Remembering Detroit

Updated: July 31, 2013, 6:00 PM ET
By Jeff MacGregor |

Ford Rouge PlantAP PhotoIn 1937, the Ford Rouge plant covered 1,096 acres.

Detroit is bust. Broke.

Detroit is an idea. Midcentury prosperity and work and the blue-collar counterweight to Hollywood and New York.

*  *  *

Detroit is bust, but the Pistons and the Tigers and the Lions and the Red Wings go on and on and on. The scores still in the paper, the standings still online, the arguments over the billions and the stadiums and the lineups still fresh. But more than football or basketball or baseball or hockey; more than cars or music or shipping or steel; more than politics or unions or management or industry or history, Detroit is an idea.

*  *  *

[+] EnlargeDennny McLain
Focus On Sport/Getty ImagesDenny McLain started three games in the 1968 World Series against the Cardinals and won Game 6.

The year after the riots, Denny McLain won 31 games for the Tigers. That was 1968, and far away from Detroit we listened to the World Series on transistor radios at school. Mine was a turquoise RCA Victor in a brown leatherette holster with a single off-white earpiece. The Tigers beat the Cardinals in seven games. Bob Gibson outpitched McLain, but Mickey Lolich outpitched Gibson. "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" was Motown's big hit that year, and "Love Child."

*  *  *

Before Barry Sanders, Alex Karras. Detroit football like a bruise in Honolulu Blue.

*  *  *

Detroit is a wide white metal dashboard. Detroit is a 1962 Plymouth Belvedere, smooth and slow as a refrigerator. Worn beige upholstery with a slender thread detail woven in the fabric, metallic, shiny as tinsel. Atomic green instrument lights and a push-button automatic transmission. An engine that spits and wheezes and blows back unburned gas from the carburetor on long drives to nowhere much. The choke sticks. Vapor lock and drum brakes. AM radio. $300 in 1975.

Drive two states over just because. Drive back. Drive down to practice, sit on the fender in the parking lot after, talking. Running your mouth while the engine ticks and cools. Drive up Route 7, down Route 7. Drive day, night, weekends. Rain, shine. Highway, parkway, thruway. Radio never off. Groceries, errands, gas. Wash it, wax it. You can fit eight guys in this car. Maybe one girl, if your skin ever clears up. Summer nights with the windows down and your left arm light on the sill and your left hand on the sideview mirror and the blackness and the stars streaming past and the rush of the tunnel you drill through the dark until everything falls away and you are only speed and possibility. It is every kind of freedom. Detroit is my first car.

*  *  *

Detroit is Cleveland. Pittsburgh. Buffalo. Wheeling. Baltimore. Canton. Youngstown. Akron. Allentown. Newark. Bridgeport. Detroit is everywhere.

*  *  *

Detroit: Bing. DeBusschere. Lanier. Carr. NASCAR was Detroit, then it wasn't.

*  *  *

Henry Ford, Barney OldfieldPictorial Parade/Hulton Archive/Getty ImagesDriver Barney Oldfield, left, and Henry Ford pose with No. 999 in 1902.

The Detroit of my imagination is still a red night sky over the smokestacks of the Rouge. It's black-and-white Henry Ford in a celluloid collar in a silent movie, and Barney Oldfield hunched over the tiller of old No. 999. It's Highland Park and Dearborn and the factory tour and my mother and my grandmother in front of Edison's lab at Greenfield Village. They're wearing dresses and white kid gloves. Hats. It's a jump-cut newsreel of planes and tanks and ships down the ways, it's Willow Run and Philip Levine and "What Work Is."

*  *  *

It's six months on a story for a magazine; it's the Wayne County DA and a long loud night in a suburban hotel with the Green Bay Packers. It's the press box at Ford Field and at Comerica, and two guys pissing against the wall of an abandoned department store on game day. It's the antique symbol of our ambition and our ingenuity and our efficiency. Detroit is how America thinks of itself. Detroit is the idea of America. And the fight for Detroit is now house-to-house.

*  *  *

Detroit is my father on a business trip, here to see a man. It's me and him and a flight up from Cleveland on a big silver turboprop on a long-gone airline. Republic? Capital? Eastern, Northwest, Frontier? All gone. Winter sun blinding on the wing and down there on the lake bright as diamonds. Leather suitcase in one hand and holding my hand with the other we walk a long way together through the Detroit airport. Cab to a downtown hotel. Watch television in the room while my father makes notes on a yellow legal pad with a silver pen. Then I sit in the lobby of a forgotten business for half an hour while the old man has a meeting. The receptionist smiles at me. I tug at my necktie.

[+] Enlarge Gordie Howe
B Bennett/Getty ImagesGordie Howe, No. 9, looks for a rebound against the Blackhawks circa 1965 at the Detroit Olympia Stadium.

Dinner in a restaurant, the linen white and stiff as a sail. Steak. Potato. The old man drinks a Stroh's and tells the waiter we're up from Ohio. Pays cash, and carefully counts out each bill. Then the Olympia and the game. The Red Wings. Did they play the Blackhawks that night? The Leafs? I remember the noise of the skates and the crowd and the smell of beer and smoke. I remember my father sitting forward on his seat, turning and looking down at me through his glasses and asking, "Pretty great, huh?" and me nodding and nearly falling asleep later and him walking me into the lobby and then waking up on a rollaway for the first time.

Hotel breakfast, then the airport, then home.

This was a long time ago. 1965 or 1966. I was 7 or 8. My old man was 35 years old.

Gordie Howe, the man we came to see, was nearing 40.


Use a Facebook account to add a comment, subject to Facebook's Terms of Service and Privacy Policy. Your Facebook name, photo & other personal information you make public on Facebook will appear with your comment, and may be used on ESPN's media platforms. Learn more.