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 four, 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 this 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.”
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, 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 punchki donuts 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?
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 (three 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’s 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.
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.
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 — the birthplace of the auto assembly line — 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.
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 octopuses 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 blue 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, nobody cares as much as Detroit cares.
And yet the gods toy with us. They give us the Lions. Our football team puts the less in hopeless. Its owner, William Clay Ford, has been in charge for 45 years. He’s seen one playoff win. One playoff win in nearly half a century? Meanwhile, the backstory on Lions failure could fill a library. Blown games. Blown trades. Some of the most pathetic drafting in history, much of it orchestrated by Matt Millen, a former player who was hired out of the TV booth. Honestly, how many teams can use first-round draft picks on a quarterback, a receiver, a running back and two more receivers, as the Lions did from 2002 through ‘05, and not have a single one of them on the team just a few years later? And two of them out of the NFL altogether?
Wait. Here’s a better one. In the last 45 years — or since Ford took over — the Lions have had 13 non-interim head coaches, and not a single one was ever a head coach in the NFL again. Not one. Rick Forzano. Tommy Hudspeth. Monte Clark. Darryl Rogers. Wayne Fontes. The list goes on. Nobody wanted them after Detroit. The Lions don’t just hurt your reputation, they permanently flatten your tires.
Joey Harrington, a star college quarterback of unflagging optimism who foundered after the Lions drafted him with the No. 3 pick in 2002, once told me of a fog that seems to settle over inhabitants of the Lions locker room — an evil, heavy cloud of historic disappointment that becomes self-perpetuating. Maybe it’s the curse that Bobby Layne supposedly cast on this team after it traded him, saying it wouldn’t win for 50 years.
That was 51 years ago.
No wonder Bobby Ross, who once coached San Diego to a Super Bowl, turned in his whistle and walked out of Detroit in the middle of a season. No wonder Sanders, the best running back Detroit ever had, quit the game at age 30. He actually gave money back rather than continue to play for the Lions.
Against this awful tapestry, in an economic crisis, in the darkest of days, came the 2008 season. What cruel fate could conjure such timing? After going 4–0 in the preseason (how’s that for irony?), the Lions fell behind in their first regular-season game 21-0, in their second 21-3, in their third 21-3 and in their fourth 17-0 — all before halftime. Their fifth game was the closest all year. They lost by two points. The margin of defeat? Our quarterback du jour, Dan Orlovsky, lost track of where he was and ran out of the back of the end zone for a safety.
Stop laughing. Do you think this has been easy? Do you think it’s fun watching four guys miss tackles on a single play? Do you think it’s fun watching Daunte Culpepper arrive, fresh off coaching his son’s Pee Wee games, and get the nod as starting quarterback? There were days when it seemed as if all you needed to be on the Lions roster was a driver’s license.
Week after week, as our businesses suffocated, as our houses were foreclosed and handed over to the banks, our football team lost — to Jacksonville by 24 points, to Carolina by 9, to Tampa Bay by 18. And then, on Thanksgiving, the Tennessee Titans came to town with a 10-1 record. In front of the only national TV audience we would have all year, our Lions fumbled on their second play from scrimmage. A few plays later, Tennessee’s Chris Johnson ran six yards untouched into the end zone — the beer vendors were closer to him than the Lions defenders — and before you could check the turkey in the oven, the Lions were down 35-3.
At halftime Sharpe wore that bag over his head and joined his colleagues in loudly suggesting that the NFL take the annual tradition away from the Motor City. “We have kids watching this,” Sharpe said. “And they have to watch the Detroit Lions. This is ridiculous. The Detroit Lions every single year. This is what we have to go through.”
No, Shannon. This is what we have to go through.
And yet it’s our misery to endure. There’s a little too much glee in the Detroit jokes these days. A little too much flip in the wrist that tosses dirt on our coffins. We hear a Tennessee player tell the media that the Thanksgiving win didn’t mean much because “it was just Detroit.” We hear Jay Leno rip our scandalous former mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, by saying, “The bad news is, he could be forced out of office. The good news is, any time you get a chance to get out of Detroit, take it.”
We hear Congress tongue-lash our auto executives for not matching the cheaper wages of foreign car companies. We hear South Carolina senator Jim DeMint tell NPR that “the barnacles of unionism” must be destroyed at GM, Ford and Chrysler. Barnacles? Barnacles are parasites without a conscience. Sounds more like politicians to us.
Enough, we want to say. The Lions stink. We know they stink. You don’t have to tell us. Enough. The car business is in trouble. We know it’s in trouble. We drive past the deserted parking lots of empty auto plants every day.
Enough. We don’t need more lofty national newspaper laments on the decay of a Rust Belt city. Or the obligatory network news piece, “Can Detroit Be Saved?” For too long we have been the Place to Go to Chronicle the Ugly. Example: For years, we had a rash of fires the night before Halloween — Devil’s Night. And like clockwork, you could count on TV crews to fly in from out of town in hopes of catching Detroit burning. Whoomf. There we were in flames, on network TV. But when we got the problem under control, when city-sponsored neighborhood programs helped douse it, you never heard about that. The TV crews just shrugged and left.
Same goes for the favorite Detroit cliché of so many pundits: the image of a burning police car in 1984, after the Tigers won the World Series. Yes, some folks went stupid that night, and an eighth-grade dropout nicknamed Bubba held up a Tigers pennant in front of that burning vehicle, and — snap-snap — that was the only photo anyone seemed to need.
