Opinion Column

VAN MOORSEL

Detroit’s appeal lost in decay, bankruptcy 0

Greg Van Moorsel, QMI Agency

Pedestrians walk along Woodward Avenue in Detroit, Michigan December 3, 2013. (REUTERS/Joshua Lott)

Pedestrians walk along Woodward Avenue in Detroit, Michigan December 3, 2013. (REUTERS/Joshua Lott)

Somewhere between Detroit and Toronto, across Southwestern Ontario’s 373 kilometres of denuded flatlands, there’s always been an imaginary dividing line.

On one side, the areas whose big-city gravitational pull comes from Detroit. On the other, the areas that float in Toronto’s orbit.

Time was, the dividing line fell roughly half-way between the two big cities, running right through London. The divide was famously represented at sports bars in London, where you could find, in almost equal numbers, rabid Detroit and Toronto fans.

So strong was Detroit’s pull on Southwestern Ontario, locals developed a unique, three-syllable way to express it: DE-TROY-IT. No other Americans or Canadians say it.

Times change.

When Detroit officially slipped into bankruptcy last week, a once-proud and prosperous city brought to its knees by an $18.5-billion debt mountain, it was a sad reminder that a unique push-pull that once defined life in Southwestern Ontario — a battle for its hearts and minds, between Motown and Hogtown — has also been swept into history’s dustbin.

Toronto has won.

A generation ago, even as the cancer of economic ruin and suburban flight spread in Detroit, there was no question which of the two big cities exerted the greater pull.

Detroit was mercenary, yes, but it was far more magnetic than Toronto.

You might be shaken down at a charity parking lot for extra money, as I was once, but you’d have a great time at the old Tigers Stadium watching big-league baseball. You’d wash it down with a great meal and entertainment in Greektown or another party zone.

Toronto, on the other hand, was laced up so tight in its Victorian petticoats, you could hardly breathe. An exotic meal was Ed’s Roast Beef House. There was no Sunday shopping. And if you caught a ball game, electronic signs would tell you when to cheer. Tiger Stadium was charming. The new SkyDome was antiseptic. Yes, you always needed to keep your eyes open in Detroit, as you do in all big U.S. cities. But it was a city whose towering legacies — the auto industry, the Motown sound, interesting architecture, a fabulous arts scene — filled your windshield on the way in, even if you were silently relieved to see it in the rear-view mirror as you left.

That’s all gone now. You don’t hear Southwestern Ontarians talk about idle hops across the border to Michigan’s Big Smoke. Detroit is for surgical trips only — big-league sports, cut-rate flights, suburban shopping but only if the loonie is high. Quick ins, quick outs.

Toronto, on the other hand?

You know times have changed when you hear Southwestern Ontarians talking up high-speed rail to the mega-city, or asking when the GO commuter trains that lace Toronto’s outer reaches to its core will be extended west beyond the Kitchener-Waterloo region.

Toronto may be too rich for many people’s blood, but it’s a city that can at least consider building new subway lines. Detroit? Half its streetlights don’t work and it can’t fix them.

It gets worse. At its 1950s peak, Detroit had 1.85 million people — roughly double that of Toronto and Montreal combined, even by their widest possible definitions.

Today, Detroit has shrivelled to 700,000, little bigger than the Hamilton area. It has 78,000 abandoned buildings. It can’t afford all kinds of basic services most of us take for granted. Even its cops are stretched, with an average response time of nearly an hour — more than five times the U.S. average. It’s become the city Robocop famously needed to save in the 1980s flick set in a crime-ridden Detroit.

greg.vanmoorsel@sunmedia.ca

 

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