If you leave on the freeway well before dawn, when the early morning is dark, the skyline seems as magnificently inspiring as most any other American city — beckoning the bold and ambitious to follow in the footsteps of the giants who, in the process of building an industry and a country, constructed what once was known improbably as “The Paris of the Midwest.”
If you leave on the freeway well before dawn, when the early morning is dark, you cannot see the burned out houses that stretch for miles. The rotting buildings in neighborhoods that appear war-torn are invisible. It is possible to imagine what it once was and perhaps could be once more. But then the sun shines on the city of Detroit and your heart is broken, and you remember why leaving for other climes might be a good idea.
Much was made in Detroit about the unprecedented two-minute ad on which Chrysler spent millions of dollars (yours, mine, theirs?) during a recent Super Bowl. It featured rapper Eminem driving along Woodward Avenue in a new 200 while the voice-over artist declared that, because the city has been to hell and back, Detroiters know a little something about luxury cars, about toughness, about perseverance.
Chrysler and Eminem produced a great commercial. For two minutes, Detroiters of every age and race may have nodded their heads and felt a surge of pride for their hometown that pulsated with the beat. Some exhibited the bizarre, insatiable need for national validation of any kind by shedding tears of joy or cheering.
Already inclined to hail news of a few dozen new jobs somewhere near the city limits as a sign of significant recovery, city boosters, Pavlov-like, glommed upon the commercial as evidence that the rest of the country would suddenly begin to take Detroit seriously and the Motor City’s journey to hell and back would be complete. Paris of the Midwest would return in no time because a two-minute spot made it so. Too many ascribed talismanic qualities to an advertisement, a slogan.
Such enthusiasm for a magical “comeback” for Detroit is nothing new. In the 1970s and 80s, the mantra was “Say nice things about Detroit.” Detroit was “The Renaissance City.” Race-baiting mayor Coleman Young even permitted the devil Republicans to hold their 1980 national convention here so as to show the world that the then-Murder Capital of the World wasn’t so bad. Neither party has been back since.
Another Super Bowl, Super Bowl XL in 2006, would be the key, and then the 2009 Final Four. The area around the stadium showed extremely well, but as everyone knew, those were fleeting days of glory and revenue. The shows packed up and left. The current campaign — aside from Chrysler’s ad — is “I’m a Believer,” featuring local celebrities and Mayor David Bing on billboards and local television ads declaring their belief in the city. The why or how is seemingly unimportant. Detroit has witnessed more stunted comebacks than Notre Dame football. But there is a reason the comebacks never materialize.
Readers may remember the story of the murder of Marcus Coleman, who had been the mailman in my neighborhood for a long time. This giant of a man with an equally big personality, love of God and love of life was gunned down by a thug in the middle of an attempted robbery of Marcus’ mother’s house. Marcus, who no longer lived in the city but often went to check in on his mom, was shot in the back and died.
It’s true Marcus was just one man. But his story is too often the rule in the neighborhoods of Detroit, not the exception. The salient aspect of his killing is not wanton gun violence. The weapon was merely the instrument that ended his life. The salient aspect of his death is the culture of death and destruction that has been eroding Detroit for decades. Marcus, an honest man who brought much happiness on his route and certainly to his friends and family, was not a human being to the punk who assassinated him. He was merely an object, no more animate than a locked door or a closed window, standing in the way of not even a few pieces of silver.
Massive volumes could be written about such mayhem within the city limits. A few days before the magical Super Bowl ad aired, a gunman jumped the front desk of a police precinct and, because of a miracle and some adroit shooting by the cops, the animal was put down without killing anyone. Just days after the Super Bowl ad aired, an elderly man who, despite the crumbling neighborhood around him, stubbornly refused to leave his eastside home, was murdered along with his son by a teenager in the process of stealing the father’s handgun. Those who do not possess basic human values do not value any life. It too often seems that Detroit has more of such beings per capita than anywhere else in the country.
It is simply, in many Detroit neighborhoods, kill or be killed. The horrific schools full of corruption and neglect, the crime-ridden streets, and collapsing abandoned houses stand as literal and figurative dungeons in which occur murder, rape, and battery on a regular basis, the seeds and product of Third World barbarism in what was once the arsenal of democracy.
Yet what can be expected in a culture wherein, driving along the freeways, motorists can observe decals on bumpers and rear windshields that depict the old-English D — the unofficial logo of the city — as a brass knuckle? Or similar car art that appears to simply spell out Detroit — until one notices the R is fashioned as a revolver. For every bumper sticker proclaiming “I Lift Detroit in Prayer,” several more exude so-called toughness. There is in Detroit a strange compulsion to embrace and cultivate the image of an endless circle of violence for the sake of appearing tough to outsiders. “I’m from Detroit” too often comes across as threatening bravado rather than a statement of pride.
This is not to say that the image of the blue collar work ethic pulsing through the city and the surrounding area is a myth. It is real. Countless citizens get up early, take double shifts or two jobs, and work themselves to the bone. They board and change buses to faraway suburbs to try and keep afloat or pay a mortgage on a house that is worth far less than what they paid. Then they get up the next day and do it all over again. But that is not unique to the area. The reality of Detroit is indisputable.
The Great Society and its magnanimous projects dismantled in a few years a middle class of many cultures that had thrived and promoted personal responsibility and nuclear families for decades. The riots of 1967 caused many to flee, but the racist Young in the 1970s fomented bitterness from his office and invited whites to “take their asses across 8 Mile,” an invitation most anyone of means regardless of pigmentation correctly interpreted as a threat and accepted.
The industry that built the gleaming city on the Detroit River scoffed at the Japanese and their silly little cars. Simultaneously it allowed brutal union management to convince the work force that their jobs were a birthright so as to hold the automakers hostage and force an unsustainable business model. Kwame Kilpatrick, dressing and acting the part, ran a criminal syndicate out of the mayor’s office, fleecing the city he “loves” in a way that will keep it bleeding money it does not have and will not have for years. Over and over, Detroiters have put their faith in the worst element of “public servants,” and they have been so punished. Unless the entire culture is quickly transformed, the fate of Detroit has been long sealed.
Perhaps the most poignant snapshot of the city in that Chrysler ad was of the vacant lot that was once the home of a massive ballpark with the best sightlines of any stadium in the major leagues. It was the place where millions of Detroiters breathlessly stood in awe at our first glimpse of the magnificent stage of a major league baseball park in a major league town and forged a bond with a team, its city, and its people.
For a brief moment, viewers gazed upon the only thing left of the demolished Tiger Stadium, its own history an apt metaphor for the city; the centerfield flagpole surrounded by a giant fence, the Stars and Stripes slowly unfurling over a barren field against a cold wind and an ominous sky.
Matthew May welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org. This column originally appeared in the April 19, 2011, edition of the American Thinker.