Frontlines

Detroit: the born-again city

Ken Becker June 18 1979
Frontlines

Detroit: the born-again city

Ken Becker June 18 1979

Detroit: the born-again city

CLOSEUP

Ken Becker

The black teen-ager entered the lobby of the Detroit Plaza Hotel. He was about 14 or 15, nearly six

feet tall, in black chino pants, a white T-shirt, black high-top sneakers. It was 11 a.m., a school day. The boy crossed the lobby and headed for one of the office towers of the Renaissance Center.

His progress was observed by a heavy-set black man in a brown blazer. He had a gold identification badge pinned to his chest and a walkie-talkie in his hand. He said something into his walkie-talkie and fell in step some 20 yards behind the boy.

A white policeman in a blue uniform shirt, blue pants and white crash helmet broke off his conversation with a pretty black receptionist at the Jefferson Street information desk. He, too, eyed the teen-ager.

By now, the boy was standing outside a jewelry store. He stared inside, seemingly across the display case of bracelets, necklaces, rings and watches. But the window also reflected the busy scene behind him—shoppers, office workers and tourists, plus a stationary black man in a brown blazer and a white man in a blue uniform. The boy in the white T-shirt turned abruptly to his right and disappeared through the Jefferson Street exit. The security man returned to his post in the Plaza lobby; the cop resumed his conversation with the receptionist.

Ever since Henry Ford turned Detroit into his industrial base it has been a tricolored city: black, white and blue. Negroes, Caucasians and cops. Race, racism and brutality. In the 1930s, workers in the auto plants saw the Detroit police force as the industry’s private goon squad, savage—and lilywhite—strike-breakers. In 1943, a race

riot left 34 dead and 700 injured, most of them blacks. In 1967, a police raid on a “blind pig,” local jargon for an afterhours nightclub, touched off the bloodiest race riot in modern U.S. history: 43 dead and 2,000 injured, again mostly blacks. Three of the dead were gunned down by police in a notorious raid on the run-down Algiers Motel, where 10 black men and two white women were booked in for the night. None of the cops was ever convicted of murder. Whites left the city core to embittered blacks and paranoid men in blue. The colors clashed.

Now, a dozen years after the riot, when many outsiders assume the city died a long time ago and that lawlessness prevails among the ruins, Detroit is coming back, possibly coming of age for the first time. There are the visible signs: the Renaissance Center, christened in hope and opened with crossedfingers two years ago, that has lured suburbanites and tourists back to Detroit, a glowing testament to private enterprise’s (Henry Ford II’s) devotion to the city; the new, 20,000-seat Joe Louis Arena, scheduled for completion next year, to keep the Red Wings hockey club in the city; the current renovation of Tiger Stadium; the transformation of the two major downtown shopping streets, Washington and Woodward, into pedestrian malls. Everywhere you look, streets are being torn up, buildings built and renovated. “People understand bricks and mortar,” says Mayor Coleman Young, “and that’s what we’re giving them.”

People also understand a nod of approval from others. That’s what the Republican Party gave Detroit last January when it chose the city for its 1980 presidential convention. Now the Democrats are considering Detroit for the same reason, a decision, with New York and Dallas the main rivals, which should come by the end of this month.

Though Detroit civic elections are nonpartisan and though Mayor Young is a lifelong Democrat, he knows what the Republicans’ selection of Detroit means to his city and other urban centres. “It’s an admission that they can’t just kiss off the black vote, the cities,” he says. “And, if the Democrats come here too . . . Well, there couldn’t be a better situation than everybody fightin’ over us.”

Young understands both people and politics. When he took office in 1974, the city’s first black mayor, he understood

that his first task was to allay racial suspicions and build the collective selfimage of Detroiters. People, black and white, were ashamed and afraid of their city.

When Young became mayor he was a hero in the black community and an enigma among whites. Born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in 1918, he had moved to Detroit when he was five. He grew up in a ghetto, just east of downtown. He attended public and Catholic elementary schools and graduated from high school. As a young man, he was a socialist-activist, deeply committed to the labor and civil rights movements. That immediately got him into trouble with the white power structure, as did his participation in a demonstration

against a segregated officers’ club at Fort Knox,

Kentucky, during World War II.

The late ’40s and ’50s, the Cold War and Joseph McCarthy, were bad times for a socialist. Young spent them working in a laundry, driving a taxi, carving sides of beef as a butcher’s assistant. In 1960, he won a seat as a delegate to Michigan’s Constitutional Convention.

Four years after that, he became the first black to serve on the Democratic National Committee and then spent nine years on the Michigan state senate.

