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A tale of two cities Detroit has gone to great lengths to enhance its image for Super Bowl XL, DAVID NAYLOR writes

Detroit has gone to great lengths to enhance its image for Super Bowl XL, DAVID NAYLOR writes


After four decades of Super Bowls, it's evident there are two distinct types of host cities for the National Football League's biggest game.

There is the vacation hub -- Miami, Tampa, New Orleans, La., and San Diego -- the kind of city that might normally be teeming with January tourists even without a Super Bowl.

And there are the others, cities that see the game as an opportunity to shed a maligned image, boost civic pride and hope a lot of visitors will return home after a good time to tell their friends that such-and-such isn't a bad place after all.

Detroit, like Jacksonville, Fla., a year ago and even Houston before that, fits into the latter category, just as it did when the NFL played its first northern Super Bowl game in January, 1982.

"The Super Bowl offers the opportunity for residents of the entire area to unite in a community pride effort and boost spirits in this difficult economic time," the host committee of Super Bowl XVI said in a refrain that has been repeated over and over recently, nearly a quarter of a century later.

The last time, things didn't go well for the Motor City at a game that was played between the San Francisco 49ers and Cincinnati Bengals in suburban Pontiac. Besides the comfort complaints that come with being host to the Super Bowl in a Rust Belt city, game day was marred by ice storms, traffic jams and a wind chill of -32. Many fans were either late for the game or missed it completely.

During the leadup to that game, Sports Illustrated writer Paul Zimmerman opined in a television interview that Detroit reminded him of Moscow, "except the security guards were nicer in Moscow." The reaction was so strong that Zimmerman received death threats. Another journalist said that heaping abuse on Detroit at the time was like hitting a guy out of bounds.

Similarly, Jacksonville found out a year ago that the Super Bowl experience cuts both ways, as visitors and media ripped the city for its lousy weather and infrastructure.

Detroit has gone to great lengths to ensure those scenarios aren't the legacy of this year's matchup between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Seattle Seahawks. Civic improvement initiatives have been geared around the Super Bowl for several years, including multimillion-dollar street renovations, new housing and storefront initiatives and the razing of some of downtown's uglier abandoned sites.

Roger Penske was recruited as the Super Bowl chairman, to bring forth all the clout that comes with a multibillion-dollar fortune. Volunteers greet visitors with "welcome to Detroit" and seem as sincere as they are friendly, a far cry from the city's image as the home of angry hip-hop artist Eminem.

But changing the aesthetics of a city and changing its image are different things.

Beyond the unfriendly January weather, which is gloomy, grey and slightly above freezing this week, there are the obvious signs of a city that once numbered two million but now is home to about 900,000, many of whom live in poverty. Within minutes of Ford Field, the catalyst for this year's game coming to Detroit, there are scores of empty, boarded-up buildings visible to everyone making the short trip between the stadium and downtown hotels. Yesterday afternoon's image of police with a group of men spread-eagled against one of those abandoned structures as media buses rolled by wasn't the kind the city was hoping to project.

While the game was awarded to Detroit in 2001 during somewhat of a boom for the automotive industry, the industry has recently suffered one of its worst downturns in years.

Both General Motors and Ford are cutting thousands of jobs. Ford spent $40-million (all figures U.S.) for the naming rights to the stadium that will be host to the game on Sunday. The stadium also ate up $125-million in public funding.

This follows significant cutbacks for civic employees as Detroit struggles to keep itself from falling into receivership.

Super Bowls may be about civic pride at difficult times and massive injections of cash into a local economy, but they're also about excess, wealth and spoils and limousines and private jets, all of which fly in the face of what many Detroit residents are feeling these days, with an unemployment rate roughly 2½ times the U.S. national average.

It won't be that way in Miami next year or in Phoenix after that, where times are still good and the sun will shine warmly long after the Vince Lombardi Trophy is handed out.

But this year in Detroit, beyond the challenge of making the right impression with visitors, there's hope the local residents aren't left with a bitter taste in their mouths.

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