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Sports

Detroit: Mock City

Bill Gibron

There is talk of renewed interest in the area, of revival and revitalization, but you'd never know that from the ABC, NFL, or Super Bowl perspective.

Though it may sound like a metropolitan cliché, take it from someone whose been there recently; Detroit is a pit. A hollowed out shell of a one time cosmopolitan conceit. Where once the automobile industry fueled its infrastructure, a dwindling motor vehicle market share and that socially accepted segregation known as 'white flight' has left the city in literal ruins. Determined yet decaying, this former symbol of US business savvy has tried numerous geographic jumpstarts and demographic stunts to lure people back to its borders. Yet Detroit is now so synonymous with fire plagued Hell Nights and "Murder Capital of the World" labels (though statistically they've long since lost that title) that ABC, the network broadcasting the 2006 Super Bowl on its 40th Anniversary, must have been soiling itself over how to handle the city's situation.

So how, exactly, did a major television conglomerate, in conjunction with the nation's number one sports pastime, portray the city that hosted their annual world championship? Easy -- they avoided it. That's right, over the course of the three and a half hours of pre-game activities and more than four hours of game, Detroit as a locale got barely a mention. Oh sure, there were several blimp shots of a beautifully lit up Downtown, the area around the stadium Ford Field looking like any other upscale urban environment. The Ren Cen, or what is otherwise known as the GMC Renaissance Center, was festooned with symbols of the showcase, its skyscraper collection of cylinders standing majestic against the backdrop of the Detroit River. But the real Detroit was lost in a sea of symbolic shams that were more misguided than misleading.

This is not the first time the Super Bowl has been in the former Motor City. Well, actually, it is, since the 1982 game, which saw the San Francisco 49ers beat the Cincinnati Bengals, was in the PONTIAC Silverdome, approximately 27 miles outside of Detroit proper. Indeed, one of the big exclusives reported at the beginning of the pre-game show was that the NFC Champion Seattle Seahawks spent their days in a hotel in Dearborn (about 30 miles away from Detroit) while the AFC Champion Pittsburgh Steelers had MOVED to a hotel some 20 miles outside the city to "get some peace and quiet." So the host locale's hotels didn't measure up to the men in uniform? One wonders how many of the corporate junkets, multinational middlemen, and Hollywood hot shots stayed in the city, and how many chose to do as the pros did and find suburban comfort outside the urban war zone.

It's also worth remembering that Detroit is no slouch when it comes to sports. Sure, the Lions (football) and the Tigers (baseball) have left a funk of defeat up and down the Michigan/Canada coastline for the last few years, but the Pistons (basketball) were one game away from the championship last year, the Red Wings (hockey) are perennial favorites, and the city still hosts a Thanksgiving day pigskin classic that has become a standard holiday tradition. Before the auto industry went belly up, Detroit was the hub of American music as well, one of the few areas in the country where soul, R&B, rock, and pop could mesh and mingle without the ridiculousness of race entering into it. Thanks to a Windsor Ontario radio station, the Big 8 CKLW, Detroit was awash in a merry mix of formats that fed the diverse population with an amazing array of sonic styles.

But all the neon and skylines can't disguise the fact that ABC treated the epoch of American pop soul like the retarded child in the attic bedroom. From a statistical standpoint, the contrasts are concerning. Barry Gordy's baby, that hummable hot spot known as Hitsville USA, got exactly ONE minor moment of screen time (the camera quickly canvassed the outside and then briefly showed the recording studio/museum in). Here is one of the most important pillars to modern music in the history of the medium, and the best ABC can do is a cursory walk-through of dismissive memories. Motown did get a pre-game concert for the NFL picnic, but we didn't get to see it. Instead, we had to settle for a 15 second clip of poor Martha Reeves, really getting up there in years, caterwauling off key to something that sounded like "Dancing in the Streets." If ABC was out to prove that Motown's tenure as soundtrack for our lives was up for review, the fact that there were only 10 tunes from the catalog heard over the course of the programming would have been ample evidence

The tunes were not always in prominent places, either. Occasionally, the songs were echoing in the background as announcers pontificated and players pranced. "Tears of a Clown" played out as the commentators' final thoughts were offered up, and nary a legendary artist -- save for Reeves -- was ever viewed. As Michael Wilbon of ESPN's Pardon the Interruption said on The Sports Reporters, Detroit is one of the few American cities (the other being Nashville) where there is no need to import musical talent. Yet somehow, all the Motown megastars were out of cell phone range when the calls came to perform. Other harmonious heroes of the area -- Ted Nugent, Aretha Franklin, Eminem -- were relegated to one-shot afterthoughts. The Queen of Soul did outshine Aaron Neville when it came to slaughtering our National Anthem, but her song "Respect" got two back-to-back shout outs and that was it. Heck, KISS got as many mentions, though "Detroit Rock City" had to share space with "Rock and Roll All Nite" as the musical statement of choice. But they were all surpassed by the game's half-time guests, the decidedly old-school British myths The Rolling Stones, who received 15 mentions over the course of the proceedings.

