Last month’s announcement that the city of Detroit was bankrupt brought back a flood of nostalgic memories of a city that was once the Mecca for those of us who lived in places like Chatham—less than an hour’s drive from the Motor City. I first went there as a small boy with my parents, by train to Windsor and then by train ferry across the Detroit river to the notorious Brush Street Grand Trunk station; even then located in a part of the city that was considered unsafe.
But the rest of the city was glorious—real skyscrapers like the Penobscot Building; the massive J.L. Hudson Department Store where I encountered my first escalator; eating a hot dog at the lunch counter at Cunningham’s Drug Store—all these strong impressions were made years before I saw Toronto. Entering my teens, my first major league ball game was at Tiger Stadium. A little later I remember taking in a movie at the ornate Fox Theatre—literally a palace—and which remains today one of the finest historical theatres in North America.
My real attachment to Detroit came in the mid to late 1960’s when as a young adult, I became a regular visitor to the city’s still-vibrant music and club scene. It is hard to describe today what a phenomenon the emergence of the Motown music scene was—and how we on the Canadian side of the border felt included. First because of Chatham’s closeness to Detroit, the Friday night Dances at the Chatham Community Centre were a stop on the regional Motown music circuit. Major stars, albeit at the beginning of their careers, The Supremes, Martha and the Vandellas, and Stevie Wonder all played there; as did a white Detroit group, Billy and the Riviera’s who later became Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels.
The Motown acts were always accompanied by a terrific live band of some of Detroit’s best session musicians. Motown—the record label was particularly popular in Chatham, in part because the label artwork consisted of a map of Detroit and surrounding area, and Chatham, not named, mind you, was a dot on the map! On one occasion Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr was introduced from the stage in Chatham. Most of us didn’t realize that long before he formed Motown, Gordy had been responsible for late 50’s and early 60’s hits by Marv Johnson (You’ve Got What it takes), Jackie Wilson (Lonely Teardrops, Reet Petite) and Barrett Strong (Money). When the Beatles came along in 1964, the Motown connection was reinforced in their early recordings as they reprised songs like the aforementioned Money and Please Mr. Postman.
When I got into the radio news business in London our then Sports Director, Chris Mayberry would arrange frequent media passes for himself and me to cover Tigers and Red Wing Games. Journalism was not as politically correct as now, and one of the main attractions of both teams was the generous food and unlimited beer that was available in their respective press lounges. Needless to say Chris and I found our way to the groaning board. After dining, coverage of the games was almost an afterthought but it was kind of neat to get into the dressing room and actually talk to some of these athletes.
I remember being in a scrum that surrounded the short-lived pitching phenom Mark Fydrich and looking over my shoulder to see the likes of Mickey Stanley and Alan Trammell talking to other reporters. It might have been the same game that Mayberry and I got on an elevator at Tiger Stadium and were confronted by the Tiger broadcast team consisting of Al; Kaline and George Kell—two guys whose combined lifetime batting average was over 300—absolute heroes— and listening quietly while Kaline told Kell a mildly off-colour joke. Down Michigan Avenue from Tiger Stadium was the legendary Lindell AC. It was a hole in the wall saloon, with the walls covered with autographed photos of baseball greats. Sometimes it was so packed you had to stand in the street to drink your beer.
While most of my Detroit memories admittedly involve ephemera like sports and entertainment; those are the things that leave lasting memories for a young person. And we were also gradually becoming aware of the beginning of the decline in Detroit’s fortunes. A friend and I (in retrospect, stupidly) visited Detroit only a few weeks after the 1967 riots. Heading to what had been a popular haunt for Canadians, we noticed the streets were relatively deserted. Then a car rolled by and we experienced a bit of reverse racism from the shouts of the occupants; but luckily, nothing more.
It was around this time that Detroit became known as the murder capital of the US. Legendary newsman Dick Smythe would open his CKLW newscast intoning “another murder in the Motor City.” The emergence of the Action News format on WXYZ, with its emphasis on crime, crashes and fires added to the negative impression, and gave way to the then popular newsroom saying, “if it bleeds..it leads.” All of these were signals of the beginning of a slow decline that has taken the city from a population of 2 Million to about 400,000. Ironic indeed is the fact that the current mayor, Dave Bing was in my time in Detroit a local hero with the NBA Detroit Pistons. Other US cities have suffered from many of the circumstances that have brought Detroit to its knees.
The difference apparently was that Detroit’s political culture was more corrupt than almost any other large city’s, and successions of mayors and councils either failed to deal with it or were part of the problem (see Kwame Kilpatrick,the former mayor now in prison for stealing millions and about to be re-sentenced on 24 new convictions). Before Detroit is going to get back on its feet everybody will have to take a haircut, and that includes present and future pensioners, city employees and bondholders.
There is a message here for Ontario cities who continue to grant wage and pension benefits that are not sustainable but the prevailing mood seems to be that it can’t happen here.