May 20, 2010

When dollars are not enough…

Posted in Between Us column, Business, Diversity, Travel at 7:06 pm by dinaheng

Nothing tears down a city like its people — or the people who visit it.

I went to Detroit recently on a business trip, and my plane landed late on a Saturday night. By the time I got to the Marriott at The Renaissance Center downtown, it was well after 1 a.m. and the streets were crowded with people. As I passed Hart Plaza, it was clear that some kind of public event had gone on, as the streets and gutters were trashed with plastic cups, beer bottles, and debris.

Walking into the hotel, I got into the elevator with four young Caucasians, dressed in cowboy hats and jeans. I smiled and asked what event was going on. They stared at me, and started making racist remarks about African Americans they’d run into on the street.  I couldn’t wait to get off the elevator.

The Detroit Hoedown had taken over the downtown area.  After checking in, I walked toward another bank of elevators, and stepped to the side as a group of police officers escorted several rowdy hoedowners out of the hotel.

Getting into the next open elevator, I commiserated with an African-American police officer, who said wearily, “I hate working down here. I’ve been called everything except the chocolate man tonight. These people come to town, trash it, and Detroit gets the bad rep.”

Unfortunately, the hoedowners also gave country music lovers a bad rep. Wearing a cowboy hat is not a license to act like you’re living in the Wild West. It’s great fun to gather and enjoy music (or any common interest) with other people, but I wonder how many of the hoedowners walk around drunk in their own hometowns, cussing at strangers, and leaving empty bottles of beer everywhere.

And why does Detroit put up with this kind of behavior? Probably because the city needs the money that tourists bring in, and it’s easier to tolerate a little disrespect than to lose those potential dollars. Unfortunately, tolerating those who tear up the town just encourages them to come back and act even worse next time.

You can see the same behavior in neighborhoods around Detroit that have deteriorated to the point where abandoned houses tell the story. You see one house where the family has moved out. Next to it is a house whose windows have been smashed, allowing vandals to steal everything inside from the appliances to the wiring.

Next to that is the saddest house. Not only have the windows been smashed, but after the interior has been stripped of anything with value, vandals have pounded on the inside walls to make the bricks on the exterior of the building fall off. The thieves then cart the bricks away and sell them, leaving a shell of a structure where a family once lived.

Detroit has dealt with hard times for many years now. Its economy has been decimated with the woes of the auto industry, and many residents have left for greener states. Yet those who remain hold on to positive attitudes and the belief that things will get better.

It’s that spirit that will help the city survive. Holding an annual Detroit Hoedown to bring new visitors and new money to town is a good idea, as long as the city takes enough pride in its own people to make it clear that racism and hooligans are not welcome.

Otherwise, the city will lose more than a few dollars. It will have lost its soul.

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