“What people found out,”

says a longtime associate, “is that Coleman could wheel and deal with the best of them. That he wasn’t some flaming black radical, that he was a realist and a pragmatist. But what makes people uneasy is that he doesn’t fit any stereotype. The fact that he can sit down comfortably with Henry Ford and talk business bothers some black people; and the fact that he can jive with the black folk bothers some white people.”

As a mayoral candidate, Young made two primary pledges. To the whites he vowed he would run a “50-50” adminis-

tration—wherever possible, half the city government would be white and half black. To blacks he promised to reform the police department. “It’s been tough, but I think I’ve finally begun to gain the confidence of the white community,” he’s saying now. “When I said 50-50, the white community was sure I meant 95-5. But I’ve stuck to it.” There are those in the white community still convinced that Young is a black gangster. Rumors have always abounded that he was involved in the city’s drug traffic, on the take to anyone with the bagful of cash who stops by city hall. Young was once accused of

having accepted a bribe from a gambler who wanted to start a jai alai operation in the city. “It was ridiculous,” says Young’s former press secretary, Robert Pisor. “The mayor wouldn’t take a bribe for that. He loves to gamble. The problem is—it’s illegal in Michigan!”

And there are those in the white community and among the white press corps who have enjoyed ridiculing Young, attempted to deflate his stature by keying on his lack of sophistication. “I know few men smarter than Coleman Young,” says Pisor, “and few men who have read more. But Coleman occasionally mispronounces big words. He grew up reading them and knew what they meant, but never heard them spoken in his environment.” If mispronouncing five-dollar words is all the white community has to pin on Young these days, he has done a remarkable job. And if seeing people in the street after dark, seeing both whites and blacks downtown to enjoy the restaurants and sporting and cultural events, is any barometer, he has worked a miracle.

“A couple of years ago,” says Young, “there were stories in the papers that you could shoot a cannon off in downtown Detroit after dark and no one would hear it. And they were true. Now, they’re complaining there’s not enough parking.” He can’t hold in a chuckle. “Parking! Can you imagine that?”

The turning point for Detroit didn’t arrive with the election of Coleman Young in 1974 or his re-election in 1978. It wasn’t the erection of the Renaissance Center or the building of the new arena, either. For city officials and ordinary citizens, recent history is recorded BC (Before Cobo) and AC (After Cobo), Cobo being Cobo Hall, the old arena and the site of a terrifying night in August, 1976.

At that time Detroit was known as Murder City. The gangs controlled the streets, keeping the black community at bay and the white community indoors. Most cops were white; most of the corpses black. By the summer of ’76, Young had made a slight dent in the police department, but it retained most of its white hierarchy and its white—and brutalizing — image. Young wanted to change that. He met resistance at every turn. Then came Cobo.

That night, after a rock concert, gangs of black teen-agers went berserk in the hall. People were beaten up and robbed. Purses were

snatched. One woman was gang-raped. The police stationed at the hall did nothing. They folded their arms and watched. They'd show the mayor who was running the city.

But the ugliness of the episode turned the city against its police. It gave Young the free hand he needed for reform. He fired the police chief and replaced him with a black street cop, William Hart, and a white deputy, James Bannon, PhD. Fifty-fifty.

Now, almost three years later, the police youth bureau established after Cobo has put a lid on the gangs. Fiftytwo police mini-stations have made the cops more a part of the community. Of 5,460 cops, 39 per cent are black; 15 per cent women. Crime is down 35 per cent.

“Once a perception is imbedded,” says Young, “it’s hard to dislodge it. Once we had the image of Murder City, with the television hit man always being out of Detroit. It’s been hard to dislodge that. Now, maybe, we’ve turned it around. Our citizens see it, and after the conventions, the rest of the country will. Of course, it’s still fragile. We’re a long way from solving our problems.”

Says Deputy Chief Bannon: “When we hosted the World Energy Conference in ’74 we had heads of state, foreign ministers and a fair share of millionaires. We had information that some of our guests were on the SLA ‘hit list.’ But the only incident we had was a drunk media man rolled when he went looking for hookers in a place he shouldn’t have been.”

Coleman Young steps out of his limousine and enters an elementary school on the city’s west side. The children are almost all black. They simply glow when Young enters the auditorium for the school’s career day.

He tells them of his own checkered career. He tells them “the fight against discrimination is not over.” He tells them that his being mayor was a significant accomplishment for their people. But he urges them to “look beyond that, go further, maybe to governor or senator. And maybe, someday, if this country lives up to what it’s supposed to be, maybe somebody in this room will grow up to be president.”

Young, the consummate politician, talks for five minutes while giving the kids the impression he was there the whole day. He returns to his limo with his security men, police officers Victor Friley, a black man, and Joe Pittman, a white man. Fifty-fifty. Black and white and blue. ;£>