Howes: Old Detroit confrontation mars new PGA Tour event

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

A top goal for organizers of this week’s Rock Mortgage Classic is showcasing a New Detroit, a town allegedly burdened no longer by the confrontations and caricatures of its past.

Too bad management of the Detroit Golf Club and Teamsters Local 299 didn’t get the message. Smack in the middle of the first PGA Tour event ever played in the Motor City, the two sides are choosing to inflict their contract dispute on everyone else instead of settling it in private.

Eric Ybarra, a member of the Teamsters Local 299, protests outside the Detroit Golf Club.

Can’t get much more Old Detroit than that. Now, both labor and management are using local media coverage to make their case — that the club made fair offers to the seven affected groundskeepers, that the union is just asking for reasonable raises, that all of this unpleasantness would go away if the other side would just capitulate.

Doesn't work that way. This is still Detroit, birthplace of the modern labor movement, home to the United Auto Workers and influential power center to the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Yep, as much as things change around here some things remain the same.

Welcome to the past, golf fans. Or, more appropriately, to the nuance of Detroit's present and near future. This is a recovering municipal basket case rebuilding its operations and infrastructure, slowly renewing its neighborhoods and quickly attracting new residents and billions in private-sector development.

The town's reinvention tracks the longest national economic expansion ever recorded, the recapitalization of the domestic auto industry, the financial restructuring of City Hall, unprecedented collaboration between Republicans and Democrats, labor and management, business and philanthropy, to change the arc of Detroit's story.

As much as all of that has breathed new life and energy into a once-great American city, the changes have been less successful excising the culture of conflict that shaped Detroit after World War II: the rise and retreat of organized labor, the steady decline of hometown automakers grappling with foreign competition, the exodus of residents black and white to the suburbs.

Left behind were its great bones, in real-estate speak, starting with the iconic Detroit Golf Club's Albert Kahn-designed clubhouse and its two Donald Ross courses hosting the Rocket Mortgage Classic. The revival of downtown, spearheaded by Quicken Loans Inc.'s Chairman Dan Gilbert and his family of companies, leans heavily on preserving the authenticity of its buildings.

But the city's long history of political and industrial tension — and its present of widespread poverty — still simmer beneath its renovated buildings, new restaurants and bars, hot new hotels with names like Shinola and Foundation. And as much as longtime residents may not want to admit it, that history can weigh on efforts to move forward and shed the stereotypes of its past.

Gilbert said as much after the region failed to make the first cut in Inc.'s sweepstakes for a second North American headquarters. In an email to bid-committee members dated Jan. 23, 2018, he dismissed such factors as talent and transportation (or lack thereof) as the reasons for the online retailer's decision to drop Metro Detroit from contention.

"We are still dealing with the unique radioactive-like reputational fallout of 50-60 years of economic decline, disinvestment, municipal bankruptcy, and all of the other associated negative consequences of that extraordinarily long period of time," he wrote, describing what he called the elephant in the room. "This lingering, negative perception has unfortunately survived our impressive progress over the last several years.

"It is clear that we don’t do ourselves any favors by feeding the pessimistic narrative about Detroit and our region, when this view is not anywhere near the balanced, full story. I believe this is the single largest obstacle that we face. Old, negative reputations do not die easily."

Exactly right. 

Keeping old reputations alive doesn't help, either. Detroit's reinvention, imperfect as it sometimes can be, is about improving the lives and economic prospects of residents, attracting jobs and business investment, and changing the narrative of a city prematurely relegated to the trash heap of history.

The local Teamsters, the golf club and their visible contract dispute aren't helping deliver that change so much as channeling the past — unfortunately.

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Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.