Hosting the World Series has given residents of the Motor City a welcome opportunity to show a game face to the world – and to themselves.
It's no secret, after all, that Detroit today is known more for its problems than for Motown rhythms or Midwestern industrial muscle.
Hardly any cities have faster falling populations. As for urban poverty, Detroit nearly tops the charts. Its key industry, automobiles, seems to be stuck in reverse gear.
This week's games provide a diversion from all that. But the fall classic – reviving an old rivalry with St. Louis – is something more as well.
It holds a mirror to the city's aspirations. Fans are rallying around a Tigers team that in four years has clawed its way from worst to first in its league.
That is bringing people, money, and national attention back to a downtown core that, many say, is on the mend. "We've seen a huge improvement" in recent years, says area resident Gilda Garcia. "Regardless of whether they win or lose [in the series], it's bringing a lot of people to the city."
She and her husband, Rolando Garcia, came into the city this weekend from their home in nearby Dearborn, joining legions of fans who displayed civic pride as well as Tiger loyalty by thronging the blocks around Comerica Park.
The series now shifts to St. Louis, where at least two games will be played. But for Detroit, although the first two games in the series weren't the most satisfyingly imaginable for fans, the economic imprint has already been significant.
Each home game of postseason play is a multimillion-dollar event. Millions of television viewers, meanwhile, have seen the city in the news for something other than auto-industry layoffs and plant closings. A gleaming ballpark, filled to capacity with people waving "Tiger towels," is welcome publicity for a team that in 2003 nearly set a record for most Major League losses.
The park was built as part of a downtown renewal effort that is now bearing fruit.
"There has been a conscious 10-year focusing of activity in a downtown center that didn't work," says Robin Boyle, an urban planning expert at Wayne State University here. "It still doesn't work very well, to be truthful, but it's making progress."
The ballpark and a nearby football stadium – which hosted the Super Bowl earlier this year – punctuate a revitalized entertainment district, with music clubs and theaters as well as restaurants. To occupy new office space, the downtown has also lured some big employers, led by Compuware and General Motors. In addition, civic leaders are creating new green space along the riverfront. Lofts, town houses, and other new residences are beckoning some young residents into the area.
"It's getting a whole lot better," says Sylvester Whitley, who works at the State Theatre across from Comerica Park. A resident with a memory that stretches back three decades, he says the job opportunities are better now than in many times in Detroit's past.
The city's population has fallen by half from its peak around 1950. But Mr. Whitley symbolizes the many residents – 4 in 5 black like himself – who aren't throwing in the towel. And he's a fan of the Tigers, from leadoff man Curtis Granderson to last-in-the-lineup Ramon Santiago. "I like 'em all, because they play as a team," Whitley says.
For him and other fans, the club embodies a mix of grit, talent, and improbable flair of which turnarounds are made.
But experts say that completing Detroit's revival won't happen in one season, let alone a decade.
In the past few years, even as unemployment has fallen to below 5 percent nationwide, the jobless rate has risen here to 7.1 percent.
Next to Cleveland, Detroit has the highest poverty rate of any major city in the United States, at 31 percent.
And amid a recent teachers' strike, Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick pleaded for City Hall to take over management of Detroit's struggling schools.
Since race riots rocked Detroit in the late 1960s, a white exodus to the suburbs has left much of the 139-square-mile city in stagnation. This summer, for the first time, came news that the city's African-American population is declining as well.
This city has always been a transportation hub of sorts, arising as a French fur-trading center on the Great Lakes. The central role of the car industry has made Detroit's road a volatile one. As the region rode the automobile's rise for much of the 1900s, population soared.
In 1968, when the Tigers won an epic seven-game World Series against the Cardinals, Michigan built about 3 million cars and light trucks, more than one-third of the nation's total. When the Tigers next played in the series, in 1984, the state still made as many cars, but those were just 26 percent of the US total. Today, Michigan is making 1.6 million vehicles, just 19 percent of US output, according to data from WardsAuto.com.
The city will surely remain a hub of car design and engineering. But the factory jobs continue to vanish.
Against this backdrop, recent signs of progress are steps on a long path. "It's not a renaissance. It's not a turnaround," says Mr. Boyle. "It's a realignment."
A Tigers victory would provide a morale boost along the way. "Detroit could always use it," says Paul O'Neill, a resident of nearby Troy who brought his family into town to bask in the excitement before Game 1.
His little daughter, Grace, has a simple recipe for urban revival.
"More kids," she says. "We need a few more kids on the streets."