I watched Wednesday night’s Detroit-Dallas game on the NHL Network within a morbid context. On my commute home last night I read ‘Detroit: A City on the Brink,’ published last month in The Week magazine. I recommend it as must-reading for all hockey fans and every American.
The narrative in this piece is nothing short of harrowing. Most Americans I think have a general/vague notion of how tough times are in Michigan generally (the nation’s highest unemployment rate — by far) and Detroit most particularly. But I wonder how many know just how truly desperate times are in the Motor City? This is how the Week’s dissection of Detroit begins:
“Outside the city’s downtown core of office buildings, Detroit looks like a postapocalyptic nightmare. The collapse of the auto industry, political dysfunction, and epidemics of crime, drugs, and arson have battered Detroit like a slow-motion hurricane, leveling entire neighborhoods and causing a major chunk of the population to flee. Nearly 30 percent of the city, an area almost the size of San Francisco, has been abandoned to “urban prairie”—vast, depopulated stretches of high grass and shattered asphalt. An Asian plant species sometimes called “ghetto palm” sprouts from the remains of abandoned buildings, where wild pheasants are occasionally sighted. The torched skeletons of homes are commonplace. In the 1980s and ’90s, demolition permits outnumbered building permits by more than 10–1. Nearly 30 percent of the city’s remaining housing stock—more than 100,000 units—lies vacant.
Wild pheasants roaming downtown?
(To be fair, wild pheasants could be said to be governing our Metrorail system.)
The data about Detroit is more than damning — it’s jaw-droppingly frightening.
- In July, the median Detroit home price was $7,000. “That’s not a typo,” the Week points out.
- The Detroit public school system today is so bad that it is under emergency control of the state.
- Detroit’s population in 1950 was 1.85 million. Today it is 770,000 — or about the size of Winnipeg.
- Half of Detroit’s children live in poverty; one-quarter of the adult population didn’t graduate from high school. The median household income is about half the national average.
- “This is a whole city that is poor,” says Wayne State University professor Robin Boyle.
Even the little good news in Detroit is bad. When the homicide rate dropped 14 percent last year, a mayoral candidate quipped, “I don’t mean to be sarcastic, but there just isn’t anyone left to kill.”
You may have seen the news of just this week of the sale of the Pontiac Silverdome, longtime home of the NFL’s Lions. It was built in 1975 for $55 million. A Super Bowl was played there. It sold on Wednesday for less than $600,000.
A colleague in my office yesterday pointed out to me a gross irony about Detroit’s demise. He asked me if I’d seen Clint Eastwood’s remarkable film ‘Gran Torino.’ I told him I had. He then asked me if I knew where it had been shot. I didn’t. The movie concludes with a white-knuckle, intergenerational, shoot-’em-up showdown. I won’t spoil it for you in case you haven’t seen it, but the film’s producers needed a neighborhood in which fantastic destruction could take place without anyone really noticing. They chose Detroit, and in point of fact the city has become a popular Hollywood destination for shooting similar destructive sequences — there’s no around to much care about the havoc.
Without injecting too much partisan political science into this tragic tale, does Detroit’s story give you any pause at all about one-party control of a large municipality, uninterrupted, for decades?
I’m not sure how much the NBA would miss the Pistons, the NFL the Lions, or Major League Baseball the Tigers, but I’m quite sure that the NHL would miss the Wings. They aren’t just an Original Six franchise, and the home away from home of Mr. Hockey, among numerous other hockey legends; in a very real sense the Wings are the flagship franchise of the league. But if a city is dying — and Detroit most assuredly is — how can anyone reasonably forecast a long-term future for any sports team there? Put another way: were Detroit with its existing population and poisonous socio-economic conditions today without a pro sports franchise, where among all American cities do you imagine it’d rank as an expansion candidate?
Professional sports teams lost in a city in our contemporary experience always suffered from egregiously bad management and or ownership, and so we had easy scapegoats, but today Harvard economists are at pains to forecast a when and how of a durable turnaround from the catastrophic economic constriction here of the past couple of years. Worse, it’s generally believed that the U.S. will lag behind the rest of the globe in the recovery. Sports in our culture has ever been a distraction from tough times; today it’s naive to think it can’t be caught up in them.
Dallas defeated Detroit last night at the Joe, 3-1. But that’s the least of this city’s worries.