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COMMENTARY : Detroit Doesn’t Need an Excuse to Trash City

HARTFORD COURANT

The unintentional laugh of the week comes, as usual, from a politician. After the Pistons’ winning the National Basketball Assn. championship touched off rioting in Detroit that left seven dead, 141 arrested and hundreds injured in shootings, stabbings and fights, Detroit’s city council president said he hoped that the lawlessness wouldn’t further tarnish Detroit’s image.

First of all, nothing could further tarnish Detroit’s image, any more than another barroom brawl could have further tarnished the late Billy Martin’s reputation.

Detroit, with its high unemployment and murder rate, block after block of boarded-up windows and neighborhoods resembling a war zone, epitomizes everything wrong with American cities and how hard it is, in these days of penny-ante federal assistance, to rebuild things right.

Detroit doesn’t need one of its teams to win a championship for an excuse to trash the city, but apparently it helps. Detroit is where one person was killed, stores were looted and cars set afire when the Tigers won the 1984 World Series. Detroit is where Piston owner Bill Davidson made sure not to build his new stadium, opting instead for the lily-white Auburn Hills subdivision an hour’s drive north. Why build a stadium where your fans are scared to go?

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Downtown Detroit is a place many people are scared to go. Teams and media visiting Tiger Stadium usually stay at the Renaissance Center, a hotel-shopping-entertainment complex that more resembles a fortress than a visitor’s window on an exciting new world. The idea is that you will never have to venture outside except to catch a cab to the stadium. That way, nothing bad should happen to you. That way, nothing happens to further tarnish Detroit’s reputation.

Any attempt at explaining what makes people riot risks oversimplifying a very complex problem. But one cause is blatantly obvious--frustration.

Frustration is the key element in many people’s lives. That is a depressing thought, but then, these are depressing times for many people.

As government aid programs have been gutted, more and more people have become trapped in America’s permanent underclass. The gap between America’s haves and have-nots has widened. For more and more Americans, the American dream has become a myth.

Television, where almost everyone is rich and beautiful, where advertisers tell us we must buy this or that product if we want to realize the American dream, relentlessly teases and tantalizes the have-nots.

The A.C. Nielsen Co. estimates that the TV is on seven and a half hours a day in the average American home. For kids growing up with working parents, lazy parents or no parents, TV, with its endless acts of random violence that inures us to the real thing, is the unblinking babysitter.

With reading and serious conversation in danger of becoming dying arts, we have become a nation of watchers, living vicariously through the deeds of our favorite athlete or sitcom star. In an increasingly complex society where government seems unresponsive to people’s problems, where many people hate their jobs and their lives, frustration is a weed that gets watered daily.

But it takes more than frustration to make a riot. It takes great masses of people living crowded together. It takes alcohol or drugs. But mostly, it takes an attitude that a human life isn’t worth very much.

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Four of the seven killed in Detroit were killed when a car plowed into a crowd of pedestrians at 1:15 a.m. Friday. Cars also kill pedestrians on the 364 nights the Pistons don’t win a championship, but when people are in a celebratory mood, more alcohol is consumed (evidence shows that the driver may have been drinking), more people are on the streets and the chances of such a tragedy happening and touching off a chain reaction are greatly increased.

Still, after having covered the NBA finals at both sites these past two weeks, the question lingers: Can you imagine this happening in Portland?

No way. Sure, Portland has its troubles, but it is a much smaller, less crowded, far more beautiful place than Detroit. In the beautiful Pacific Northwest, with its majestic rivers and mountains, everything green from the frequent rain, people take pride in the environment. They take pride living in what, by Eastern standards, is a new city. People don’t litter in Portland. They don’t cross the intersection when the flashing light says “Don’t Walk.” People who live in a pretty, uncrowded city, people who don’t litter or jaywalk, people who feel good about where they live, and, by extension, themselves, aren’t likely to riot.

In Detroit, people are crowded together, many in poverty. Detroit is one of America’s most murder-ravaged cities, a place where the cops have a bit more on their minds than stopping people from littering or jaywalking.

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It is wrong to link the Pistons’ success with riots in Detroit. But it is blatantly wrong to ignore how the conditions in Detroit, and some of America’s other inner cities, are like acres of dry brush that have never felt a soothing raindrop. In situations like that, any match will do.


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