by | Feb 25, 2009 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

This was Christmas night. In the basement of a church off an icy street in downtown Detroit, four dozen homeless men and women sat at tables. The smell of cooked ham wafted from the kitchen. The pastor, Henry Covington, a man the size of two middle linebackers, exhorted the people with a familiar chant.

“I am somebody,” he yelled.

“I am somebody!”they repeated.

“Because God loves me!”

“Because God loves me!”

They clapped. They nodded.

A toddler slept on a woman’s shoulder. Another woman, holding a boy who looked to be about 4, said she was lucky to have found this place open because “I been to three shelters, and they turned me away. They were all filled.”

As she spoke, a few blocks to the south, cars pulled up to the Motor City Casino, one of three downtown gambling palaces whose neon flashes in stark contrast to the area’s otherwise empty darkness. Sometimes, on a winter night, all that seems to be open around here is the casino, a liquor store and the pastor’s kitchen, in the basement of Pilgrim Church. It used to be a famous church, home to the largest Presbyterian congregation in the upper Midwest. That was a long time ago – before a stained-glass window was stolen and the roof developed a huge hole. Now, on Sundays, the mostly African-American churchgoers of the I Am My Brother’s Keeper Ministries huddle in a small section of the sanctuary that is enclosed in plastic sheeting, because they can’t afford to heat the rest.

As food was served to the line of homeless people, I watched from a rickety balcony above. My line of work is writing, partly sportswriting, but I come here now and then to help out a little. This church needs help. It leaks everywhere. Melted snow drips into the vestibule.

“Hey,” someone yelled, “who the Lions gonna draft?”

I looked down. A thin man with a scraggly black beard was looking back. He scratched his face. “A quarterback, you think?”

Probably, I answered.

“Whatchu think about a defensive end?”

That would be nice.

“Yeah.” He bounced on his feet. “That’d be nice.”

He waited for his plate of food. In an hour, he would yank a vinyl mattress from a pile and line it up next to dozens of others. Then the lights would dim and, as snow fell outside, he and the other men would pull up wool blankets and try to sleep on the church floor.

This is my city.

“Them Lions gotta do somethin’, man,” he yelled. “Can’t go on the way they are.” We remember the way our city used to be

And yet …

And yet Detroit was once a vibrant place, the fourth-largest city in the country, and it lives in the hope that those days, against all logic, it will somehow return. We are downtrodden, perhaps, but the most downtrodden optimists you will ever meet. We cling to our ways, no matter how provincial they seem on the coasts. We get excited about the auto show. We celebrate Sweetest Day. We eat Coney dogs all year, and we cruise classic cars down Woodward Avenue every August, and we bake paczki doughnuts the week before Lent. We don’t talk about whether Detroit will be fixed but when Detroit will be fixed.

And we are modest. In truth, we battle an inferiority complex. We gave the world the automobile. Now the world wants to scold us for it. We gave the world Motown music. Motown moved its offices to L.A. When I arrived 24 years ago to be a sports columnist at the Detroit Free Press, I discovered several letters waiting for me at the office. Mind you, I had not written a word. My hiring had been announced, that’s all. But there were already letters. Handwritten. And they all said, in effect, “Welcome to Detroit. We know you won’t stay long, because nobody good stays for long, but we hope you like it while you’re here.”

Nobody good stays for long.

We hope you like it while you’re here.

How could you not stay in a city like that? We feel like screaming, though it’s not our way

And yet …

And yet to live in Detroit these days is to want to scream. But where do you begin? Our doors are being shuttered. Our walls are falling down. Our daily bread, the auto industry, is reduced to morsels. Our schools are in turmoil. Our mayor went to jail. Our two biggest newspapers announced they will soon cut home delivery to three days a week. Our most common lawn sign is FOR SALE. And our NFL team lost every week this season. A perfect 0-16. Even the homeless guys are sick of it.

We want to scream, but we don’t scream, because this is not a screaming place, this is a swallow-hard-and-deal-with-it place. So workers rise in darkness and rev their engines against the winter cold and drive to the plant and punch in and spend hours doing the work that America doesn’t want to do any more, the kind that makes something real and hard to the touch. Manufacturing. Remember manufacturing? They do that here. And then they punch out and drive home (3 o’clock is rush hour in these parts, the end of a shift) and wash up and touch the kids under the chin and sit down for dinner and flip on the news.

And then they really want to scream.

Because what they see – what all Detroit sees – is a nation that appears ready to flick us away like lint. We see senators voting our death sentence. We see bankers clucking their tongues at our business model (as if we invented the credit default swap!). We see Californians knock our cars for ruining the environment (as if their endless driving has nothing to do with it). We see sports announcers call our football team “ridiculous.” Heck, during the Lions’ annual Thanksgiving game, CBS’ Shannon Sharpe actually wore a bag over his head.

It hurts us. We may not show it, but it does. You can say, “Aw, that’s the car business” or “That’s the Lions,” but we are the car business, we are the Lions. Our veins are right up under the city’s skin – you cut Detroit, its citizens bleed.

