Watch out for the steamrollers

I was driving out to Leavenworth in the evening with NPR News on. They were interviewing a woman who lived in New York, but owned the house she grew up in Detroit. A group was trying to revitalize her old neighborhood. She thought the responsible thing to do was demolish her old home. The story was about efforts to reverse years of decline in that once-great city.

I flashed back to a day in 1999 when I saw the decline firsthand. That summer, oldest kid Anna had graduated and was getting ready for college. Anna’s a sort-of fan of baseball, but a huge fan of travel. When I suggested we go to Detroit to see Tiger Stadium in its last season, she was all in.

I had been there a few years before with Scott Surprenant and his brother Tom on our way to see Municipal Stadium in Cleveland during its last season. (Is there a pattern here?) I love the feel of old ballparks and wanted to see Tiger Stadium a last time.

Anna and I were able to get a cheap flight, and in late August spent a weekend in the Motor City. We had a room at the Renaissance Center. It was the nicest hotel I’ve ever stayed in. A luxury hotel, we were paying Super 8 prices. That was probably not a good sign for whoever owned it.

The Renaissance Center was part of a massive waterfront development, a hugely expensive attempt at renewing downtown Detroit. Seven interconnected skyscrapers hugged the Detroit River. If you walked out the hotel the right way, you were on a gorgeous River Walk adorned with fountains and sculptures. There was plenty of room to stroll, since we were almost alone.

If you walked out the other way, you encountered what can best be described as the remains of a city. Anna and I had all Saturday to walk around before a night game. I had seen some rough parts of cities, but nothing like this. We walked block after block of boarded up buildings surrounded by chain link fence with barbed wire. That was the good ones. There were miles of debris and garbage. A former retail area flowed into a former industrial area. Eventually you came to what should have been a former residential area. Only people lived there.

When Tiger Stadium was built in 1912, Detroit was the fastest growing city in the world. Fifty years later, the decline began. By 1999, there wasn’t much left to decline. Anna and I did walk around the new ballpark, Comerica Park, and it was impressive. The report on the radio outlined some hopeful signs for the city. Detroit can never be what it was, but good people there are trying to make it better.

There is a scene in the movie “Field of Dreams” where James Earl Jones’ character is trying to convince Ray that he shouldn’t sell his baseball/corn field.

“The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time.” The baseball part of that is self-evident; I turned by Leavenworth Ballpark, where the game is the same in 2013 as it was at Tiger Stadium in 1912. But the part about America carries its own truth. Detroit has been hit hard by the steamrollers.

Back to County Road 8 – I was going to a meeting in the basement of the Church of Japanese Martyrs. I am on a committee of the Area Faith Community. Our AFC includes the Catholic churches from Sleepy Eye, Leavenworth, Comfrey, and Morgan. The Diocese set up AFCs so that close-by parishes can share staff and resources.

There are good reasons to work together with neighboring parishes. But the truth is the AFCs represent decline in our rural towns. If each of these churches had the families and young people and priests they had 30 years ago, we would not have AFCs.

This is not Detroit around here. Still, it doesn’t take much effort to find main streets and farm sites that are in rough shape. It might not overwhelm one the way a long walk in Detroit did Anna and me. But if you drive the countryside and see the decaying barns and sheds, if you drive west of here and see all the storefronts that are empty, if you consider them all together, a comparison can be made.

In The World That I Grew Up In, all those buildings were alive with activity. That world has been steamrolled. The steamrollers were national and even international trends that rolled along, oblivious to who might be in the way. Detroit found itself in the way of a shifting auto industry, the demise of unions, and racial strife. The World That I Grew Up In found itself in the way of agriculture concentration, increased mobility, and changes in retailing.

You might have noticed the debate about the future of the convent in our parish. It is another victim of a changing America. Would we want there to be sisters teaching our children at St. Mary’s? Of course. Would we want building sites populated by farming families again? And our main street stores to be open? Would the people of Detroit like to see a buzzing urban economy again?

Yes, yes, and yes. All that is unlikely to happen. So, we move forward. What else can we do? America changes, it always has, it always will. As the poster says, “Keep calm and carry on.” And dodge the steamrollers.

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