Never mind that in the years since, many cities have done as badly or worse after championships — Boston and Chicago come to mind — and weren’t labeled for it. Never mind that through three NBA titles, four Stanley Cups, Michigan’s national championships in college basketball and football, and even another World Series, nothing of that nature has occurred again in Detroit. Never mind. You still hear people, when we play for a title, uncork the old “Let’s hope they don’t burn the city down when it’s over.”
Look, we’re the first to say we’ve got problems. But there’s something disturbing when American reporters keep deliciously recording our demise but nobody wants to do anything about it. We’re not your pity party. You want to chronicle us? We’ve been chronicled enough. As they say when a basketball rolls away at the playground, Yo, little help?
This is why our recent beatdown in Congress was so painfully felt. To watch our Big Three execs humiliated as if they never did a right thing in their lives, to watch U.S. senators from Southern states — where billions in tax breaks were handed out to foreign car companies — tear apart the U.S. auto industry as undeserving of aid, well, that was the last straw.
Enough. We’re not gum on the bottom of America’s shoe. We’re not grime to be wiped off with a towel. Detroit and Michigan are part of the backbone of this country, the manufacturing spine, the heart of the middle class — heck, we invented the middle class, we invented the idea that a factory worker can put in 40 hours a week and actually buy a house and send a kid to college. What? You have a problem with that? You think only lawyers and hedge-fund kings deserve to live decently?
To watch these lawmakers hand out, with barely a whisper, hundreds of billions to the financial firms that helped cause this current disaster, then make the Big Three beg like dogs and slap them with nothing? Honestly. There are times out here we feel like orphans.
And yet we go on. The Tigers were supposed to win big last season; they finished last in their pision. Michigan got a new football coach with a spread offense and an eye on a national championship; the Wolverines had their first losing season since 1967.
But we will be back for the Tigers and back for Michigan and — might as well admit it — we will be back for the Lions come September, as red-faced as they make us, as pathetic as 0-16 is.
And maybe you ask why? Maybe you ask, as I get asked all the time, “Why do you stay there? Why don’t you leave?”
Maybe because we like it here. Maybe because this is what we know: snow and concrete underfoot, hardhats, soul music, lakes, hockey sticks. Maybe because we don’t see just the burned-out houses; we also see the Fox Theater, the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Whitney restaurant, the riverfront that looks out to Canada. Maybe because we still have seniors who call the auto giant “Ford’s”, like a shop that’s owned by a real human being. Maybe because some of us subscribe to Pastor Covington’s words, We are somebody because God loves us, no matter how cold the night or hard the mattress.
Maybe because when our kids finish college and take that first job in some sexy faraway city and a year later we see them back home and we ask what happened, they say, “I missed my friends and family.” And we nod and say we understand.
Or maybe because we’re smarter than you think. Every country flogs a corner of itself on the whipping post. English Canada rips French Canada, and vice versa. Swedes make lame jokes about Laplanders.
But it’s time to untie Detroit. Because we may be a few steps behind the rest of the country, but we’re a few steps ahead of it too. And what’s happening to us may happen to you.
Do you think if your main industry sails away to foreign countries, if the tax base of your city dries up, you won’t have crumbling houses and men sleeping on church floors too? Do you think if we become a country that makes nothing, that builds nothing, that only services and outsources, that we will hold our place on the economic totem pole? Detroit may be suffering the worst from this semi-Depression, but we sure didn’t invent it. And we can’t stop it from spreading. We can only do what we do. Survive.
And yet we’re better at that than most places.
Here is the end of the story. This was back on Christmas night. After the visit to the church, I drove to a suburb with an old friend and we saw a movie. Gran Torino. It starred and was directed by Clint Eastwood, and it was filmed in metro Detroit, which was a big deal. Last year the state passed tax incentives to lure the movie business, an effort to climb out of our one-industry stranglehold, and Eastwood was the first big name to take advantage of it.
He shot in our neighborhoods. He used a bar and a hardware store. He reportedly fit in well, he liked the people, and no one hassled him with scripts or résumés.
The film was good, I thought, and familiar. The story of a craggy old man who loves his old car and stubbornly clings to the way he feels the world should behave. He defends his home. He defends his neighbors’ honor. He goes out on his own terms.
When the film finished, the audience stayed in its seats waiting, through the closing music, through the credits, until the very last scroll, where, above a camera shot of automobiles rolling down Jefferson Avenue along the banks of Lake St. Clair, three words appeared.
MADE IN MICHIGAN.
And the whole place clapped. Just stood up and clapped.
To hell with Depression. We’re gonna have a good year
I don’t live there anymore, but once a Detroiter, always one, and as such, I appreciate the way you captured the essence of the city that still struggles today. It’s tough to think back even further, before you and I were even an idea, to the glory days of the city with its crowds of shoppers bustling along the sidewalks with show-goers. My praise goes to you and others who are working to bring Detroit back from its dismal days to something better.
My father was one of those humble athletes, like the ones you wrote about, and then he was a humble coach in Motown. You are absolutely right, Mitch, about our sports heroes. My father, a man of the ice, worked with inner-city kids, teaching them how to play the great game of hockey, but even more importantly, how to stay in school, study, and get scholarships. Some went further than they ever dreamed possible. It’s the merging of sports hero with city hero. And that’s what makes Detroit sports great.