By Minehana Forman
http://michiganmessenger.com

During a visit here on Tuesday, Gov. Jennifer Granholm announced the launch of a pilot food service program that would provide fresh produce to city neighborhoods.

The program, which will be funded by a $75,000 low-interest loan from the state, will deliver fruits and vegetables to residents with a vendor-style truck, according to the Detroit Free Press. When the produce truck, which will bear a MI Neighborhood Food Movers logo, rolls through neighborhoods on a fixed route and schedule, residents in Michigan’s largest city will have the option of buying some fresh and reasonably priced fruit and veggies for the dinner table.

Detroit has been identified as a “food desert” or a place where groceries and produce are not readily available. Many Detroit residents are forced to shop for groceries at convenience stores and gas stations because there are few real grocery stores inside the city limits. Many of those have limited operating hours and inflated prices.
Jason Beck

Curtis Granderson has manned center field for the Tigers long enough to ignore taunts from fans when they're on the road. That doesn't mean he doesn't listen. He isn't hearing quite that much creativity this year. More and more, he's hearing a familiar refrain. They're not taunting him as much. They're making fun of his city.

"You hear the razzing: 'Hey, man, I wouldn't want to live in Detroit,'" Granderson said. "Or, 'Nice city. The motor industry's gone. Now what else do you guys have left?'"

He's heard it before, but it stings a little more now.

"Just the economic part adds to it," Granderson said.

Then someone like catcher Gerald Laird will have a moment behind the plate when he can look around at a Comerica Park on a Sunday afternoon, or hear the roar of the crowd when Clete Thomas hit a walk-off homer earlier this month to finish off the Tigers' comeback from a five-run deficit.

Or Granderson will have a moment like last Monday, an off-day for the Tigers and a day for Granderson to sign copies of his new children's book, "All You Can Be." He arrived at the Borders bookstore on Woodward Avenue in the suburb of Birmingham to find virtually every open aisle on the second floor of the store filled with spillover from the line of fans waiting for him to autograph their copies.

It's a dichotomy that might be more surprising than the Tigers' performance on the field. For all the upheaval going on around this bruised piece of the Midwest, the Tigers' little piece of it has almost become a separate reality. And they've received such a boost from their fan base that they can't help but wear the Detroit name with pride.

"I've never been in anything like this," said shortstop Adam Everett, whose wife is from the area. "I just know that this is a hard-working town and people are passionate. Going through what a lot of these families are going through, it's not easy."

More than 40 years after the 1968 world champion Tigers helped unite the city and the suburbs for one tremendous summer amidst a year of civil unrest and tension in Detroit and across the country, this year's Tigers are providing a different kind of reminder of the social impact a team can have.

Nothing now will compare to the stories of Willie Horton taking to the streets of Detroit during the riots of 1967, trying to calm down rioters, or of Mickey Lolich being summoned to his post by the Michigan Air National Guard that summer. It's a different situation the city and region face now. It isn't violence, but seeming hopelessness the area is battling.

Yet it's a time when a first-place team has again become a diversion, and a source of pride in a city that others want to put down. As a team defying expectations, somehow getting through so many of its own issues, the Tigers are proving to be a fitting sanctuary for a few hours.

"I think the pick-me-up is huge," Tracey Huff of Oak Park, Mich., wrote in an email. "Being an almost everyday sport, there is always a game to watch or discuss, so as a fan you can certainly spend a large amount of time on the Tigers.

"This city has been beaten up by many folks from the outside, and a fair number of people from the inside, but there is a spirit of not giving up around here. That pretty much sums up the Tigers."

It isn't a feeling that just recently came over Tigers fans. While Michigan has become one of the most-cited examples of the recession, the struggles had been building for some time. Hard times in the auto industry, the state's employment giant, had pushed the unemployment rate upward since 2006. While hope grows that better times are ahead, few in Michigan can seem to agree on when.

Now that the economy is a daily headline, Michigan's woes are hard to miss. The state's unemployment rate, which dropped last month to 15 percent, has been the nation's highest for 26 of the past 27 months through June, according to the Detroit Free Press.

