COLUMN: Detroit state of mind

This is my Sunday column for the Oct. 16, 2011 Hibbing Daily Tribune. I wrote it before the Tigers lost to the Texas Rangers yesterday, but what can you do?

Detroit state of mind
By Aaron J. Brown

With the dismal conclusion to the Minnesota Twins baseball season, coupled with the dismal beginning of the Minnesota Vikings football season, this Minnesota sports fan is rethinking loyalties. No, I’ll not be advocating for fair-weather fan behavior; I’m merely preparing for the winter. In other words I am advocating foul-weather fan behavior.

What does this mean? In a word: Detroit. I love that the Detroit Tigers beat the Yankees in the MLB playoffs and that the Detroit Lions, a perennial football doormat, are off to a strong start in the NFL. And sure, the city is stained with a reputation of blight, crime, corruption and unpleasant weather – to the point where Cleveland, Ohio, jokingly defends against its own similar problems by saying “We’re not Detroit.”

There are still a lot of reasons I want to like these Detroit teams. They’re original franchises that go way back. The Tigers have kept that crazy “D” font on their caps. The Lions uniforms look like new steel rolling off an assembly line. One time when I was 11, on a trip to Pennsylvania with my grandparents, we stayed in a motel in Gaylord, Michigan near the Mackinac Bridge and the only thing on TV was a Detroit Tigers game. It felt comfortable. My grandpa was stationed at a base near Detroit during the 1950s. That’s where he met my grandma. The ore of the Iron Range went a lot of places, but often spent time in Detroit.

And, of course, there’s the underdog story. Detroit. Knocked down by the decline of the American manufacturing industry, the flagging of American cars in the marketplace and the social ills of a place that lost its purpose back in the ‘80s. And now, according to its native son Eminem and the Chrysler Motor Company, Detroit is set for a comeback.

You want a place like that to come back. Why? Well, I’d be lying if that particular story didn’t apply to us here on the Iron Range, too. If the Range were as big as Detroit in 1972, we’d probably look about the same as Detroit in 2009. In truth we’re just smaller and more dispersed; our geographic isolation allows us to shield many of our worst problems from the view of late night comedians and sociologists.

It could be further argued that both Detroit and the Iron Range are coming back, in their own ways, but not without great new challenges.

The website provides an interesting look at a city shaped so completely by the Industrial Age. Here, one takes a tour of once-mighty buildings in the very act of decay or even destruction. You learn about the history that made the city great while watching evidence of its greatness on the wane. It’s a fascinating political, organizational and artistic experience, even with the old school HTML coding. What makes it work is the fact that the site clearly wants Detroit to win – and not just on Sunday afternoons.

As with Detroit, a combination of industrial efficiencies, favorable political winds and market demand makes Iron Range iron mining a booming sector, poised for growth. But also like Detroit, the Iron Range must face the fact that the place we knew in the ‘70s really is gone. We can deny it. We can litigate it. We can look at old yearbooks. But the future will be different than the past, and even a successful recovery of a dominant industry won’t justify the continuation of policies and planning that failed through the ‘80s and ‘90s.

Demographic change, even the way people work, will require new, parallel economic growth. Sometimes what’s really needed is effective contraction. Detroit is rethinking its future by condemning unlivable neighborhoods and replacing them with green space. On a smaller scale, many of our Range towns should consider the same. Empty houses mean social problems and economic inconsistency. Ask a demographer. Ask a police officer. Ask an economist. But if you’ve lived through decline you don’t really need to ask anyone.

It’s time to cheer for the underdogs, and I don’t just mean the Lions. I mean us. No one outside our area counts on the Iron Range to do much more than provide necessary minerals and a couple kids to help dock the big fishing boats driven up from the Cities. No one counts on Detroit to do much more than fulfill stereotypes and keep dying. It is interesting that for how different Detroit is from the Range how much we share common problems and, perhaps, solutions. Let’s start winning.

Aaron J. Brown is a writer and instructor at Hibbing Community College. He is the author of the blog and the book “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range.


  1. This is a great comparison.

    The Range does share a lot of history and current issues with the auto industry and Detroit.


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