Motor City loses its soul

Detroit, host of tomorrow's Super Bowl, made its name in music and cars. But time has not been kind to the city. Rupert Cornwell reports from America's Pompeii
Click to follow
The Independent US

Either way however, the contradiction is too glaring to miss. The gaudy, no-expense-spared American pageant of the Super Bowl is unfolding in bleak Detroit, whose signature car industry is in the depths of its greatest ever crisis.

But for a few days at least, the travails of General Motors and Ford may be forgotten. Motown is the venue for the annual showpiece of America's most swaggering, macho sport. The game itself tomorrow, pitting the Pittsburgh Steelers against the Seattle Seahawks, caps a week when no extravagance has been too garish, when stretch limos have clogged the streets, when no self-respecting bottle of champagne cost less than $500 (£284). The Detroit Free Press listed 60 "official" Super Bowl parties this week, whose hosts range from music companies and the magazines Playboy and Penthouse to a bash organised by the porn star Jenna Jameson, for which tickets ran to $1,000. There was to be no nudity, she promised the Detroit News, "but I like to think I have a big fan base here."

As for the game itself, $600 tickets are fetching up to $3,000 on eBay. But that's just for starters. There is a special autographed edition of the NFL publication XL: Forty Years of Super Bowls, weighing in at 85lbs, bound in white calfskin, yours for just $25,000. The Super Bowl also commands the biggest television audience of the year - meaning that a 30-second advertising slot costs $2.5m.

For some reason, the NFL labels its Super Bowls with Roman numerals, imparting a bread and circuses flavour to the occasion. In more typical Super Bowl venues in Florida or Texas, the foible is merely quaint. Here it could not be more apposite, a massive entertainment thrown by the emperors of sport to console the Motor City in its forlorn economic circumstances. Whether Super Bowl XL is, in fact, extra large is debatable. Unarguably, however, it is less Super Bowl than Surreal Bowl.

America's most super-sized sporting event is taking place in what was, until New Orleans, America's most relentlessly downsizing city.

Once upon a time, back in the mid-1950s, Detroit had a population of 2 million and was the fourth-largest city in the US. Now it has under 900,000 inhabitants and stands at 11th in the league table. Overtaking it into the top 10 is San Jose, the self-proclaimed hub of Silicon Valley.

The change symbolises how electronic hi-tech has replaced the old-fashioned manufacturing industry as the driving force of the US economy. But San Jose? Isn't that the place whose main claim to fame is still the Burt Bacharach song "Do You Know the Way to San Jose"?

In bad times as well as good, everyone has always known the way to Detroit, where history, uplifting or depressing, drips from every neighbourhood.

This week there was no escaping the urban disaster zone that is most of the city of Detroit. True, a limited area of the inner downtown has been given an impressive facelift in anticipation of the great event. "Long before anyone showed up, the Super Bowl has had a fundamental impact," says Lyke Thompson, head of the Centre for Urban Studies at Wayne State University, in downtown Detroit.

Some claim the Super Bowl has spurred $3bn of investment in the inner downtown. Certainly, buildings have been scrubbed clean, broken windows have been replaced, and the most derelict eyesores have been razed. Bars and restaurants have opened. Two gleaming new sports arenas - one for baseball and one for American football - have been opened in the heart of the city. Along the main drag of Woodward Avenue they are even advertising trendy loft apartments on blocks where, not long ago, no sane person ventured after nightfall. Parts of Detroit may truly be on the way back.

But look a little closer, and many of the renovated office buildings on Woodward are still empty. The shiny glass panes are back-lined by faux paper interiors, creating an oddly Potemkin Village effect. The crucial question remains. When the imperial passage of Super Bowl XL is over, when the 100,000 visitors have returned home and the white hospitality tents in central downtown have been removed, will the city resume its long, secular decline?

Detroit is a city of legends, one of the few on the planet whose name is shorthand for an entire industry. It is a gritty, tough town, a sports town whose greatest hero is Joe Louis, and whose signature piece of public art is The Fist, a bronze sculpture weighing four tons, of the boxer's clenched fist and forearm. Tonight, Tommy "The Hitman" Hearns, seven-times world champion and another Detroit pugilistic institution, is in action. His attempted comeback, at the the age of 47, is surreal verging on sad. But on Super Bowl's eve, it is proof that an old Detroit never dies.

And then, of course, there's Ford and GM. For months now, a sporting carnival and the traumatised carmakers have been locked in an uncomfortable embrace. Tomorrow, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Seattle Seahawks will do battle at the glistening downtown Ford Field, named after William Clay Ford, Henry Ford's great grandson and owner of the Detroit Lions NFL team - and whose identically named son is the current Ford CEO who last month announced plant closures and 30,000 job cuts in a desperate bid to keep the family firm relevant in the 21st century.

