In the Motor City, Success on the Field and Hope Off It

Posted on October 3, 2011

Who rescued the Lions? What gave the stimulus to the Tigers?

In a city always on the lookout for good news, the sports teams were on the front page Monday, and up front in conversation, too.

Somehow the football team had a 4-0 record, while the baseball team had just escaped from New York with a split, and was sending its ace, Justin Verlander, against the Yankees’ ace, C. C. Sabathia. Verlander lasted eight gallant innings as fans waving white towels willed him into throwing 99 miles per hour on his 120th and final pitch in a 5-4 win.

Whether any of this October madness makes any real difference in the economic prospects of the Motor City is open for debate. But feeling good never hurt.

This shrinking city — New Orleans North — has moved into the pop culture of an Eminem commercial and a Clint Eastwood movie, making the viewer root for the underdog. What could be more American than underdogs? (Or so we like to tell ourselves.)

“I love that the owners brought the Lions downtown and built a new ballpark for the Tigers,” Scott Hay said Monday afternoon. He was wearing a No. 13 Tigers jersey in homage to Lance Parrish (“I couldn’t find a Chet Lemon jersey”) and nursing a beer in the Hockeytown Cafe, gazing across an underused Woodward Avenue at the light towers of Comerica Park, where a ballgame would break out in four hours.

“I love the Red Wings,” said Hay, a native of Grand Rapids, Mich., now living in Sandy, Utah. “Maybe I shouldn’t say this, but they have won so much, but now you have the Lions and Tigers winning on the same day. That doesn’t happen very often.”

The evening was so promising that the Hockeytown Cafe, opposite the historic Fox Theater, was likely to draw a crowd on all three indoor levels and even the outdoor garden on a chilly but not brutal night. The manager, who identified himself as Jason, said he had put 60 people on staff; the norm for October might be 10. That sixfold work force was an affirmation of the folk wisdom that sports were good for fading downtowns.

“I think it’s fantastic,” Verlander had said Sunday eveningwhen asked what sports success can do for Detroit. “One, the more you win, the more fans come.” He added, “When things are going well with the sporting teams, obviously, people tend to migrate there much more often.”

Obviously, these were patrons of a sports oasis, not the hardest-hit residents of Detroit. But on Monday, they were migrating to this city of unintentional Potemkin villages — skyscrapers built for thousands of workers, in support of factories built to produce millions of cars — but downtown has as many ghosts as workers. In midafternoon, the handsome Old Wayne County Building on Randolph, with its Beaux-Arts and neo-Classical touches, was sitting empty, for sale or lease.

The 2010 census showed that Detroit’s population had dropped 25 percent —to 713,777, from 951,270 in 2000 — after a peak of 1.8 million in 1950, when it was the fifth-largest city in the United States But some fans could detect life in the old town.

“I love Detroit,” said MariAnn Saenen of Caro, Mich., which is in “the Thumb of Michigan,” in the northeast corner of the state. She and her friend Marie Berridge fromBad Axe, Mich., were in the Hockeytown Cafe, waiting for Saenen’s son and grandson to arrive on a flight from Virginia Beach bearing tickets to the game. The two friends make the run to Tigers games a few times a year and praise Mayor Dave Bing for his plans to use the vacant space for a smaller, greener city.

David Yost of Mount Pleasant, Mich., was guarding two beers and two chairs for his family and saying he comes back for games in the Detroit of Mayor Bing. “In the past, you wouldn’t go down Woodward,” Yost said, “but now, people have an ‘it’s not so bad’ attitude.”

Detroit has become a symbol for a nation that still likes to think it builds things. In the babble of the Super Bowl last winter, probably the most touching moment (well, except for Packers fans and bettors) was the two-minute Chrysler commercial featuring Eminem — a panorama of snow-pelted, scuffling Detroit, with narration: “You see, it’s the hottest fires that make the hardest steel.” The message was that Motor City still has a mission — Imported From Detroit.

Motor City was implanted in our consciousness in 2008 by Clint Eastwood, in his film “Gran Torino,” about a bigoted autoworker watching the world change around him — foreign cars, foreign ways. But the old crank grows to love the young Hmong brother and sister next door, maybe as much as he loves the Gran Torino he helped build. It was a Detroit movie. It made the viewer hope that the center would hold.

Lately, there has been a modest comeback by the auto industry, stemming from theproactive investment by the Obama administration. General Motors recently signed afour-year contract with the United Auto Workers, and the union has called in its members for a possible vote on a Ford contract as soon as Tuesday.

In the long run, jobs in plants mean more than whether Verlander could beat the Yankees. But there’s no point faulting people who think that matters, too.

Georbe Vecsey, The New York Times