Detroiters are obsessed with their national image. Unconsciously cataloguing every reference to the city, every piece of fiction set in the area. Attacking any comedian or personality who would dare denigrate it and scouring movies for local landmarks. I have seen Michael Bay’s The Island only because it was shot in Detroit, same for Four Brothers.
This would be a harmless affectation if it didn’t have such drastic consequences. It has led to years spent pouring money into the downtown and touristy trivialities while neighborhoods and schools crumbled. Engaged civilians spend their time talking about Detroit “looking like a real city.” Southeast Michigan still has no functional public transit system, but it hosted the Super Bowl and has a river walk. In 2004 before the Pistons’ clinching game five win, columnists and pundits were imploring residents not to riot because Detroit didn’t need another black eye nationally; begging your spouse not to burn down the house because of what the neighbors might think.
There is nothing wrong with beautification as a whole, and any reason not to riot after a sporting event is a good one, but anyone who was living near the Theatre District in 2006 and saw the effort that went into scrubbing and painting long vacant buildings, trying to make them look inhabited had the same feeling: What the f**k?
What the f**k are our priorities? What the f**k are we doing? What the f**k is the point?
A more trivial example was the city’s “Say Nice Things About Detroit,” public relations campaign, as if the only problem in Detroit was a misconception.
Of course there is a misconception, and while anyone spending his breath bashing the motor city can go to hell, Detroiters have started to embrace their dark horse image. As the city becomes ever so slowly more livable, Detroiters have started closing ranks-happy to keep the city’s myriad pleasures a secret to outsiders. New York Times pieces have flooded the national consciousness with stories of hundred-dollar houses, and Detroiters are bristling at a small but growing group of artists and would-be bohemians adopting the city. After decades of bashing from all sides, it feels unfair for outsiders to start enjoying the city’s pleasures: “you didn’t want me then, so hon, don’t want me now.”
Which brings me to the Lions.
Detroit fanhood is not more obsessive or better than the type found in other cities, it is just different. It has long been argued that sports fans in colder climates, or more depressed areas, cling more tightly to their teams, mostly for lack of better options. The effect for Detroit goes a step further because the city is so starved for national recognition. While Chicago and Boston may be cold, those cities’ residents are not dependent on their sports franchises for a national identity. Meanwhile the sports franchises in Detroit are often the only way residents have to see themselves reflected. For a city obsessed with its perception, its no surprise that area residents invest themselves so fully, as much for a sense of identity as to delight in victories. Often the Lions, Red Wings, Pistons and Tigers are the only face Detroit gets to show to the world. So the major sports teams represent the city in a way that most cities’ franchises do not. Straining for a light in darkness, Detroit residents may not be sure what they want national pundits to say, but they very much want to hear them say something.
This is what makes those endless “it’s good for Detroit” articles at least a little bit true. For the most part the feel good columns are condescending and hollow, a Red Wings victory or Tigers pennant doesn’t make the poor any less poor, it doesn’t lower the unemployment rate. Whatever psychic benefits come from a championship are fleeting and inconsequential in the face of Detroit’s problems, and the people who are supposedly the most “helped” by these victories are the ones with the least amount of time or capital to enjoy them. But still the victories feel good. Not because Detroiters want everyone to like them again, but because the teams persevere in spite of what the experts say.
The Pistons 2004 championship is a perfect example. The joy of that victory came because no one thought the team could best the superstar Lakers. Of course the two have nothing to do with each other, but that victory felt like a beacon of hope for the whole city. Los Angeles was the prettier, self-proud other in which everyone was so confident, but in actuality Detroit had been secretly building something great that no one else appreciated. It didn’t solve the city’s woes or ease anyone’s suffering, but that victory reflected Detroiters’ greatest hopes for their own real struggle: while everyone else was focusing on something bigger or flashier, the city had been creating something unique and impressive on its own
Anyone who has been to a Detroit at Chicago sporting event and heard the disgusting Dee-Troit Sucks! chant knows that the teams represent more than sports for other fans too. Chicagoans in particular seem to delight in Detroit’s struggles, because every Detroit failure insulates them from facing their own city’s difficulties. How often has someone in Chicago exclaimed “at least we’re not Detroit,” or exalted Mayor Richard M. Daley by saying, “without him we could be just like Detroit?” Because of its comfort in the lead, and own insecurities over being the “second city,” Chicago has somewhat belatedly declared a competition between the two cities. Sometime after Detroit fell to the ground and was crying for help, Chicago put its foot up on the city’s chest and declared itself the victor of a previously unannounced competition, much the way everyone in Chicago is suddenly a Blackhawks fan. Chicago and Detroit have two very different ways of relating to their sports teams. While everyone loves a winner, Detroit seems uncomfortable as anything but the underdog.
Which is why while Detroit is Hockeytown, and the Pistons and Red Wings hold the city’s most recent championships, the Tigers and Lions are the teams that are the most Detroit.
Detroiters rep their two losing-est franchises the hardest, taking abuse with a hardened jaw and a slight head nod (thinking, ok, ok we’ll see), more comfortable feeling the same national abuse over their sports as they do everything else. If you’re outside of the city, a Tigers cap or a Lions shirt says yep, I know you think Detroit sucks, but I know something you don’t. Whether you are from Michigan or not, anyone who has been to Detroit and enjoyed the unique experience the city has to offer holds a secret no one else can really understand without experiencing it. Listening to someone talk bad about the city holds a perverse joy, like listening to someone you can best in a fight talk tough, because you know the speaker is completely missing the point.
Nowadays the Lions are everyone’s second-favorite team, but I beg all of you to go back to the Steelers and Cowboys.
Lions fans had to root for Wayne Fontes and Scott Mitchell, Joey Harrington and Matt Millen. They delighted in Barry Sanders while at the same time wincing as they watched an awful organization squander his talents and force him into retiring out of frustration. This is not a cry for pity; Detroiters have seen plenty of sports victories in recent years, and are starting to enjoy some real life victories as well. It is not even a claim that fans from other cities cannot understand some false-sense of suffering. Rather, as the Lions look poised for the best year they’ve had in a while, the fans would like to enjoy this moment alone. And when the team breaks through into the playoffs this year it will not mean much of any consequence for a city still struggling to stand up on its two feet, but it will feel good to hear people say nice things about Detroit, so long as they sound surprised.