September 25, 2014 will be a day forgotten in time to most people. There are some though that will remember it as a day of beginnings and endings, none more than Detroit Red Wings and Tigers fans and the owners of both franchises Mike and Marian Ilitch. It was an interesting day in Detroit for sure, with many story lines. The Detroit Red Wings hosted their first home game of the pre-season, the Detroit Tigers were winding down there last couple games of the season at Comerica park and trying to preserve their lead in the division, and construction of District Detroit (the single largest development in Detroit’s history and home to the future arena of the Detroit Red Wings) officially got underway yesterday.
District Detroit is the name given by Olympia Development of Michigan, the real estate arm of the Red Wings and Tigers owners Mike and Marian Ilitch, to the new 45 blocks of development they are spearheading in a vacant area of downtown Detroit. District Detroit is centered around the site of a new arena which will be the future home of the Detroit Red Wings. It is the largest single development in the city of Detroit’s history and thus has been met with much anticipation. District Detroit is a testament to the unprecedented revival Detroit has been experiencing in the last couple years. A development of this size, although common in Asia, is unheard of in this part of the world. The breaking ground ceremony for the District Detroit yesterday was truly a sign of the beginning of a new era in Detroit and for the Red Wings. With the Red Wings also playing their first home game of the pre-season yesterday it surely was a day of beginnings. Or was it?
There was an odd vibe in the air yesterday in downtown Detroit. It was one of anticipation, excitement, and hope, but there was something else too; unease. Detroit Tigers fans were excited about making the post-season but the race for clinching the division had been tightening up the previous couple weeks and now with only a couple games to go the Tigers still had not solidified the division title and might end up having to play a wild card game. The Tigers season was ending but ending in unease as the beginning of the post-season couldn’t be clearly seen. I could feel the same vibe from the Red Wings fans as they walked towards the steps of “The Joe” after disembarking from the People Mover (Detroit’s aerial tram), most of them having just come from the “block party” setup at the ground breaking area of the new stadium. Most seemed excited but there was tenseness in the air. Wearing my red wings tee-shirt and wanting to see what the District Detroit “block party” was all about, I got on the People Mover at the stop at my apartment which is shared with Joe Louis Arena to head towards the stop near the new arena area. The tram that pulled up was full of Red Wings fans headed to the game. As I got on and the other fans got off, one in a Datsyuk jersey coyly said “you’re going the wrong way” as he brushed past me. I responded with a joking “not for long” remark, to which he sighed “I know”. I could feel the air deflate around me as all the other wings fans seemed to sigh in unison around the two of us.
As the tram left the Joe Louis Arena station towards Grand Circus Park, the station closest to the new arena location, I had time to comprehend what just happened. How could a whole tram of excited fans that had just come from the new arena “block party” so suddenly seem to have had all moral defeated? The answer was where they had just arrived “The Joe”. Having a party on the site of where a new arena is to be built on with no view of the current arena is one thing, but to realize as you walk up to the arena you have cherished all your life and seen your idols play in will soon be closed is a completely different animal. This was the first day as a Red Wings fan that you knew for certain the days of going to “The Joe” to watch a Red Wings game were numbered. This comprehension of what had just transpired reminded me of the day the Maple Leafs played their last game in Maple Leaf Gardens. The sadness that swept through all Toronto fans that day was the emotion that had been at the back of all Leafs fans minds since it was announced that the Leafs would be moving out of Maple Leaf Gardens. With the official start to construction of the new Red Wings arena having just happened yesterday in Detroit, this thought of the loss of “The Joe” was now present in all aware Wings fans minds. Even on the first home game of the pre-season, a day of excitement, these hidden emotions can come out and create an atmosphere of unease.
The attachment to an arena for Wings fans is not unique, but I would be wrong to say the situation is not unique. Never has an arena been part of such a huge, unique, and positive project for a city. Maybe this is why the unease has shown itself so quickly in Wings fans. The excitement about the new project is so great that it can’t help but remind you that “The Joe,” one of the most storied of modern NHL arenas will be closing. This unease didn’t show so quickly in Leafs fans as the ACC wasn’t nearly as influential a project in Toronto’s culture as District Detroit has become in Detroit’s culture. This is largely due to scale and the fact the District Detroit also is more than an arena, the arena is just an anchor for the 45 block community being developed around it.
The ground breaking “block party” proved that there is excitement for the project, especially from Red Wings fans. At the once vacant site where the new Red Wings arena is to be built stood stages, interactive games and a food truck rally yesterday for the block party. Fans were enjoying all these free amenities before heading to the game. The sense in the air was that of opportunity and the sense of unease seemed to fade into the background as local bands played on the stages. Fans could even dig into the “break ground” pile for photos where the actual ground breaking ceremony had happened hours earlier. I had never heard of such a large celebration for a ground breaking before and it proves how much District Detroit means to the city of Detroit.
Fans will always be at unease about the loss of a storied, cherished arena and I can only assume this unease will grow as that last game at “The Joe” draws ever more near. But I can also see the excitement and hope that will come across thousands of fans faces as their unease is alleviated as they enter into the District Detroit in 2017.
Cover Photo: “The Joe” Home of the Red Wings. Photo by: Darryn Horvath