Joe Louis may be a hulking, windowless, concrete monstrosity of an arena, but it doubled as the best playground in the world for two young kids. Some of the best moments of my childhood were spent with my brother, chasing each other through the concourse, up and down those beer-stained, rank-smelling steps.
I remember playing hide-and-seek in those heavy red vinyl curtains separating the concourse from the 20,000-plus seat bowl where the Detroit Red Wings played. And how the stadium workers told me that the fourth floor was full of rats, longer than your arm, who lived for years in the cold. Maybe they just said that so my brother and I wouldn't sneak up the elevators.
Those imaginary rats are going to have to find new place to live. On Wednesday, we reported that Detroit's Downtown Development Authority has plans to build a new home for the Wings in the Cass Corridor. The $650 million investment will replace one of the oldest NHL arenas, and also have long-lasting effects on the character and development of a rapidly changing neighborhood.
As a resident, I hope the plans' promises of economic prosperity and new development surrounding the stadium actually come to fruition, and are done with consideration for those who call this area home. As the editor of HuffPost Detroit, I feel lucky to spend my days witnessing and writing about a crucial time of upheaval for the city, where a massive development can be announced even as the threat of bankruptcy looms.
But it wasn't excitement or curiosity that I first felt when I heard the news Wednesday. Thinking about the new arena is like picturing your childhood home meeting the business end of a wrecking ball. My dad is a former Detroit Red Wings captain and the team's current radio color commentator. My mother managed the arena's suite level when I was growing up.
When there was no babysitter, we went to Joe Louis. When Mom was scheduled to work what seemed like 12 consecutive performances of "Disney On Ice" over a long weekend, we went to Joe Louis. Or whenever we could be quietly left in somebody's suite, we went to the Joe, because we truly loved those Wings, especially my brother, Blake.
Now that every sports team in Detroit has a new or renovated home, it's strange to remember how hockey games were like social events in the 1980's and '90s. They wouldn't even allow you in the Olympia Club wearing jerseys or jeans. Suiteholders would hire interior designers to lavishly decorate their spaces. It was one of the first arenas built with an entire level of luxury boxes, and the cuisine matched the setting. It seemed like then-Detroit mayor Dennis Archer visited all the time, and guests would line the hallways to shake his hand.
When the Ringling Bros. circus came to town, they used to keep the animals on the first floor near the locker rooms. You'd walk downstairs, and an elephant or horse would amble by. I remember that their trainers even slept with them, and it would smell like elephants for days. I brought Nancy Kerrigan extra ice that night she sat watching the 1994 U.S. Figure Skating Championships after being clubbed in the knee. We sat at Magic Johnson's locker after an exhibition game and once rode around the stadium parking lot in Hulk Hogan's limousine.
We were lucky, and we knew it. Once in a while, octopi-wielding Zamboni driver Al Sobotka would let us skate after the team's morning practice session. I remember Wings' enforcer Bob Probert spitting out his water at me, and how hard I fell the first and only time I wore figure skates. The carpeted suite level was my brother's arena for ball hockey games, and we had a cupboard in suite 8 to hold our toys. Having something of a vivid imagination, every box took a turn as my first grown-up apartment. When our dad would leave for a long road trip with the team, we'd go find his picture in the concourse. His portrait is on a column, right next to Mr. Pita.
Our childhood was perfectly timed to witness the Wings build themselves into one of the greatest sports franchises of the modern era. We were there on "Bloody Wednesday," cheering an out-and-out melee between the Wings and the Colorado Avalanche. We were three rows up once watching Captain Steve Yzerman score a double-overtime playoff goal, drenched by the hundreds of beers thrown up in celebration. I remember the halting English spoken by hulking young defenseman, Vladimir Konstantinov, days before he was critically injured celebrating the team's Stanley Cup win.
Things like that accident still stick with me, because the Joe was one of those businesses that still felt like family. Over the holidays, the Ilitches would throw a massive employee party, every child receiving a gift addressed to them by name. There are still vendors who have been hawking since the days of the old Olympia Stadium, where the Wings played until 1979. Ushers and waitresses and bartenders, they stay on for decades, working games and meeting at Anchor Bar once the crowd clears. Last year, I recognized a waitress who had known me as a girl. Easily 15 years since I had seen her, she looked at me and asked, "You're Catherine's daughter, aren't you?"
It's funny to think about how places change you. When I look back at the wide-eyed girl I was, so thrilled by important adults and famous things, I wonder if the curiosity that made me a journalist was born around that rink. When I finally got my first grown-up apartment in the city, it felt in some way like I was coming back.
I know it's time for a new arena, though who knows if the views will be so great from every seat, like they are at the Joe. Still, everything is old and outdated. The men's concourse bathrooms basically have troughs for urinals. It's arguably the smallest press box in all of sports. During a walk-around last season with Ayron Sequeira, the team's director of integrated marketing, I realized how confined she and her event entertainment team are by the building's structure. Honestly, I still can't believe I've never fallen down those concrete steps. I know it's time.
It's just the thought of it sitting abandoned alongside the river that gives me pause. Joe Louis isn't an architectural treasure or glowing relic. But you walk in today, and it feels like nothing changed. For those of us who know, it's like being welcomed back, again and again, to a place where memory is still celebrated. Like most old stadiums and old buildings, it probably faces demolition, or, worse, death by slow ruin. I don't imagine that Joe Louis could be spared, especially considering the city's desperate financial circumstances. But as cities age and we tear things down, the places where we lived our histories begin to disappear.
Saying goodbye to a place that's given me so much will take some practice. Thankfully, I still have a little more time.
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