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Ambassador Bridge controversy highlights cultural divide

The span connecting Detroit and Windsor, Ontario emphasizes the sibling rivalry of the US and Canada.

By Dante ChinniCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / August 2, 2007


In sheer physical terms, the Ambassador Bridge is everything a bridge should be. It connects two pieces of land – the United States and Canada. It traverses water – the Detroit River. It even has a certain grandeur as an international crossing and an "ambassador" for the two countries. And while the twin 386-foot steel towers may lack the beauty of the Golden Gate, the "Motor City" isn't exactly San Francisco, either.

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In metaphorical bridge terms, however – connecting, linking, joining disparate things – the Ambassador Bridge is no bridge at all. In many ways, the Ambassador only emphasizes the sibling rivalry of the US and Canada. In population and in skyline, Detroit dwarfs Windsor, the Canadian burg across the water. When Windsor built a casino to boost tax revenues, Detroit built three of its own.

And the Ambassador itself, since its completion in 1929, represents the cultural differences between the two cities. It isn't jointly owned by the US and Canadian governments; it isn't even owned by the US alone. In a salute to America's love of capitalism and the individual, it is owned by a single citizen, Detroit-area businessman Manuel "Matty" Moroun. And that's where the differences deepen, because Mr. Moroun wants to build a new bridge alongside the existing one.

Another bridge full of commerce? says the Motor City. Why not?

Another bridge full of traffic? says Windsor. No, thank you.

Whoever wins, someone is going to get mad.

No one really questions the need for another bridge. The Ambassador is the busiest commercial crossing in North America and is a crucial link for the local auto industry. More than a quarter of all trade between the US and Canada flows over the bridge or through the Windsor Tunnel – an estimated $1 billion daily. Heightened security since 2001 has hobbled the movement of commerce and traffic, which is estimated to grow 57 percent and 127 percent, respectively, in the next 30 years.

But where, oh where, to build? Detroit wants the next thoroughfare to come through the city. Windsor wants it anywhere but in its own backyard. And that difference highlights the cultural dissimilarities of these two cities and countries.

When is a bridge not a bridge? Maybe when it highlights a divide. It's not that the cities themselves are so utterly different. Detroit, like Buffalo, N.Y., home of another big border crossing, is one of the more Canadian American cities.

Unlike other Americans, many Detroiters can hum the tune for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's legendary TV show "Hockey Night." The city even likes to call itself "Hockeytown," and has a restaurant devoted to its hockey franchise, the Red Wings. Tim Horton's, the ubiquitous Canadian doughnut chain, has a beachhead in greater Detroit and can often be spotted across the street from metro-area Dunkin' Donuts. And both cities understand the pain of long, gray winters.

But the contrasts have always been there –­ some subtle, some more obvious.

Cross from Detroit to Windsor, for example, and voilà, McDonald's offers vinegar with its French fries. The money features birds and bears and colorful scenes of children on skates; one- and two-dollar denominations come in coins. "Center" becomes "centre." And radio station call letters all begin with K rather than W.

Drive the streets in the two cities and the faces are different: More than 82 percent of Detroit's residents are African-American, while only 3 percent of Windsorites are black.

Looking at where the Ambassador Bridge touches down in each city only brings the differences into sharper relief.