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Super Bowl City on the Brink

Fourth and Long in Detroit

by DAVE ZIRIN

"A celebration of concentrated wealth."

That’s what Washington Post sportswriter Tony Kornheiser called the National Football League’s two-week long pre-Super Bowl party binge. Every Super Bowl Sunday, corporate executives and politicians exchange besotted, sodden backslaps, amidst an atmosphere that would shame Jack Abramoff. Only this year the bacchanalia — complete with ice sculptures peeing Grey Goose vodka and two tons of frozen lobster flown directly to the stadium — is happening in the United States’ most impoverished, ravaged city: Detroit. Detroit’s power elites in government and the auto industry are rolling out the red carpet while many of its people shiver in fraying rags. This contrast between the party atmosphere and abject urban suffering has been so stark, so shocking and so utterly revealing that news coverage on the city’s plight has appeared in the sports pages of the New York Times and Detroit Free Press, among others.

Only a Bush speechwriter couldn’t notice the gritty backdrop while limos clog the streets and escort services are flying in female reinforcements like so much shellfish. Detroit — and there is no soft way to put this — is a city on the edge of the abyss. Its 2005 unemployment rate was 14.1 percent, more than two and a half times the national level. Its population has plummeted since the 1950s from over two million to fewer than 900,000, and more than one-third of its residents live under the poverty line, the highest rate in the nation. In addition, the city has in the past year axed hundreds of municipal employees, cut bus and garbage services, and boarded up nine recreation centers. As the Associated Press wrote, "Much of the rest of Detroit is a landscape dotted with burned-out buildings, where liquor stores abound but supermarkets are hard to come by, and where drugs, violence and unemployment are everyday realities."

Ryan Anderson of Detroit, wrote me a chilling email saying, "The mood is one of Orwellian-flavored siege: dire warnings of a 30-day police speeding ticket bonanza, designed to raise $1 million for the construction of a damn bridge welcoming out-of-towners to the Motor City; the mayor, the governor, and every other notable on the radio urging us all to ‘show ‘em what we got’ [read: Don't further sully our already bad reputation]; and the homeless being taken to a three-day ‘Superbowl Party,’ where they’ll get the actual food and shelter they need until the big game’s over, after which they’ll be kicked back out on the streets. Welcome to the Poorest City in America, sponsored and enabled by lily-white Oakland County."

Anita Cerf, a teacher in Detroit also wrote to me, "I am appalled by the living conditions of its residents as contrasted with the hype for the Super Bowl and the fancying up of downtown for all the rich out-of-town guests. I live on the East Side, which probably has one of the highest poverty rates in the country, and I teach high school dropouts on the Southwest Side. My students have horrific problems, many of which stem from these economic and social conditions. It’s disgusting."

Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free Press described the shelter, called the Detroit Rescue Mission, throwing the "three day party" to cleanse homeless people from the city’s landscape. As Albom wrote, "Lines formed before sunset, dozens of men in dirty sweatshirts, old coats, worn-out shoes. They had to line up in an alley, because, [the shelter's director says], the city doesn’t want lines of homeless folks visible from the street. Even at a shelter, they have to go in the back door."

But these days Detroit is dealing with more than normal tough times. While the Super Bowl is played at Ford Field, the Ford family announced last week that it would eliminate up to 30,000 jobs and close 14 plants in the next six years. The cuts mean it’s the unemployment line, and maybe Albom’s shelter, for about a third of the 87,000 Ford workers who are members of the United Auto Workers (UAW).

For a city that built a stable "middle class" out of union struggle and the auto plants, this is injury added to insult. But have no fear. NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, will be flying sorties over Ford Field to protect everyone from terrorist missile attacks. There is no NORAD however on the streets of Detroit to protect people from Operation Enduring Class War otherwise known as the Super Bowl. (If instead of betting on the big game, you want to give to the Detroit Rescue Mission, call 313-993-4700 or send a check to Detroit Rescue Mission, 150 Stimson, Detroit, MI 48201.)

DAVE ZIRIN’s new book "What’s My Name Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States" is published by Haymarket Books. Check out his revamped website edgeofsports.com. You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by e-mailing edgeofsports-subscribe@zirin.com. Contact him at whatsmynamefool2005@yahoo.com.