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Posted: Wednesday January 7, 2009 11:45AM; Updated: Tuesday September 22, 2009 1:22PM
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Assignment Detroit: The Courage of Detroit

Story Highlights

To outsiders Detroit is crumbling; to those who live in Motown there's hope

Detroit Free Press columnist Mitch Albom writes about the pulse of the city

By Mitch Albom

barry-sanders.jpg
Barry Sanders was so determined to quit the Lions that he gave back some of his bonus.
Ronald C. Modra/SI

This was Christmas night. In the basement of a church off an icy street in downtown Detroit, four dozen homeless men and women sat at tables. The smell of cooked ham wafted from the kitchen. The pastor, Henry Covington, a man the size of two middle linebackers, exhorted the people with a familiar chant.

"I am somebody," he yelled.

"I am somebody!" they repeated.

"Because God loves me!"

"Because God loves me!"

They clapped. They nodded.

A toddler slept on a woman's shoulder. Another woman, holding a boy who looked to be about four, said she was lucky to have found this place open because "I been to three shelters, and they turned me away. They were all filled."

As she spoke, a few blocks to the south, cars pulled up to the Motor City Casino, one of three downtown gambling palaces whose neon flashes in stark contrast to the area's otherwise empty darkness. Sometimes, on a winter night, all that seems to be open around here is the casino, a liquor store and the pastor's kitchen, in the basement of this church. It used to be a famous church, home to the largest Presbyterian congregation in the upper Midwest. That was a long time ago -- before a stained-glass window was stolen and the roof developed a huge hole. Now, on Sundays, the mostly African-American churchgoers of the I Am My Brother's Keeper Ministries huddle in a small section of the sanctuary that is enclosed in plastic sheeting, because they can't afford to heat the rest.

As food was served to the line of homeless people, I watched from a rickety balcony above. My line of work is writing, partly sportswriting, but I come here now and then to help out a little. This church needs help. It leaks everywhere. Melted snow drips into the vestibule.

"Hey," someone yelled, "who the Lions gonna draft?"

I looked down. A thin man with a scraggly black beard was looking back. He scratched his face. "A quarterback, you think?"

Probably, I answered.

"Whatchu think about a defensive end?"

That would be nice.

"Yeah." He bounced on his feet. "That'd be nice."

He waited for his plate of food. In an hour, he would yank a vinyl mattress from a pile and line it up next to dozens of others. Then the lights would dim and, as snow fell outside, he and the other men would pull up wool blankets and try to sleep on the church floor.

This is my city.

"Them Lions gotta do somethin', man," he yelled. "Can't go on the way they are."

*****

And yet...

And yet Detroit was once a vibrant place, the fourth-largest city in the country, and it lives in the hope that those days, against all logic, will somehow return. We are downtrodden, perhaps, but the most downtrodden optimists you will ever meet. We cling to our ways, no matter how provincial they seem on the coasts. We get excited about the Auto Show. We celebrate Sweetest Day. We eat Coney dogs all year and we cruise classic cars down Woodward Avenue every August and we bake punchki donuts the week before Lent. We don't talk about whether Detroit will be fixed but when Detroit will be fixed.

And we are modest. In truth, we battle an inferiority complex. We gave the world the automobile. Now the world wants to scold us for it. We gave the world Motown music. Motown moved its offices to L.A. When I arrived 24 years ago, to be a sports columnist at the Detroit Free Press, I discovered several letters waiting for me at the office. Mind you, I had not written a word. My hiring had been announced, that's all. But there were already letters. Handwritten. And they all said, in effect, "Welcome to Detroit. We know you won't stay long, because nobody good stays for long, but we hope you like it while you're here."

Nobody good stays for long.

We hope you like it while you're here.

How could you not stay in a city like that?

*****

And yet...

And yet to live in Detroit these days is to want to scream. But where do you begin? Our doors are being shuttered. Our walls are falling down. Our daily bread, the auto industry, is reduced to morsels. Our schools are in turmoil. Our mayor went to jail. Our two biggest newspapers announced they will soon cut home delivery to three days a week. Our most common lawn sign is FOR SALE. And our NFL team lost every week this season. A perfect 0-16. Even the homeless guys are sick of it.

We want to scream, but we don't scream, because this is not a screaming place, this is a swallow-hard-and-deal-with-it place. So workers rise in darkness and rev their engines against the winter cold and drive to the plant and punch in and spend hours doing the work that America doesn't want to do any more, the kind that makes something real and hard to the touch. Manufacturing. Remember manufacturing? They do that here. And then they punch out and drive home (three o'clock is rush hour in these parts, the end of a shift) and wash up and touch the kids under the chin and sit down for dinner and flip on the news.

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