Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Defending Detroit (The City, Not the Lions)

Every so often I read, watch or listen to something that ensorcels me to the point where I don't want it to end. Whether it's a column or a forum post, a movie or a song that strikes to the core, I want it to just keep going. One example that comes to mind occurred last summer when I took in a showing of The Dark Knight. It was a long movie as it was, but knowing that once it was over I was never again going to see the unbelievably disturbing performance of Heath Ledger as the Joker, I wanted it to be even longer. I wanted the experience to last.

I just had that experience again today while reading a Mitch Albom column published at called, The Courage of Detroit. (Thanks to The Wayne Fontes Experience for the link.) Now, it's been a long time since I thought Albom was particularly relevant. He's a superb writer who achieved his level of renown with quality work, but over the years his columns became more and more formulaic and predictable to the point where I just stopped reading them altogether. This isn't one of those columns. This column, which is about the resiliency of the people of Detroit and the whole of Michigan, is Albom at his best and the more of it I read the more I wanted it to just keep going.

It's three pages telling the rest of the country to kindly back the hell off. It's a column that acknowledges the many problems that beleaguer both the city and state, including its beloved sports franchises, but reminds us that there are a lot of good people there persevering as best they can in some of the harshest economic conditions you'll find this side of New Orleans. Here's an extended excerpt that represents only a fraction of the total column:

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 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."


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?


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.


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.


And the whole place clapped. Just stood up and clapped.

To hell with Depression. We're gonna have a good year.

I haven't been this homesick in years.