It didn't get any better during the scripted segments of the pre-game show. Jimmy Kimmel, who had supposedly been in Detroit broadcasting his low rated late night show for Super Bowl week, did an odd sketch about receiving the key to the city. So what did he do with a magical entryway into any place in Detroit? He looked in on a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model, stole candy from a vending machine, drove the Zamboni around where the Detroit Red Wings play, and found the aforementioned Ted Nugent in a sporting goods store. Tells you a lot about the area, huh? Couldn't Kimmel and his staff find ways to work the city's more interesting buildings into the mix? Detroit is a well-known urban spelunker's paradise, with lots of amazing abandoned structures just waiting to be explored.

When they finally got around to the BIG story of the Super Bowl -- Jerome Bettis returning home to Detroit for what could be his final game after 13 seasons -- the city was still spared the full brunt of the media eye. Bettis spoke eloquently (and sometimes elusively) about growing up in the more "tough" areas of the city. ABC accented his words with arty shots of ghetto neighborhoods and street thugs wandering aimlessly. Bettis even brought up his high school, and the standard images of decaying lockers and prison-like play areas arrived on screen. But there was no attempt to contextualize these images. As Bettis and presenter Tom Jackson walked along the front facade of the Ren Cen, the visuals used to illustrate the running back's history became an urban archetype, a kind of any run-down town USA. We could be seeing shots of skid row LA, or a late 70s New York City for all we knew.

The last chance ABC had to save Detroit from being a national non-entity came with the pre-game concert. On tap to serenade the crowd was Motown legend, the no longer little Stevie Wonder. An artist with a back catalog so dense that he could have performed for the entire four hours before kick-off and still not quite make his way through all his hits, Stevie was poised to prove that, while the city may be shitty, the sounds born from its one time majesty were as potent as ever. The first hint that this might not be happening was when Wonder was announced. After a flashback image of the teenage Stevie rockin' "Fingertips," we got "The Stevie Wonder Family" and there was the Motown legend, looking a lot like a junior Jabba the Hut, leading a ragtag group of kids through his seminal song "Uptight (Everything's All Right)." Soon, various musical non-entities like Joss Stone and India.Arie were onstage, slaughtering tracks made famous -- and timeless -- by Wonder.

When all was said and done, Stevie was still standing, left in the middle of the stage with a microphone in his hand, trying to get the crowd amped up. In the audience were various and sundry baby boomers, graying hair signaling the demographic sentiments of the people producing the entertainment. By the time the game started, the damage was done and Detroit was rendered back into its bright lights, big city anonymity. Sure, there were a couple of nominal nods from the NFL. A group of players and coaches were shown fixing up a community center, and the League pledged to build an NFL Youth Center downtown (they have their choice of prime real estate, that's for sure). But what Detroit really needed was a champion, someone or something to argue its negatives and acknowledge its positives. Maybe the Super Bowl isn't the place for such statements, but when else would the city have the world's attention? Once the spotlight shifts, the same old cultural and social clichés will come to mark the metropolis.

What ABC didn't show was the absolute urban blight that exists. Unlike the newer parts of our nation, torn down once their usefulness is over and flattened for future development into Wal-Marts and strip malls, the one-time business structures of Detroit stand like monuments to America's arrogance as an industrial leader. Downtown is a cemetery to broken dreams and failed policies. On the South side of the city is one of its most striking landmarks, the Michigan Central Train Station. Back when the railroad ruled the nation, this multi-story monument to commerce was a bustling business hub. Abandoned in the 80s, the building is now a vacant ghost, home to vandals, the homeless, and addicts. Indeed, when I visited the city not too long ago for business reasons, a cab driver, while cruising past the dark and menacing facade casually claimed it was the "Biggest crack house in Detroit."

As if to hold onto its past, Detroit tends to keep its ragged ruins standing, like markers to its once mighty majesty. Before the Ren Cen was bought by GMC as its new corporate headquarters, it was a run-down convention center with the aura of failed attempted renewal permeating its towers. Signs of past splendor, like the Detroit Boat Club and the Cadillac Hotel, stand vacant and rotting. There is talk of renewed interest in the area, of revival and revitalization, but you'd never know that from the ABC, NFL, or Super Bowl perspective. Indeed, when a major league sporting event enters a city, they usually craft their own version of the locale, sifting through the various cultural and social elements to devise a pre-packaged presentation for the carefully controlled showcase.

When the Super Bowl is in Tampa, the powers that be tap into the surrounding Latin culture and claim the pirate holiday Gasparilla as their own. In New Orleans, Bourbon Street and the exquisite jazz scene is swiped. California calls on its Hollywood hub, while Miami is all models and South Beach bravado. Yet it seems, sadly, the overseers missed their chance with Detroit. They marginalized Motown and barely mentioned the Motor City moniker (cars got a scant five mentions, two more than Hank Williams "Are You Ready for Some Football?" Jr.), opting instead for a kind of generic urban ideal that touched on a few of the things that made the city famous, but none of its infamy.

It's a shame, really. My memories of the Michigan Central Station, the various abandoned buildings and the rundown Ren Cen will stay with me as long as the songs that Gordy and the gang put out. They reside in that mental location where one puts visits to famous museums, notorious battlefields, or places of historical prominence. Detroit may indeed be a pit, but a better use of the word may be as part of pit-iful, or pit-iable. How America can sit back and watch one of its municipal stalwarts slowly fade off into the remembrance of things past is pathetic. Sure, Detroit is now a shitty city, but it wasn't always. Avoiding the subject is not the answer. Sadly, it seems to be what the NFL and its network sycophants seem to do best.

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