As for GM, its headquarters in the Renaissance Centre on the riverfront ("renaissance" is a word you bump into at every turn in Detroit) has been wreathed in a 21-storey-tall Super Bowl logo. Its Cadillac marque is the event's official sponsor, and GM is spending $25m on the Super Bowl - yes, the same GM which lost a record $8.6bn last year, whose bonds have junk status, and which some fear is on the verge of bankruptcy. For Detroit, whose unemployment rate is already far above the national average, "the auto crisis has been devastating," says Mr Thompson. "It's not just the companies themselves, but the component sector and the rest, everything that depends on them." There has been some diversification into financial services and hi-tech, but Detroit's fate remains linked to the industry that made it.

But there is another recent and glorious non-automobile past. For much of the 1960s, Detroit was the music capital of America. Peruse the list of new city councillors installed last month, and you will find the name of Martha Reeves - better known as Martha of Martha and the Vandellas. One of Tamla Motown's grandes dames is now doing her bit to help the city where she arrived from Alabama as an 11-month-old child in 1942, and has lived ever since, through good times and bad.

"Detroit's always been great for me," Ms Reeves, 64, but still performing, told The Independent this week. Four decades ago, she was a leader of a musical genre, hatched in one of the most segregated US cities, which brought black music into the mainstream of white pop culture. "But all along I've considered myself a civil servant," she says.

And the music diva-turned-local politician believes that her city is missing a huge opportunity. "I want to help Detroit by bringing in visitors, and boosting tourism," she says, pointing to the global reputation of Tamla Motown. "We're a great part of the city's history, but somehow I'm famous everywhere in the world except Detroit."

Not a few have been shocked by the decision to entrust the prestigious half-time slot at the Super Bowl not to a homegrown talent but to the Rolling Stones - who don't even have the advantage of youth over the Motown generation. "How dare you come to Detroit and not ask one or two of us to play?" another Detroit native, Aretha Franklin, protested this week. The Queen of Soul will now sing the anthem before the game, and a slot has also been found for Stevie Wonder, yet another of the city's own.

But Detroit is curiously indifferent to its musical fame. The only trace of Tamla Motown now is the blue and white painted house called "Hitsville", where Berry Gordy launched the label, and which houses the studios where immortal recordings like Martha and the Vandellas' Dancing in the Street were made.

It stands at 2648 West Grand, just down the road from the huge Henry Ford Hospital, and the old headquarters of GM. "We need to make people aware of what we did, we should change the name of the street where 2648 stands to Motown Boulevard," says Ms Reeves. And, she adds, why not statues of Aretha, Stevie Wonder, the Supremes and the rest?

But the city thus far has paid no heed. A couple of weeks ago, it pulled down the old Tamla Motown building on Woodward to make a few dozen parking places for Super Bowl fans. True, the building was derelict and ugly. "I just couldn't stand looking at it," said Kwame Kilpatrick, Detroit's mayor, understandably enough. But a slice of proud local history vanished beneath the wrecking ball.

But at least on Woodward, you can live and breathe, however briefly, the excitement of the Super Bowl. Out on Detroit's abandoned and desolate east side, just four miles from Ford Field, the Super Bowl might be on another planet.

The brutal truth is that nothing can restore Detroit to its former self.

"Our task," says Mr Thompson, "is to build a 21st-century city to replace a 20th-century one. To restore Detroit would require a massive commitment by the federal and state [Michigan] governments to intervene directly."

But there is slim chance of that, given the New Orleans crisis, and President Bush's recent signal that a bale-out for the car companies is the last thing on his mind.

So the city remains trapped in a vicious cycle of diminishing population, which leads to a decline in revenues, forcing budget cuts that force spending cuts - making it even harder for the city to attract people.

For old times' sake, I went back this week have another look at the "Heidelberg" project, initiated by a local artist called Tyree Guyton, which I first visited in 1995. It consists of a giant collection of junk painted in gaudy but fading colours - piles of old car parts, clothes, and other debris from a transient civilisation. It stands amid eerie, empty lots, where only the odd abandoned house still stands to testify to the old Detroit of half a century ago. Here and elsewhere in the city, such buildings stand, Mr Thompson explains, "because people are abandoning them faster than the city can pull them down".

What remains is an American Pompeii, barely 40 years after the event.

Nothing breaks the chill silence of a dank January morning except the scurrying of the squirrels. Mr Thompson says he has seen pheasant out there; for all the visitor knows, mountain lion might be prowling through the ruins. Through the grey gloom you can just make out the sliver shape of the Renaissance Centre, so mockingly named, so near and yet so far away. And somewhere out there, there's the Super Bowl.

Comments