Saturday, February 04, 2006


With throngs of football fans ready to descend on Detroit for Super Bowl XL tomorrow, "Motor City" will once again seem, if only briefly, on the move. As an urban affairs major and a city enthusiast, I turn my eyes not to Ford Field, but to the city around it. Like an old forlorn mother who cakes her face in foundation and slaps on a spurious smile at the all too seldom visits of her children, the tattered town of Detroit opens its arms to those who left it.

The City of Detroit has long been a case study of urban decay. Its ignoble decline in the latter half of the twentieth century is well documented. Once home to nearly two million residents in 1950, the city loses thousands of residents yearly and hovers just above 900,000 people today. As the automobile capital of the United States, Detroit has suffered the fate of a larger movement away from the manufacturing economy in the United States. As a town literally built on and nourished by the auto industry, its ups and downs (the latter of which predominates) have become, by extension, Detroit's own booms and busts. To complicate matters, race relations have not been the best in the city. The infamous 12th Street Riot in 1967 left 43 people dead and created a black vs. white, city vs. suburb divide that remains today in full force. Today, Metro Detroit remains extremely segregated. The central city is, as of 2000, 82% African American, the largest percentage of any major American city.

Many suburban Detroiters will proudly proclaim that the only time they go to the "city"--such a vilified term in Southeastern Michigan--is for the occasional sports event. And why should they be expected to do anything else? Suburban Detroit offers the cultural amenities and nightlife that most cities safeguard despite all other losses incurred by rapid suburban sprawl. Ask a resident of Troy, of Dearborn, or of Royal Oak. This northern suburb has reportedly earned the distinction of hosting the popular MTV Show "The Real World"--a testament to the city's hipness but a slap in the face to Detroit, as the show has never before located outside the city for which the show is named. Yep, that's right. It'll be "The Real World: Detroit."

As a proud resident of St. Louis--often paired with Detroit in rankings of America's "Most Dangerous Cities"--I can't help but feel for this ailing city. While both cities suffer from scarred reputations and debilitating inferiority complexes, Super Bowl XL's host city has demonstrated just how far it will go to foster the vitality that once filled its streets, that once erected its architectural gems--and in all its ephemeral futility, all for one day, for one game. The city has recently demolished a historic building downtown that once housed Motown Records...for a Super Bowl parking lot. I had also heard a report of a Super Bowl promotional ad that featured an "edited" version of Detroit's skyline into a more pleasing composition. A recent Detroit Free Press article entitled "DETROIT BRINGS 'EM BACK: Like tourists in own town, suburbanites gape at view" says it all. Detroit is a town in need of an image makeover.

Despite these sad attempts to shock the cynics and appease the short-sighted civic boosters, Detroit will remain the same city of 47% "functionally illiterate" residents (, the Second Most Dangerous City in the nation, according to Morgan Quitno, on February 6, 2006. Even with coffers stuffed full of tourist dollars, Detroit will perhaps only be able to temporarily resume the services it has been forced to cut due to a dwindling tax base and increasingly socially-dependent population. On the city's official website, a notice to residents warns that bulk trash pickup was discontinued at the start of the new year. Residents now have to drop their bulk items off at designated sites spread across the city (despite that residents own fewer vehicles than most populations in America and are serviced by an unreliable bus system and no mass transit).

I don't question Detroit's excitement over this one-time event that will, one hopes, show outsiders that there's some life in the city they gave up for dead. I just hasten to celebrate this Super Bowl as a victory for a down-and-out city when there's going to be no one to pick up the trash on Monday, when the tourists head out of town. Will it really make a difference? Was it worth putting up parking lots? I sincerely hope the revenue from this event is put to its best use and that suburban Detroiters return to the streets of downtown Detroit (and beyond) for their post-Bowl revelry. Or will they return behind the psychological wall that has stood so long, both sides embittered and convinced they don't need the other? I hope not.

And while we're thinking wishfully, maybe MTV could put an end to the media's destructive fixation on the perils of Detroit by pulling its cast into the city limits?

Detroit, from a city that knows your pain, I wish you the best.