Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Detroit Agonistes, Part Three: Money Men

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Meet the Three Horsemen of the Post-Apocalypse in Detroit. The guys with the big money that does (from left) lots of good things, no good things, and some good things.

Dan Gilbert (left) has been buying downtown as a hobby and keeps a scale model of it in his office so that when he buys another skyscraper, the model of it lights up. He owns Quicken Loans and the Cleveland Cavs and will probably own the Detroit Pistons too when they're up for sale, because it makes more sense to own the hometown team than one in Ohio, which to southeast Michigan residents is enemy territory.

But here's the thing: when he buys a new building, he gets busy cleaning it up, or restoring it, or remodeling it, and then getting it on the active market so that businesses, including his own, can come in and occupy it. And bring employees back to Detroit from the stupidly far-away suburbs where they've exiled themselves. He also brought the first construction cranes in years downtown to build an actual new building, and then hired artists to make it a unique building, too.

This is a different business model from Matty Moroun's (center), who likes to buy gigantic structures like train stations and book depositories and international bridges and then let them either rot (train station and book warehouse) or become such a pain in Michigan's and Canada's asses (bridge) that those two parties decide to just build a new bridge of their own. He has enough money to turn Michigan Central Station into something bold and beautiful, but he doesn't have any leadership or vision, so the place sits adding one window every six months or so to its 1,000 broken-window holes.

The windows were intact when he bought the place. He didn't bother securing the building or its grounds, so now he and the city have one of the world's most notorious modern architectural ruins. And much as the state and Canada are building their bridge around him, the Corktown area of Detroit is reviving itself at lightning speed around that hulking wreck.

In Moroun, Detroiters have their own version of Dr. Seuss's two Zaxes, standing still and arguing while the rest of the world moves on without them. Except that they didn't erect a giant bombed-out temple of neglect as a monument to their uselessness.

So that leaves Mike Ilitch (right), owner of Little Caesar's Pizza and the Detroit Red Wings and Detroit Tigers. He did a good thing by bringing the baseball team downtown to a new stadium. A really good thing by restoring the Fox Theater downtown and turning it into his company headquarters. But then he did a shitty thing by announcing he'd make the city tear down a perfectly good downtown hockey arena and make it pay most of the cost for a new downtown hockey arena, built on land that his family quietly bought up for years and then left empty and undeveloped, giant patches of blight for the city but jewels of "future development" for Ilitch.

No doubt the new hockey arena, thanks to the Ilitches, will be a huge improvement and bring massive energy to an area that, thanks to the Ilitches, has been an echoing patchwork of tumbleweed lots for decades. But Mike could have built it without extorting funds from a city fresh from bankruptcy and still struggling to get a decent fire department put back together before too much of the non-downtown area burns to the ground.

Of the three Big Money Barons, it's clear that Dan Gilbert is the main mover, shaker, and evangelist for the city. And while that's awesome, it's also terrifying, for a reason that should be painfully obvious: When so much for one city is done by one man—one mortal human being whose health could break or whose car could crash tomorrow—how fucked will we be if anything bad happens to him? Those who love Detroit pray for Dan Gilbert's safety and drink to his health several times daily.

But there are other, lesser Barons in Detroit, too. Kid Rock, although he's a colossal assbag and Ted Nugent wannabe now, comes to town regularly and plays for working fans who pay minimal ticket prices for the shows. (He also buys lots of hats for himself and his band/entourage at downtown's Henry the Hatter, supplier of fedoras for some of WB's staff, too.) Jack White bailed the Masonic Temple performance venue out of financial hurt over back taxes. Teams of wealthy business owners kept the Detroit Institute of Arts out of the hands of idiot politicians who wanted to sell the DIA's holdings, and quiet donors helped settle the musicians' union strike at the Detroit Symphony. Monied power brokers made it possible for light rail to start getting built down Woodward Avenue, the main Downtown-Midtown artery. And massive credit goes to every small-business entrepreneur who decides to trust the Big Rebound enough to set up shop in the Big City, not its outlying cookie-cutter 'burbs.

It's kind of like the ending of It's a Wonderful Life, which may be WB's favorite all-time central metaphor for community involvement. Moroun played the part of Potter the evil banker, but other pro-Detroit people got together and said Hey Mitt Romney, watch this, we're going bankrupt just like you said—but not how you meant.

The city's still in trouble. The city has always been in trouble. The city will never not be in trouble of some kind. It's the Motor Motherfuckin' City, after all.

But trouble has stopped being the main headline. And that's more than good enough for the moment.

Now this:


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