We want to scream, but we don’t scream. Still, enough people declare you passé, a dinosaur, a dying town, out of touch with the free-market global economic machine, and pretty soon you wonder if they’re right. You wonder if you should join the exodus. We have sports greats who understand true stardom

And yet …

And yet I had an idea once for a sports column: Get the four biggest stars from Detroit’s four major sports together in one place, for a night out. The consensus cast at the time (1990) was clear. Barry Sanders was the brightest light on the Lions. Steve Yzerman was Captain Heartthrob for the Red Wings. Joe Dumars was the most popular of the Pistons. And Cecil Fielder was the big bat for the Tigers.

All four agreed to meet at Tiger Stadium, before a game. I picked up Dumars at his house. He was alone. No entourage. Next we went for Sanders, who waited in the Silverdome parking lot, by himself, hands in pockets. When he got in, the two future Hall of Famers nodded at each other shyly. “Hey, man,” Barry said.

“Hey, man,” Joe answered.

At the stadium Yzerman, who drove himself, joined us, hands also dug in his pockets. As conversations go, it was like the first day of school. Awkwardness prevailed. Later – after we chatted with Fielder – we sat in the stands. The hot dog guy came by, and we passed them down: Lion to Red Wing to Piston. And when Yzerman put his elbow in front of Sanders, he quickly said, “Excuse me.”

Somehow I can’t see that being duplicated in Los Angeles. (“Kobe, pass this hot dog to Manny”) or New York City (“Hey, A-Rod, Stephon wants some mustard”). But it worked in Detroit. The guys actually thanked me afterward.

Stardom is a funny thing here. You don’t achieve it by talking loud or dating a supermodel. You achieve it by shyly lowering your head when they introduce you or by tossing the ball to the refs after scoring a touchdown. Humility, in Detroit, is on a par with heroism. Even Dennis Rodman didn’t get really crazy until he left. We live among ghosts as life grows colder

And yet …

And yet we live among ghosts. Over there, on Woodward Avenue, was Hudson’s, once America’s second-largest department store; it was demolished a decade ago. Over there, on Michigan and Trumbull, stood Tiger Stadium, home to Ty Cobb and Hank Greenberg and Al Kaline and Kirk Gibson; it lasted nearly a century, until the wrecking ball got to it last year. Over there, on Bagley, is the United Artists Theater, which used to seat more than 2,000 people; it hasn’t shown movies since the 1970s. The famous Packard plant on East Grand Boulevard used to hum with activity, but now its halls are empty, its windows are broken and its floors gather pools of water. On Lafayette Avenue you can still see the old Free Press building, where I was hired, where those letters once arrived in a mail slot. It used to house a newspaper. It doesn’t anymore.

Any mature city has its echoes, but most are drowned out by the chirping of new enterprise. In Detroit, the echoes roll on and on, filling the empty blocks because little else does. There is not a department store left downtown. Those three casinos hover like giant cranes, ready to scoop up your last desperate dollar. We have all heard the catchphrases about Detroit: A city of ruins. A Third World metropolis. A carcass. Last person to leave, turn out the lights.

For years, we took those insults as a challenge. We wore a cloak of defiance. But now that cloak feels wet and heavy. It has been cold here before, but this year seems colder. Skies have grayed before, but this year they’re like charcoal. We’ve been unemployed before, but now the lines seem longer; we hear figures like 16% of the labor force not working, Depression numbers. I read one estimate that more than 40,000 houses in our city are now abandoned. Ghosts everywhere. We are a sports town that knows how to care

And yet …

And yet we remember when the streets were stuffed, a million people downtown at a parade, as our hockey team was given a royal reception; every car carrying a player was cheered. This was 1997, and the Red Wings, after a 42-year drought, had once again won the Stanley Cup. Players and coaches stepped to the microphone and heard their words bounce back in waves of sound and thundering applause. Yzerman. Brendan Shanahan. Scotty Bowman. A hockey team? Who does this for a hockey team? Hockey is an afterthought in most American cities. Here, we wear it as a nickname. Hockeytown. We know the rules. We know the good and the bad officials. We sneak octopi in our pants legs and throw them onto the ice at Joe Louis Arena.

Who loves hockey like this? What other American city comes to a collective roar when the red light flashes? And what other American city goes into collective mourning when two of its players and a team masseur are seriously injured in a limo crash? People in Detroit can still tell you where they were when they heard about that limo smashing into a tree in suburban Birmingham six days after the Cup win of ’97, forever changing the lives of Vladimir Konstantinov, Slava Fetisov and Sergei Mnatsakanov. Vigils were held outside the hospital. Flowers were stacked at the crash site. The TV and radio news broke in with updates all day long. How critical? Would they skate again? Would they walk again?

Remember, these were two hockey players and a masseur, Russians to boot; none of them did much talking in English. Didn’t matter. They were ours, and they were wounded. It felt as if there was no other news for weeks in Detroit. “You hear anything?” people would say. “Any updates?”

When people ask what kind of sports town Detroit is, I say the best in the nation. I say our newspapers will carry front-page stories on almost any sports tick, from Ernie Harwell’s retirement to the Detroit Shock’s winning the WNBA. I say sports is sometimes all we have, it relieves us, distracts us, at times even saves us. But what I really want to tell them about is that stretch in 1997, when the whole city seemed to be nervously pacing around a hospital waiting room. I can’t do it justice. It’s not that we watch more, or pay more, or cheer louder than other cities. But I will bet you my last dollar that, when it comes to sports, nobo


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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