I’ve been away for several weeks. My first of two trips took me with several friends on a tour of Midwest baseball parks. The stadiums are eye openers. So are their urban settings.
We flew to Detroit, but we stayed overnight in Dearborn. In spite of the comeback of the Big Three automakers and valiant efforts on the part of small-business developers (see “Chavez, Detroit and Me”), Detroit remains a foreboding city. Comerica Park where the Tigers play? A fantasy world! A huge plaza fronts Woodward Avenue, the Motor City’s main drag. Two huge lions grace the entry. Inside, the park gleams. It even contains a carousel. Baseball games long ceased being just games. They’re spectacle-filled events.
Back to downtown Detroit. Yes, there’s Ford Field, home of the NFL Lions, and Joe Louis Arena (the NHL Red Wings) as well as the Detroit Opera, the Fox Theatre, Greektown and a pleasant walkway on the Detroit River. But the vast majority of Tiger fans come from the suburbs. A city that once housed over two million people is bankrupt and down to 700,000 residents plus 50,000 feral cats. That cats may someday outnumber people constitutes a real possibility.
After the game, we drove to Pittsburgh. Here we found another wonderful baseball cathedral, PNC Park. We also discovered a city that has reinvented itself. Pittsburgh faced the daunting challenge of a shrinking steel industry. But the city—now graced by clear blue skies—remains home to other major employers, including Heinz, PPG Industries and the PNC Financial Services Group. Westinghouse is headquartered in the suburbs. Then there’s the University of Pittsburgh and its massive medical center (over 50,000 employees) plus Carnegie-Mellon University. The city’s wealthy leaders, it seems, provided serious seed money for urban redevelopment, including repurposing old buildings as well as constructing new ones.
We took a bus tour. Obviously, the route didn’t include slums. It did include a healthy downtown, thriving nearby neighborhoods like the Strip, with its shops and restaurants, and the Southside with its new apartment complexes and bustling commercial streets. To a man, we were impressed. The question everyone has to ask: can Detroit find a model in Pittsburgh?
Some of us accidentally discovered a third city of note—this in addition to visiting Cincinnati, Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Louis. I turned onto the wrong highway to Chicago and had to detour on Broadway in Gary, Indiana. In 1960, Gary, a steel town, had 178,000 residents. Today, only 80,000 live in this Rust Belt “icon.” Two-and-a-half miles on Broadway revealed no more than half-a-dozen vehicles ahead. I also recall seeing only one open business—a gas station—though there could have been others. Broadway could have past for a post-apocalyptic movie setting. It made Detroit’s Woodward Avenue look like Times Square.
Three cities. Three stories. The heart of America’s heartland still beats, but its pulse is uneven at best. We who live in prosperous coastal cities may find “flyover country” easy to disregard. But these communities also are part of America. When we ignore their plight, we shame ourselves.
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Read the first three chapters of David’s novels SAN CAFÉ and SLICK! at davidperlstein.com. You’ll also find online ordering links for iUniverse.com, Amazon.com and bn.com.