Manager Jim Leyland knows it, because it has impacted people in his family. He grew up about an hour down Interstate 75 in Perrysburg, Ohio, just south of Toledo.

"My dad was a factory worker," Leyland said earlier this year. "He worked at a glass factory that made windshields for General Motors products. I worked at that factory myself. There's not much more we can do but give a good effort, bust our tails for them and show our appreciation. It's tough.

"My heart aches for these people up here. They're trying to feed their families, and we're getting a check every two weeks. We're certainly glad that we are, but we're certainly aware of the people that aren't right now."

The national horror stories were ready when the Tigers headed home in April. Little more than a month into the season, reports pegged home attendance average down 29.4 percent from the same point last year. Soon after, a national writer suggested that finances could force the Tigers to trade superstar Miguel Cabrera.

Both scenarios turned out to be overblown. Owner Mike Ilitch has maintained a payroll in the top five among Major League clubs for the past couple years. The attendance figures, meanwhile, were in relation to 2008, when the trade for Cabrera sent fans into a frenzy for ticket packages expecting October baseball.

Whatever the economy, the Tigers' last-place finish made this a season in which the team would have to prove it could contend. When it did, and when schools let out for the summer, attendance rebounded, even as bankruptcy filings for two of Detroit's Big Three automakers further shook the region's financial base.

Though a Crain's Detroit Business report showed attendance prior to the All-Star break down a little more than 20 percent from last year, average attendance continues to climb, now up to just under 32,000 per game. Only the Yankees, Angels and Red Sox had a higher average among American League teams through Sunday, and the Tigers are 12th in the Majors.

They're on pace to approach or match their totals from 2006, the year they went to the World Series.

"We knew going in the economic challenges, and we wanted to be sure that we offered fans every opportunity to come to the park," Tigers vice president of communications Ron Colangelo said. "What's really been noticeable is the higher energy level. The team seems to be feeding off that. The fans know we're in a pennant chase. They know every pitch matters, every defensive play matters, every attempt to catch a ball in foul territory."

The center-field fountain, meanwhile, has become a tribute to Detroit's auto industry. When General Motors ended its sponsorship, Ilitch kept the GM signage and added Ford and Chrysler logos along with the message, "The Detroit Tigers support our automakers."

The stories of fans' attachment to this club, this year, have been as varied as the people of the region themselves. Many seem to have identified with this particular club, its peaks and valleys, and its seemingly endless battle to take control of a division that has no statistical standout team.

"Maybe there's an allegory there, too," Michelle Moliszewski of Toledo wrote. "The Tigers are struggling to stay on top the same way we are struggling as a country right now. In the same way, the city of Detroit has been through its ups and downs, just like the team, but the potential and the hope to be back on top is always there."

Local resident and partial season-ticket holder Amy Hunt cited the everyday nature of the baseball schedule as a constant.

"What the Tigers offer during the summer months rivals what the Red Wings offer in the winter: A day-in, day-out connection to community and restored hope that lasts all season long, even if for only a few hours at a time," she wrote. "A day without a game is unusual. Whether your team is something to rejoice about is sometimes irrelevant. You sit amongst a group of people that hold the same interest you do, or the game plays to a living room of one. Either way, there is always the next inning, another game, a new series, a prospect from the Minors, and, sometimes unfortunately, a phenom from another team to see. ...

"As Tigers partial season-ticket holders, my husband and I have enjoyed quite a few collective gasps over the last few years, sometimes joyful, sometimes not. Whatever the tangible outcome, the time spent amidst innings have offered a chance to simultaneously heal our personal losses and connect with the recovering spirit of an ailing Detroit."

The Tigers seem to get those connections.

"It's amazing because of the tough times," Laird said, "but this place has always been more of a baseball town. You're surprised a little bit because of the times and people losing jobs, but when you think about it, you can't always be down.

"When you hear about how tough it is, you come here and expect to see the stadium empty," he said. "But then I tell people we're getting 40,000 people on weekends. Honestly, it's funny to see how important sports can be for a town. People can rally around us. It's amazing. I enjoy being here. It's great. People enjoy winning."

