams came up to play us at Jack Adams’ Arena in Detroit. I seriously doubt those folks would’ve ever seen the intersection of Lyndon and Wyoming, or anything close to there, without hockey intervening. What they got out of it I cannot know. The Slap Shot-esq and racially-charged fights we occasionally had with these teams probably didn’t help Detroit’s image much, but the simple fact of those guys playing a mostly black team, one that was usually better than them, must have made some impression. At the very least, while Yzerman and Sanders loomed over downtown, doing their best to unite us, the larger sports culture of Detroit was, and is, creating interactions within the region that would otherwise not exist.
I do wonder, though, if Detroit’s is a sports culture inherently, or if sports just fill a void for the region, one created by the divisions at the heart of the city’s history. If it is the latter, then at least we have that. At least we have a Tigers playoff run ahead of us, and—like the parents in James Wright’s “Autumn Begins in Martin’s Ferry, Ohio”—a playing field to lay our burden down in front of like it’s a secular alter: not sacred, not judging, but open to us.
But then there’s the fact that, as Frank Bruni recently pointed out, Detroit people are low key and down to earth. Humbled by history, you might say, without recourse to obnoxious self-promotion. Instead, Detroit’s is an underdog pride. That’s why the Free Press went so openly homer about Detroit 187, which was just another bad clichéd cop show (but shows never get set in Detroit, so they had to cheerlead). That’s we loved the 2004 Pistons so much, because they beat up on the flashy Lakers, or why beating up on Wall Street, I mean the Yankees, in the playoffs, twice, felt so damn good. That even goes for the Colorado Avalanche, who had Rick Reilly, in his hack-troll mode, beating up on the city on the last page of Sports Illustrated. Maybe, then, sports are the perfect venue through which a beat down but humbly prideful city would coalesce. Add to that the natural resources of Michigan, which allow fishing, hunting and all other kinds of outdoor sports to thrive, and a genuine sports-centered cultural portrait begins to emerge.
That said, it is not Verlander on the Cadillac Tower’s wall now, as it should be. It’s an ad for the MGM Grand Casino, or some other garbage. After Stevie-Y, they put up a car ad. You could see them going for “well, it’s not a sports star, but cars are Detroit too, right?” True enough. But when I looked up at a 15-story-tall Barry Sanders up there dodging tackles, for us, I felt pride—a weird self-consciously undeserved and vicarious pride, but pride nonetheless. And I felt all of Detroit, from Wyandotte to Rosedale Park, from Troy to Canton, from Ferndale to Cork Town, from Joe Louis Arena to the Fair Grounds on 8-Mile Road, feeling the same pride. Even the interstates that took us away from ourselves trembled with the feeling. When I remember the car ad I just think of the forces that built that magnificent pockmarked mess of a city, and that have ever since tried to rip it apart.