Detroit In The News: Baseball and Black Flight

June 30, 2010

“Poor you,” the national media sighs, turning its gaze once again on Detroit. “Not only is your population shrinking, not only has your ex-Mayor been dragged back to prison, but your often down-and-out baseball team’s shot at perfection was robbed by an umpire’s error!”

After Jim Joyce mistakenly declared a runner safe to stymie Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga’s attempt at a perfect game on June 2, sympathy, pity and outrage poured from sportswriters’ pens.

Detroit author Paul Clemens got an op-ed in the New York Times re-hashing the game and claiming Detroiters’ willingness to let it go. But the press wasn’t quite ready to do so. The Washington Post editorial team devoted its time to advocating for Galarraga’s perfection, and claimed 80 percent of its readership felt the same. And the Los Angeles Times’ Bill Shaikin announced, “There is no justice in what happened to Galarraga in Detroit on Wednesday.”

Overall, the sense was that Detroit had had enough. The blown call was one blow the city should not have to endure. Here was something the nation could rally around — a clear and easily rectifiable injustice. It didn’t require an understanding of the city’s twisted political history, or an informed opinion about urban planning, or even a moral take on the auto bailout. At last the nation could get behind Detroit and face the noxious enemy, Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, who limited the use of video replay.

Perhaps the nation was simply in solidarity with some of Detroit’s distinctively self-pitying responses. U.S. Rep. Thaddeus G. McCotter (R, Livonia) told, “The feeling here in Detroit was this could only happen to us; this was just one more thing on top of everything else.”

More rubble
Whether or not they support it, the nation is still fascinated by that “everything else,” and still willing to get behind — or in front of — images of Detroit’s blight. You might think people would be tired of ruin porn by now. Or perhaps it’s kind of like regular porn; the more you see, the more it looks the same, but the more you have to watch.

In March, the UK’s Guardian gave a podium to the director of a new film, “Requiem for Detroit,” commissioned by BBC2.

Julien Temple’s take on the city is the same bleak portrait we’re used to seeing painted by outsiders:

“Law and order has completely broken down in the inner city, drugs and prostitution are rampant and unless you actually murder someone the police will leave you alone. This makes it great for filming – park where you like, film what you like – but not so good if you actually live there. The abandoned houses make great crack dens and provide cover for appalling sex crimes and child abduction. The only growth industry is the gangs of armed scrappers, who plunder copper and steel from the ruins. Rabid dogs patrol the streets.”

Yikes! you’re supposed to think. How dystopic! Temple has tapped into the war correspondent’s ethos: present a place as fascinating but too embroiled for the ordinary tourist. Better to get one’s view of Detroit through the lens and narrative of someone brave enough to confront the rabid dogs. Temple wants his documentary to be a history of Detroit’s decline, but he certainly isn’t the first to try and do so. We’ve seen this diamond-in-the-rough, opportunity-just-visible-in-crisis perspective before.

Still, the film has gotten props for being a thoughtful portrayal from some Detroiters, including Grace Lee Boggs, who apears on camera. In the Michigan Citizen, Boggs said the film could “help Detroit’s mainstream media become less shallow.”

Temple certainly doesn’t want to be a Debbie Downer. “Perhaps Detroit can avoid the fate of the lost cities of the Maya and rise again like the phoenix that sits, appropriately, on its municipal crest,” he writes. Speramus Meliora; Resurget Cineribus, indeed.

One size doesn’t fit all
Granted, Temple did his filming a year ago, and if the folks at the New York Times and Wall Street Journal are to be believed, things are either getting slightly better or are much worse.

The Wall Street Journal’s Alex Kellogg has a new catch-phrase for describing Detroit: “Black Flight.” This lengthy cover feature from June 5 focuses on Detroit’s continued decline over any too-happy phoenix narrative. He spins the story of “die-hard to defector” middle-class African-Americans who are finally fed up with the city’s insufficiencies and are getting the heck out of Dodge. But really Kellogg focuses on just one woman’s (admittedly tragic) sob story, attempting to spin her saga into a coherent narrative about the perils of living in Detroit. Surely his statistics check out — “From 1999 to 2008, median household income in Detroit dropped nearly 25 percent;” “the proportion of vacant homes nearly tripled to 28 percent” — but his analysis seems thinly stretched, more intent on naming a phenomenon than investigating it thoroughly.

Whether or not Detroit is addressing Kellogg’s so-called “Black Flight,” our urban planning is getting a lot of national attention. The usual statistics about vacant land and abandoned property are finally being thrown in relief against what the city has actually started to do.

Demolition is the buzz word (if we tear down all our ruins, perhaps ruin porn will have to go out of style after all). Bing plans to demolish 10,000 vacant structures, but most important to the national media, the Romney family home is gone!

But the press can’t decide whether or not Detroiters are happy about the wrecking balls. “The residential vacancy rate in Detroit is 27.8 percent,” according to this New York Times story. And the myriad of solutions to this problem are “a function of desperation.” The author, Susan Saulny, does a good job laying out the competing visions, but comes away with the conclusion that because Detroit has no coherent plan for how to “right-size,” we must not know what we’re doing. She gets a Rutgers professor to say as much: “ ‘My sense is while there may be plans on the ground, the situation is so fluid that everybody’s winging it,’ Dr. [Frank] Popper said.” Saulny concludes, “What comes next is anyone’s guess.”

Detroiters could make some fairly educated guesses, but The Wall Street Journal, at least, thinks we shouldn’t give up our old Corbusier style just yet. Andrew Manshel rails against Jane Jacobs, who encouraged human-scale urban planning. He is writing mainly about New York, but it’s interesting to examine his criticism of Jacobs in the context of Detroit. Especially when MOCAD recently screened the Jacobs biographical film Urban Wisdom. “By understanding and embracing her ideas, society is only just now beginning to be able to transform it’s thinking about the nature of urban life,” the event announcement read.

Movin’ on up
Not all the news is bad, or that confused, of course. Maybe instead of “Poor Detroit,” a new, richer, Detroit can become the focus. The New York Times is eager to report on entrepreneurship here, and Bizdom U got a long profile:

“Bizdom U operates on the principle that entrepreneurs are born, not made. Its program leaders do not necessarily believe entrepreneurship can be taught. Instead, an essential part of Bizdom U’s job is to unearth candidates with a distinct combination of vision, ambition, drive and risk tolerance, and then mold them into business owners.”

One of these candidates “started a lizard-breeding business at age 15 and sold more than 500 hatchlings online for $15 to $80 apiece.” But if high-priced sneakers and lizards don’t bring the city revenue and jobs, UPI reports that we’re on track to legalize pot. That sounds like potential breeding-ground for entrepreneurs.

At least our murder rate is down, supposedly thanks to Warren Evans, who gets some nice cameos in this Wall Street Journal photo essay. And, naturally, the biggest news of all: our unofficial poster boy Eminem (to this day, out-of-towners admit their only knowledge of Detroit comes from 8 Mile) is at the top of the charts. He even went on Letterman! And did the Top Ten!

Way to play the straight man, Marshall.