DETROIT — Sitting inside a packed Comerica Park, the comfy home of the Tigers where the Red Sox played three times last week, one could be blissfully oblivious to Detroit’s financial plight. The city filed for bankruptcy in July, awash in upward of $20 billion in debt, with no reasonable means to tidy up the books any time soon. It stands as the largest municipal Chapter 9 filing in United States history.
Yet, amid the crushing debt and urban blight of beaten down Motown, the Tigers moved into their sprightly new digs in 2000. It’s a smart, beautiful ballyard, built at a cost of $300 million. Right next door stands the domed Ford Field, the monolithic domicile of the NFL Lions, which opened two years later at a cost of $430 million. The NHL Red Wings recently announced plans to build a new arena, replacing their beloved but faded “Joe’’ as part of a larger development in the same revitalized neighborhood. Projected cost: $650 million.
Despite its financial migraine, Detroit soon will be sporting about $1.4 billion worth of stadiums that many American cities, Boston included, would dearly love to have stand in their downtowns. No one, of course, would want the accompanying fiscal nightmare and the dilapidated, abandoned neighborhoods that radiate out from those trophy buildings.
Detroit’s debt didn’t pile up overnight. A thriving city of approximately 1.8 million in its 1950s heyday, its population has winnowed to about 700,000 because of myriad factors, among them, ironically, cheap gas and cars. The city of American auto pride was undone, in part, because of white flight, scores upon scores of inner-city families loading up their Chevy sedans and Ford station wagons and bolting to the outer greenery. The city’s tumultuous riot of July 1967, which left 43 dead, stomped that pedal to the floor.
Egregious municipal mismanagement, along with some draconian governmental corruption, were other accelerants in the decades-long financial freefall. Crooked Kwame Kilpatrick, the city’s mayor from 2002-08, stands as the poster boy of the corruption. Kilpatrick just this month was sentenced to 28 years in jail, convicted of a basketful of mayoral misdeeds that included tax crimes, fraud, extortion, and racketeering conspiracy.
Government prosecutors during his trial referred generically to his nefarious ways as the “Kilpatrick enterprise.’’ A cab driver who zipped me over to Comerica last week had another term for what Kilpatrick did to him and his city, but I can’t use that here in a family multimedia platform.
“I’m ready to go so the city can move on,’’ a repentant-sounding Kilpatrick told Judge Nancy Edmunds in a pre-sentencing hearing. “The people here are suffering, they’re hurting. A great deal of that I accept responsibility for.’’
Yet amid all the suffering, the hurting, and the arterial spurting of red ink all these new buildings now stand for the pleasure of Detroit’s sports fans.
Sounds resurrectionist, hopeful, almost redemptive, doesn’t it? Were only that the case.
The city remains a pit, its finances belly up, seemingly with no way out of the morass. As a tree once grew in Brooklyn, all these new stadiums have sprouted amid the ruin, but an urban renaissance has yet to follow. There is considerable wealth in the suburbs, but it hasn’t funneled back in the form of new industries, jobs, restored neighborhoods. A million-plus Detroiters headed for the hills over the last 50-60 years and little brings them back, other than a game night, a hot concert, or a dalliance with Lady Luck in a downtown casino.
Oh, they come, wearing their Tigers paraphernalia stamped with the Old English ‘D’, their hockey sweaters with the Winged Wheels, and their Lions gear, too. The NBA Pistons remain in Auburn Hills, out there on I-75, one of the highways that paved the city’s great getaway. By and large, the suburbanites who call themselves “Detroiters’’ are really only Commutoiters, connected to the city by spirit and steering wheel — but not by soul.
If that sounds sad, it is, and all the more so because Comerica and Ford Field (and soon the New Joe) serve as only a facade, masking over a real Detroit that is hurting mightily in such crucial metrics as health, education, and welfare. All the vitals that don’t show up when NBC, Fox, ABC, and ESPN take us inside Detroit’s games. At best, they show us a view of downtown Detroit that is shot from a blimp hovering above the urban squalor.
It’s not the networks’ job, nor is it the least bit in their interest, obviously, to interrupt their broadcasts with what is really happening outside Detroit’s playing fields and inside city limits. Ratings are struggle enough these days without cutting away for a glance at a once-proud and powerful city that had a name and identity even greater than such icons as Kaline and Howe.
Detroit once had it all, by the bucketful, with proud families filling its neighborhoods, churches, and synagogues, its factories and stores, its schools, restaurants, and theaters. Detroiters loved their teams, and the quirky buildings they played in, including Tiger Stadium, the Olympia, and Cobo Arena (home to the Pistons for nearly 20 years).
In a sports sense, Detroit defined itself as a football, baseball, and hockey town. But above all that, way above all, it stood as a great, vibrant American city, which, true of all great cities, needed no defining. Great cities just are. They live, they breathe, they replenish, and ultimately all of living defines them. If you are hunting for your city’s identity, that’s when you know there’s trouble.
What is Detroit today? It’s not really the Tigers, the Red Wings, or the Lions. It’s not those teams’ fancy homes with comfy seating and luxury suites. It’s an underdog, a city in need, and what probably would help it most would be for the suburbanites who call themselves “Detroiters,” those who love their city’s teams and lavish them with their discretionary income, to return and live in the city they call home.
If they ever come back, Comerica, Ford Field, and soon the New Joe will have a light on for them. Until then, it’s a city in waiting, in debt, in pain.