Sunday Brings More Than a Game

By Michael Wilbon
Friday, February 3, 2006

DETROIT There are more cranes and construction crews in Detroit these days than usual, probably more than at any time in the past 40 years.

Loft apartments in restored buildings off Woodward Avenue downtown reportedly are priced in the $300,000 range, which was unthinkable five years ago. Several burned-out buildings that were visible along Interstates 94 and 75 as recently as June during the NBA Finals have been torn down. The streets leading into and out of the Super Bowl-related venues are cleaner than they've been in decades. New restaurants like Lola's in Harmony Park, a short walk from Detroit's two new downtown stadiums, were open and serving after 10 p.m. on Wednesday night.

It seems nobody has ever tried harder than Detroit to put on a good Super Bowl this week. But there's so much more at stake than that game or even the weeklong extravaganza. One of America's most important cities is auditioning for acceptance -- nationally and beyond. Known as much for the local murder rate as for being America's automotive and music capital, Detroit is hoping to say to the world, through the Super Bowl, "We've changed." All that's hanging in the balance is a city's worldwide reputation.

Rhonda Walker, the morning news anchor of Detroit's NBC affiliate, was born here, grew up in Lansing and graduated from Michigan State. Professionally, she wakes up every day this week to report on the city in which she lives and works. Emotionally, she walks a tightrope, which is why she said about Detroit being host of the Super Bowl, "We're experiencing a nervous excitement. We want people to see that we're an emerging and evolving city. People have known Detroit as a city without much of a downtown, as a city that took decades to recover from the riots of the late 1960s. But there's a transformation here. We're thinking, 'Please let people see us for who we are now.' "

Even so, some news isn't good. Only two weeks ago, Ford Motor Co. announced a plan to lay off 30,000 employees. And while most do not work in Detroit, a jolt to the auto industry is a jolt to Detroit. Overall, Detroit is rated one of the nation's poorest big cities. The population has fallen more than 50 percent since the 1950s when more than two million people lived here.

The most optimistic folks, including Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, see the Super Bowl as the cornerstone to a dramatic renaissance. "This game," the mayor said, "has served as the catalyst to move Detroit in economic development in a way we haven't moved in 50 years."

Since the 1980s, visiting Detroit really meant visiting Southfield, Dearborn, Troy, Pontiac (where the Lions played for years), or perhaps Auburn Hills, where the three-time NBA champion Pistons play.

My friend Rob Parker, who grew up in Jamaica, N.Y., and wrote a column for Newsday in the 1990s, said during a trip from the airport to the arena to cover a Knicks-Pistons game, "I would never want to live or work here."

Parker laughs now because he has lived here for 10 of the last 14 years, writing for the Detroit News, the Detroit Free Press, and now hosting a radio show. He has been pleasantly surprised all week by the lack of Detroit-bashing by the national media and visitors. "I think deep down," Parker said, "people want to be able to come to Detroit and enjoy a trip. It's an important city to America. Look, if you drive into certain places of Detroit, they'll look like the worst places you've ever seen in your life. So let's not act as if the streets are going to be paved with gold because the Super Bowl is here. It's unrealistic to think that everything is going to change in an instant. But you can find places that look like that in New York and Chicago and Philly, or for that matter most urban places in America."

I read Parker a quote from a story this week in which a 59-year-old man named Arthur Lauderdale, who lives on the East Side, said essentially that the money changing hands downtown at Super Bowl parties this week isn't doing a thing for his neighborhood, which is about four miles from Ford Field. But the conversation at Lola's, with people originally from Detroit or transplanted here, revealed an increasingly popular sentiment that the jump-start has to begin downtown and work its way east and west. "It has to work its way out from downtown," Parker said of the new businesses springing up around Comerica Park, where the Tigers play, and Ford Field. "The Super Bowl is a symbolic and geographic starting point. And people are excited. They're good people, the nicest people in the world here. It's hard being the butt of jokes for years and years. I think the attitude is, 'Let's hold our breath and hope we don't get ripped to shreds.' "

I know exactly what Parker's talking about because I've taken verbal and written shots at Detroit over the years. I once said it looked like Beirut. Since Cleveland's revitalization in the mid-1990s, Detroit has become the easiest target among big American cities.

But Detroit has the beginnings of a riverfront (on the Detroit River that separates the city from Canada) that ought to make the District of Columbia jealous. General Motors has invested tons of money in a project Kilpatrick calls "a $2 billion waterfront development."

In some ways, the Steelers' Jerome Bettis is the face of Detroit's renaissance, at least for this week, and not just because he's a native playing in the big game. Bettis is purchasing land and interests at the Uniroyal plant that is so visible and reflects how big the auto industry is here. The mayor said of Bettis, "He's not just coming home to play a game; he's coming home to get his hands dirty."

The game is still more than two days away and there are things beyond Detroit's control that could flare up, like the traffic mess that will ensue because of federal security concerns that have led to street closings. Maybe things seem great because so many expected the worst. Either way, R&B fans are excited about concerts featuring Smokey Robinson, Chaka Khan and the Ohio Players. The league and the players' union have initiatives, economic and educational, all over town.

Nobody seems to remember Detroit percolating like this. "We want to redeem ourselves," Kilpatrick said, "and re-introduce ourselves to the world as the new Detroit."

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