It has been a intriguing year for that in Detroit. Michigan State's run to the NCAA men's basketball title game made for a tremendous draw with the Final Four at Ford Field. Likewise, the NHL's Detroit Red Wings were a saga for many fans in the spring, all the way up to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals, which they lost to Pittsburgh.

The Tigers have filled that summer role.

"You hear a lot of buzz," said Bob Bronstein, owner of 24 Seconds sports bar in Berkley, Mich. "All summer, there's been a lot of talk about the Tigers. It is a good topic of conversation. Sometimes they play great. Sometimes they don't. Even if they play bad, they're a topic of conversation."

Nearly everyone asked agrees that a Tigers postseason rally could be bigger.

"I am really hoping and praying that they win the division," wrote Theresa Smithwick of Swartz Creek, Mich., "because this area needs to have encouragement and something to cheer about."

Granderson, who has thrown himself into the community and local schools through his Grand Kids Foundation, doesn't pretend it solves the issues. Even for Detroit, there were hard times soon after 1968.

"You get hyped and excited for the time being," he said, "but as soon as it's over, it hits again. The reality is, something's still got to change."

The Tigers can't make those changes. But they can make the city, the area, the state feel upbeat that change is possible.

"It would be extra special to have October baseball here," Laird said.

By Tim Higgins
Detroit Free Press

Text messages about wild nights have turned into Internet gold for two recent Michigan State University graduates. And no one is in trouble.

Ben Bator, 23, of Royal Oak and Lauren Leto, 22, of Grosse Pointe Woods often found their friends' messages so funny that they started a Web site where people could share texts with the world.

The site is a runaway hit that's launched a book deal, T-shirt sales and mobile-phone applications.

It's so successful that it has interrupted law school plans for Bator and Leto, who now sift through 10,000 to 15,000 messages a day, deciding which ones to post. Contributors are identified by area code.

The site marries the raunchy humor of youth movies such as "The Hangover" with the hyper-sharing of Web sites such as Twitter.

Many of the messages are a bit on the wild side for a family newspaper -- but here are a couple tamer ones:

• (714): OMG I just tried to text you something dirty but accidentally texted the Obama campaign.

• (678): I read the police report. You asked the cop if you could use his in-car computer to update your Facebook.

Leto acknowledged the site's explicit content has caused some awkward encounters -- her mother, for example, asks her to try to post cleaner jokes. "Is this the first thing that we say to someone we're sitting next to on a plane with a Bible in hand? No," Leto said. "But we're really proud of it."

• About the Web site: Some of the material published on Ben Bator's and Lauren Leto's Web site is very raw in nature. Click here for information on accessing the Web site.

Fresh out of MSU, Bator and Leto were like a lot of recent college grads struggling to find their place.


They wanted to stay in the Detroit area but also wanted to be more than just law students at Wayne State University. They wanted to create something, too.

Ideas started brewing during weekly visits to a Caribou Coffee shop in Grosse Pointe. But the best idea arrived in Leto’s text message in-box.

“I’m forwarding an e-mail to my girlfriends with all of this stuff that so-and-so texted me and I’m thinking, ‘This would be a really good Web site,” Leto said.

The idea was born for a site that has turned wildly popular, with about 3.5 million page views a day, a sophisticated look and a deep reserve of content. It is interactive, allowing users to essentially brag about a wild night out or, perhaps, invent an experience they wish had occurred. Without names, submissions are only identified by area codes. Posted messages run the gamut from obscene to existential.

The new gold rush

Leto and Bator began the venture earlier this year with the hopes of generating spending money while they were in law school. Now, the site, which has led to a book deal and drawn national advertising, could very well pay for their advanced educations.

The quirky business idea is an example of a Web site that explodes onto popular culture after spreading among friends and networking sites. Some find commercial success, but even some of the biggest, most popular sites don’t. Leto and Bator appear to be on track to be in the money-making group.

“The gold rush is a good metaphor,” said Robert Thompson, an expert on pop culture at Syracuse University.

During the gold rush, he noted, most people didn’t find any gold, a few found a lot and others found just enough to get excited for a short while.

“Once these things start going they are kind of like nuclear reactions,” Thompson said. It’s really hard to get them started, but once you do, it can happen really quickly.”

