Ambassador Bridge controversy highlights cultural divide

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

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

On the Canadian side, the bridge descends like a spaceship, dropping down out of nowhere on the houses and streets that surround the University of Windsor. Single-family homes, some of them makeshift student housing, fill the side streets, while shops, restaurants, and clubs line Wyandotte Street, one of the town's main drags.

In "The Bookroom," a small used-book store, owner Ann Beer shakes her head when she talks about the bridge. "The problem is, wherever they put it here, it really will mess up part of Windsor," she says. "I think it should go way down east somewhere. Far from here." On the wall, Beer has posted a simple sign: "Did you know that 50% of the trucks coming through the Ambassador Bridge just take a short-cut through Canada."

Nearby at the University Barber Shop, proprietor Adolfo Macera shares Beer's concerns, if not her resolve: "Wherever they put the next span, they should put it out of here. It's too much."

"But that's the big boys over there," he continues, referring to Moroun, the mayor, and the city.

Indeed, freshly poured foundations for a new bridge span are already sitting beside the overpass – though Windsor has passed a one-year moratorium on building or demolition in the area until a community-improvement plan is developed.

Of course, the view from Motor City is slightly different. "We don't care [where that bridge goes], as long as it goes through Detroit," says James Canning, spokesman for Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. "We just feel that the riverfront is the place to be, and we don't see why the next bridge shouldn't be there, too."

The riverfront wasn't always the place to be: For decades, Detroit treated that prime real estate as a ghetto for warehouses and cement silos. In the past 10 years, however, the city has pumped tens of millions into new parks and a riverwalk to lure people back. Yet those plans do not extend all the way down to the Ambassador, where land is devoted to transit and cargo, warehouses and train tracks, and cries of "don't let the 401 run through Windsor" earn no more than a shrug.

Mexicantown, ­a commercial and entertainment area based on Bagley Street, filled with three- and four-story buildings, is by no means pro-Ambassador addition. There are grumbles here that Moroun hasn't come through with investments he's promised, and doubts as to the integrity of the bridge-planning process.

"This is all about the mayor and Moroun," says Jeanette Avila in an exasperated voice. "Who knows what deal they have worked out?" Ms. Avila, a member of the Mexicantown board of directors and owner of El Rancho Mexican Restaurant, suspects Moroun will get his way.

Even so, the bridge isn't considered the community killer it is across the river. In fact, some here have embraced it. Just this Cinco de Mayo, the Michigan International Welcome Center and Mexican Mercado opened as an $18 million jointly funded private-public venture: 45,000 square feet of retail space, a public market, and a plaza. Roads and sidewalks are being reconfigured; a fancy pedestrian bridge will cross the highways. The area, according to artists' conceptions, is on its way to becoming a combination park and entertainment district. In decidedly un-Winsdsorian fashion, it aims to draw people across the bridge.

So even as many in Mexicantown officially oppose a second span of the Ambassador, others say it wouldn't be all bad – and would likely bring more people to explore, shop, and dine.

Oh, yes, and to leave a few more of those colorful Canadian dollars when they leave.

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