Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Holla' For History

I was listening to WXYT's afternoon drive-time show called The Sports Inferno last week when I became amused with what I heard from New York native /reborn Detroiter Mike Valenti.

"Let's get down to brass taxes..." Valenti said as he began one of his legendary rants about whatever. Don't get me wrong --I enjoy Valenti, because he is like me and simply tells you how he sees it without any holdout -- but he's the classic example of a sports fan with a radio show, a point he'll readily admit. There's nothing wrong with it, either.

What amused me is the 'brass taxes' thing. It's brass tacks. This is an example of how time changes history in subtle ways. Brass tacks was a way of measuring cloth, linen or anything else by the yard on a counter. A person would come in and ask for so much of this or that, and the actual cost would be determined by placing the material on the counter against the ruler held in place with brass tacks, thus the phrase, "Let's get down to brass tacks."
Here's another one: Toe The Line. How many times have you heard it repeated as Tow The Line? Or the oft-heard phrase, "It's a dog-eat-dog world." I've heard that catch-phrase repeated many times as 'Doggy-dog' world.

Here's why I bring this up: History is important. It shows us the right and wrong in the world before us, thus the coined phrase, "Those who do not heed history are doomed to repeat it."
I'm writing a prep basketball history book and I'm waist-deep in the city of Detroit right now. Among the interesting facts I've learned from basketball research as it relates to metro Detroit? The 30-year absence by Detroit's public school teams from the Michigan High School Athletic Association's annual boys' basketball tournament from 1931-1961. The seed of racial mistrust in Detroit is one planted long before riots and failed urban renewal.

Here's another one: School sports might have saved the city before and after the 1967 riots. The divisive busing issue was so strongly contested that many coaches and players from that era were literally scared to travel outside of their neighborhoods, but school sports was a respected rite of passage, almost an institution in Detroit. Rival schools of various religious and ethnic backgrounds might not have gotten along on any day -- save for game day. It was on these days they respected one another, played hard and shook hands after the game. That very well might have kept the city from an all-encompassing implosion that would have made the '67 riots look like a small camp fire easily doused with canteen water.

If you think the Detroit PSL doesn't have friends, consider the Catholic League fought long and hard alongside the PSL schools in the 1970s to get millage and bond requests passed. What would Detroit's schools look like today had it not been for a lil' neighborly love 30 years ago?

And what of the other history not so easily interwoven into prep sports?

The decision to plow through neighborhoods with concrete freeways did little but speed up fears of intermixed, racially-charged neighborhoods. If you look at the pictures of football and basketball, schools and neighborhoods radically changed within a few years. Today our freeways in Detroit do little but expose the worst homes and buildings within eyeshot, because really, who wants to live next to a freeway and have to leave your garage at 55 miles an hour? When's the last time you heard a neighborhood benefited from have an eight-lane ribbon of concrete driven through its heart? And if you think a freeway is bad, what about displacing the many for a hulking auto complex -- remember Poletown?

Finally, I've learned that while Kwame Kilpatrick and Coleman Young weren't great leaders, neither were a lot of their white predecessors, like Charles Bowles, Louis C. Miriani and a laundry list of leaders remembered for their poor decisions as much as any positive accomplishments. The decision to allow auto companies to erect massive auto factories in the middle of neighborhoods without a lick of civil engineering 80-90 years ago has continually crippled a lot of potential re-birth. The refusal to replace trolleys with elevated or tunnel trains, eliminating the trolleys altogether and the final legitimate transit piece, the removal of the Inter-Urban lines. This straddled the city with empty buildings and no motivation to turn them into anything but gravel lots to park suburban cars upon.

There's a ton of unique story lines and historical references that continue to co-exist with us in our daily lives. In that way, Detroit is just as compelling as Chicago, Boston and New York City. We have a lot of things wrong about the Motor City but an open canvas to remake the city, the region and the landscape we call home for the better.

All that and more is possible if we heed history and stay away from brass taxes, whatever those are.

~ T.C. Cameron is the author of Metro Detroit's High School Basketball Rivalries, due August 2009 from Arcadia Publishing.

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