WESTERN NEW YORK — This is not a column about sports. It is a column about the status of a major American city and how sad it was to see it decomposing before my eyes.
I would not have been in Detroit, late last month, had the Tigers not scratched their way into the World Series. Yet, despite their late-season push to capture first place in the central division of the American League and impressive, post-season wins over the Oakland Athletics and the New York Yankees, they were no match for the San Francisco Giants, tops in the rival National League.
Curiosity took me far from the neon-enriched sports and entertainment core of Detroit, out to American Jewelry and Loan, a pawn shop featured on national cable television. The parking lot has a barbed wire fence and the store is never open after 6:30 p.m. People who are desperate for cash line up early to pawn or sell whatever they can. The friction makes for good TV.
It was easy to find via Interstate 75, a safe route through unknown streets. But, somewhere about halfway back downtown, I missed a turn and was rolling through a silent, sterile neighborhood.
The mapping function of my smartphone eventually highlighted Van Dyke Avenue, a north-south path back to the hotel. Except for the green placards at intersections, there were no street signs along this four-lane thoroughfare. There were no pedestrians, no newspaper vending boxes or phone booths, either. Nothing.
Closer to my destination, I spotted a makeshift memorial on a light pole, the kind created, by friends, in memory of a loved one who died at the spot. A teddy bear, flowers and notes were placed at eye level. A block or two later, there was another one. I could only imagine what had happened in the shadow of so many empty, lifeless buildings.
Buffalo has its share of sad streets. But, along Van Dyke Avenue, the crop of abandoned buildings stretches for miles, not blocks. Most have no windows or doors. Many show fire damage. Some have no roofs.
A storefront church was capped by an overhead sign. The removable letters formed three words: “Please don’t tag.” Graffiti artists ignored the request, as they claimed a fresh canvas.
The devastation continued, left and right, as I could finally see the silhouette of the GM Renaissance Center, in the misty distance. Then, I passed something so sad, I will never forget it: an abandoned high school campus.
The boarded-up classroom building was at least three stories in height. Its architecture had the look of the 30s. Behind it was a football stadium, its bleachers in shambles. Grass and weeds grew through cracks in a basketball court, at the corner.
Finally, a baseball diamond came into sight. There was barely any differentiation between what was once a lush, green outfield and a well-defined, dirt infield. The pitcher’s mound was indiscernible. The backstop was a rusty, mangled version of its former self.
Here, in the city where the highest level of baseball had just been on display for the entire world to see, a field of dreams had become a nightmare. It broke my heart.
Figures from the U.S. Census Bureau tell the tale: the population of the city of Detroit fell by a staggering 25 percent from 2000 – 2010. More than 237,000 people moved away. At the height of the automobile industry, 2 million people called the Motor City their home, according to The New York Times.
I hope and pray that the same fate does not befall Buffalo. Our city’s population fell by almost 11 percent during the past decade; nothing close to Detroit’s fate, but it has numerous forgotten neighborhoods, vacant lots and shattered dreams. The urban reality of contemporary America is something we all must address.
Not much will have changed by the time the Tigers open the 2013 season, five months from now. I will still be a fan – and I will still wonder what might have been, if that school had not been forced to close.David Sherman is managing editor of Bee Group Newspapers and a columnist for the Weekly Independent Newspapers of Western New York, a group of community newspapers with a combined circulation of 286,500 readers. The author can be reached at