a spring awakening

>> 6.15.2009

[Source: Archive.org]

Please take a few minutes to watch this short film. It's a message to the International Olympic Committee, touting Detroit's bid for the 1968 Summer Games. I'll pause for a moment to allow for the leveraging of jaws up from the floor, the application of hankies to lone tears on cheeks, and the removal of cotton from ears--apparently, public speaking was not Mayor Cavanaugh's strong suit.

Now, to remind those reading this: I was born in Lansing, in 1981, and have lived and worked within 15 minutes of the Capitol ever since. I neither saw nor knew nor loved the Detroit portrayed in this film. In fact, that Detroit wasn't quite what residents of the time saw or knew or loved either--this was, of course, an advertisement for the city to the world; little things like the '67 riots were not exactly going to play a feature role. Any native of the Motor City will also note that an eighteen-minute movie about Detroit that contains just three seconds of snow is disingenuous at best.

Still, it's jaw-dropping to see how far the city has fallen in forty years. "Mammoth" Cobo Hall, then newly built and gleaming in the sun, is now struggling to get the renovation and expansion it needs to stay relevant. The gorgeous beach so prominently featured as the centerpiece of a "water wonderland", now is often closed to the public, thanks to E. Coli. A native could probably watch this film and, off the top of their head, point out what has since been closed, condemned, or diminished. The "Renaissance" underway during those days led not to a vibrant and contemporary center of commerce, but a vibrant and contemporary candy shell of suburbs coating a rotten core of unemployment, crime, and bombed-out buildings. I have neither the firsthand experience, nor the secondary education necessary to tell you what went wrong along the way--but here we are. Detroit--both the city itself, and the auto industry it's synonymous with--is the loss leader for our nation's recession, and the butt of jokes nationwide.

The Lions find themselves in the same unenviable position. Coming off the worst season in the history of the NFL, the Lions have duly been christened the Worst Team of the Decade by NBC Sports. They've been rated an absolutely heinous 65 overall in Madden 2010. They're slotted no higher than 31st in any major media outlet's preseason power rankings--and I suspect Peter King was just baiting Cleveland fans. What does this mean, other than another discouraging fall of getting whipped in Madden by 12-year-olds abusing me with the Colts and Steelers?

It means that those people haven't been paying attention. It means that those people haven't noticed the changes. It means that those who make the easy joke or the out-of-hand dismissal haven't gotten down on their hands and knees to find the little green shoots and saplings popping out of the ground left and right. Sure, it's easy to look at the deserted high-rises and 31-81 and write Detroit off. It's easy to crack wise about bailouts and wideouts and Pintos and BMWs.

What's hard is the New York Post descending into "hell" to find out that:

"Detroiters, quite simply, are people people. No visitor ever need be a stranger here, unless they want it that way. Stick around and, pretty quickly, you'll be longing for the day when you could just sneak around without being recognized. Most of the time, you don't even need introductions -- simply showing up makes you part of the gang. Everyone wants to know how you got there. At times, you feel like you're in a small town in Japan, except there are fewer schoolgirls pointing at you and giggling . . . Everywhere you go in Detroit, you automatically have one thing in common with the people around you: You're here and alive and making the best of a city that so many people long ago left for dead. As conversation starters go, it doesn't get much better than that."

What's hard is Pat Kirwan going through the Lions' staff and roster, position-by-position, to find out that he's actually optimistic about the Lions; that there's a "light at the end of the tunnel". What's hard is not looking at the recent past and describing what you see--but examining the present, sifting through the dirt, bagging up the trash, gathering seeds of truth, and sowing them. What's hard is looking at a sapling, the earth it grows in, and the air around it, and imagining if it will grow into a tall and healthy tree. What's even harder is coming back with a watering can and a bag of fertilizer . . .

Too often, we take the easy way out. Too often, we boo and hiss. Too often, we say "let them die". Too often, we trample on the little green shoots that might replace the forest that once was. But I have hope that this team, these Lions, will not only restore our faith and pride in the team, but be a catalyst for the continuing rebirth of the city. Maybe Detroit will never be the gleaming nexus of international commerce and leisure portrayed in that video, and maybe the Lions will never be a multiple-title-winning dynasty of dynasties. But, I'll be thrilled when I can to take my kids to see a Lions game, watch a good team play hard, and then enjoy good food and good fun in a healthy city.


Anonymous,  June 18, 2009 at 2:18 PM  

Sorry Ty, but i can't imagine the olympic host city would be up in the air less than a year before the torch-lighting, which would be the case here if this was filmed after the riots. Most likely filmed between '64-66 (since JFK was referred to as late). Sure, '58 was the peak population for the city, but white flight was barely starting in the early or mid-sixties, the oil shock was inconceivable and most people probably had never seen the Honda's that were trickling in from Japan. I wasn't around until '69, and my neighborhood hit rock bottom in '78, but I can remember visiting relatives in other, still comfortable neighborhoods as late as the early eighties. I imagine the decades following this film weren't remotely imaginable to many Detroiter at the time, so the real lions parallel should be the fans perspective from about 1997.

Ty,  June 18, 2009 at 3:08 PM  


Whoops, you're right. In fact, reviewing the host site shows that the film is dated 1965; your instincts were right on. Also, the parallel I was (obviously unsuccessfully) trying to draw was between the city now, and the Lions now. I mean, simultaneously leading the nation in both per-capita unemployment and per-capita murder has to be the municipal equivalent of an 0-16 season, right? Yet, in FoMoCo's strong Q1, and the Lions' good hirings and mostly-solid roster moves, you can see hope for both the city and the team.


Greg Eno,  June 20, 2009 at 12:32 AM  

Actually, JFK himself filmed a bit pumping Detroit's bid; I remember seeing it. He did it from the Oval Office. THAT would be a cool piece of video to find!

Ty,  June 22, 2009 at 1:58 PM  


I've been looking for the full JFK video; haven't found it yet. However, there's a clip from that JFK bit right towards the end of this film; it's pretty amazing hearing JFK say that Detroit will present the best of America to the world . . .


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