The mural of humpback whales on the David Broderick Tower joins a city of Lions and Tigers. (John T. Greilick / The Detroit News)
Sometimes when you look at something every day, it becomes invisible.
Maybe that’s Prince Fielder’s problem with low sliders, but I was thinking more of stationary objects. At this point, for instance, it barely even strikes us as strange to drive past enormous rotting buildings on our way to lunch.
Along those lines, I went in search of Boston Red Sox fans to ask about something a lot of us have stopped seeing, even though it’s within view of most of the seats at Comerica Park.
Among the common answers: “No” and “Huh?” As for the question, it went something like this:
Can you think of any logical reason for a big painting of humpback whales in downtown Detroit?
They’re nice whales. Lovely whales, even, frolicking up 18 stories of the David Broderick Tower on Woodward Avenue. But I still find myself wondering what they have to do with us, even though I know who put them there and why.
“Because whales are going extinct,” suggested Gabrielle Ogden, a University of Michigan freshman from Los Angeles, “like Detroit.”
To be fair, she was treating the question like a pop quiz, and she thought maybe that was the answer I was shooting for. Besides, she was wearing a Tigers T-shirt even though she was with a friend from Boston, so she’s OK.
Anthony Williby of Flint is also OK, even with his Red Sox jersey. He’s in the Navy and he’s been a Sox fan since he was a kid; as he explains, “Being Irish probably helped.”
He had to speak up because a street-corner preacher was railing against the theory of evolution at the nearby intersection of Adams and Witherell.
“The football team is the Lions,” Williby pointed out, “even though there’s not a lion in Detroit except at the zoo. It kind of goes with the theme.”
As throngs of fans lined up to get into the ballpark, four men sat down in the blocked-off section of Witherell and started drumming on plastic buckets, drowning out the preacher.
Darwinism can be a bear, but George Calvas was undeterred. He’s a 56-year-old from Dearborn, and he was assisting the preacher, propping up an 8-foot pole with a loudspeaker on top.
“No idea,” he said. “But you know Jonah was swallowed by a whale, and three days later he was spit out.”
Humpbacks like the ones in the mural are more likely to dine on krill or herring than Biblical figures. The artist who commemorated them, Robert Wyland, is devoted to marine wildlife and has made millions of dollars painting it, generally on a smaller scale than skyscraper walls.
Wyland, 57, grew up in Madison Heights and donated the mural to the city in 1997.
It was the 76th of 100 he painted in 13 countries to remind people of the beauty of conservation.
“A traveling whale artist,” mused Jim Blake Sr., 57, a Boston booster from Wallaceburg, Ontario. “Must be a small fraternity.”
As for the mural, “It’s like Mount Everest. You look at it because it’s there.”
The artwork actually went missing in 2006, after the convenient passage of a zoning variance. Chrysler covered it with a mammoth banner ad for the Jeep Compass, and Verizon later took over the space before the whales were re-exposed in 2010.
Eventually, they’ll fade away. For now, said a 26-year-old Bostonian named Jenny Brennan, there’s no real mystery to the whaling wall.
“Whales are huge,” she said. “They can go anywhere they want.”