In February, Bator and Leto started their venture on Blogger.com, a free Web site, and solicited texts from people they knew.

Traffic quickly grew from 500 visitors a day to 15,000. They decided to launch their own site April 16, using less than $10,000 in savings and money from investors.

Within a week, traffic reached 240,000 page views and crashed their server, Bator said. A few days later, it reached 460,000 page views.

“It was finals week for a lot of colleges,” Leto said.

Students, who should have been studying, apparently were looking for a diversion. A spark was ignited, and news of the site spread through social media sites, such as Facebook and Twitter.

On May 12, daily page views jumped to 1.1 million.

By June 11, traffic went to 2 million; four days later it was at 3 million.

These days, they said, the site averages 3.5 million page views a day, with 400,000 unique visitors.

Going coast to coast

Soon, the duo began selling advertising and fielding book offers. They’ve even printed T-shirts with some of their popular messages on them and expect to sell out of the first batch by the end of the month.

While Bator and Leto declined to discuss financial details about their book deal with Gotham, part of the Penguin Group, they said the Web site is generating revenue.

Websiteoutlook.com, which calculates site value, estimates the site generates about $887 per day in advertising revenue.

The site gets traffic from around the nation, and a lot of hits from major markets in New York and California.

“In the beginning, it was always Detroit,” Bator said. He acknowledged the pair took some inspiration from former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s salacious text messages.

“That played a part in the Detroit part of the site,” Bator said, noting the site’s “about” page makes reference to the former mayor.

Jennifer Rohde, 22, of Scottsdale, Ariz., said she visits the Web site several times a week and has submitted messages. “You can really imagine the scenarios that go along with the text message,” Rohde said by e-mail.

Thompson, the pop culture expert, said readers’ ability to contribute connects with people’s desire to perceive themselves at the center of the universe. “This has got the appeal because most of this is based on bragging,” he said.

Misgivings at home

That bravado doesn’t sit well with educators trying to teach responsible alcohol consumption among college students.

To Leto and Bator, the success comes from simply connecting with others.

“It’s about friendship at the end of the day,” Leto said. “It’s a view of what friendship is like right now for kids our age. I communicate solely with most of my friends through text message.”

Additional Facts
Sample text messages
A sampling of messages posted on Ben Bator’s and Lauren Leto’s Web site (senders are only identified by area code only on the site):


(314): So I went on a date with this girl … ...and who’s our waitress? My girlfriend got a second job she didn’t tell me about to afford my bday present.


(334): I told a kindergarten student that candy canes are bones of reject elves.


(818): I hate you but I’m not in hate with you.


(774): I just walked into a room at this party and someone


(203): Just met our mailman at a party, he asked me out. I said yes, but only if he picks me up in the mail truck. How jealous are you?


(630): Dipping chips in queso and thinking of your beautiful face.

Don Was is not the most obvious choice to host a country radio show. True, the Grammy-winning producer has worked with Willie Nelson, Garth Brooks, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson (whose Was-masterminded album Closer to the Bone is out September 29). But the Detroit-born musician admits that he is “truthfully, an r&b guy” and, in many quarters, he is still best known for his idiosyncratic pop-funk outfit Was (Not Was).

Yet, on Saturday, August 29, at 10pm ET, Was will broadcast the first in a series of weekly shows called The Motor City Hayride for Sirius XM’s Outlaw Country channel. According to host Was, however, this isn’t going to be the most obvious of country showcases. “I’ve got an Iggy Pop song and a Conway Twitty song on the first show, so it’s pretty broad,” he explains.

Was also intends the show to highlight Detroit, a city that, he says, is more of a country-loving burg than you might imagine. “It hasn’t spawned a lot of artists that have gone on to national fame in the country and western field,” he admits. “But there’s a huge audience for it. After World War Two, people flocked to Detroit from the south looking for gigs in the auto factories. I just want people to know that the city keeps going. People are having fun and it’s actually a really nice place to live.”

After the jump, Was recalls having Marlon Brando as a neighbor, backing Iggy Pop, and the time Was (Not Was) made the mistake of supporting Milli Vanilli and Paula Abdul.


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