A Coleman Thanksgiving

colemanyoungThe following remarks are taken from the transcript of remarks made by Bob Berg on Thursday, Nov. 19, at the official “Observance and Portrait Dedication of Mayor Coleman A. Young”. Berg, now a partner with Berg Muirhead and Associates, served as Mayor Young’s press secretary from 1983 to 1993. The event was held on the 13th floor of the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center, and featured remarks, reflections and remembrances from a wide variety of local luminaries in addition to Berg, including his son, State Sen. Coleman A. Young II, Detroit Free Press Editorial Page Editor Stephen Henderson, who served as Master of Ceremonies, Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones, Coleman A. Young Foundation President Marvin Beatty, and others.
All the remarks were well-received and welcomed, but it was those delivered by Berg that seemed to capture the significance of the occasion more than any other. It was the following comments which let me know that on the day of Thanksgiving, which takes place just three days before the 18th anniversary of Young’s death on Nov. 29 1997, perhaps now, following this long overdue recognition of Detroit’s first black mayor – and one of its greatest – the city should give thanks for all that he meant to this town that he loved so much.
 
Keith A. Owens
Senior Editor
 
It is a measure of the unique impact of Coleman Alexander Young’s life that so many of us are here this evening, 22 years after he left office and 18 years after his passing, commemorating his legacy.
His approach to life can be summarized by George Bernard Shaw’s famous quotation: “You see things; and you say ‘Why?’ I see things that never were; and I say ‘Why not?’” Time and again throughout his life, he saw things that never were and said “Why not?” And then he acted.
Coleman Young was a man of vision. He was brilliant … he was tenacious … he was creative … and he had a tremendous will that enabled him to succeed time and again facing challenges that others saw as impossible. When he entered a room, he took control just by his presence. He had a great sense of humor. He was eminently quotable.
He also had a fundamental sense of justice that guided him throughout his life. He was devoted to public service in the very best sense of what that means.
He was a very loyal ally and a very formidable opponent. He came from the old school that said all you need to seal a deal is a handshake. If you had his word, you didn’t need the lawyers to come in and nail down the details. His word was good.
Coleman Young was an activist throughout his life. He was arrested and put in an Army stockade in World War II for attempting to integrate an all-white officers club. He was a defiant witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee in the early 1950s and was blacklisted by the FBI for the rest of the decade as a result, experiencing some very lean times. When the National Negro Labor Council that he headed was branded a subversive organization by the federal government, he burned the membership lists rather than turn them over to the feds.
When he won the Democratic primary for the State Constitutional Convention in 1961, the Democratic Party ran a write-in candidate against him in the general election because they viewed him as too radical and dangerous. The Detroit News ran a huge front page story attempting to discredit him because of his activist history. He won anyway and became a key player in the Constitutional Convention.
Coleman Young was hounded by the FBI all of his adult life. His file started in 1941, when he was involved in a protest involving the Sojourner Truth housing project in Detroit.
In 1964, when he was running for the State Senate, J. Edgar Hoover sent a memo to President Lyndon Johnson alerting him that someone who the FBI had labeled as a known Communist was about to be elected to the Michigan Legislature.
They stayed on him until he left office as Mayor in 1994. They tapped his phones. They sent in plants with microphones to record his conversations. His income tax was audited every year he was mayor. They never found a thing. If you can have the FBI dogging you every step of the way through your entire adult life and they find nothing, you have to be clean.
When we look at Detroit today, much of the progress we see underway traces its origins to initiatives launched by Coleman Young. And each of those initiatives initially was the object of much scorn and criticism from the media and many other critics. Time and again critics said “that will never work.” Time and again, he made it work.
When he took office, he turned a police department that had been an army of occupation in the black community into a national model of what an urban police department should be. When he left office, it was integrated from top to bottom and was a partner with the community it served. The CBS television show “48 Hours” came to Detroit in the early 1990s to feature the Detroit Police Department as an example of the very best in modern, progressive urban policing.
The theatre district, the second largest in the country east of the Mississippi, would not exist today if he had not convinced Mike Ilitch to renovate the Fox Theatre and move his corporate headquarters there. At the time that area of Woodward was dark and empty. There was actually talk of demolishing the Fox. Little Caesars had started building a new corporate headquarters in Farmington Hills. But he outlined his vision to Mike Ilitch, and Mike Ilitch came to share that vision and made it a reality.
The GM-Hamtramck Assembly plant and Chrysler Jefferson would not be in Detroit if he had not convinced those corporations to build state-of-the-art facilities inside Detroit at a time when all the momentum was moving plants and jobs out of Detroit.
To make the GM plant possible, the city, in less than a year, acquired 2,000 pieces of property, relocated 4,000 residents, demolished and cleared 1,300 houses, 16 churches, two schools, a hospital, 114 small businesses and the old Dodge Main Assembly plant and created a site ready to turn over to GM. All in less than 12 months. And the GM Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Plant was built. Today it is working two shifts with nearly 3,000 workers turning out a variety of GM products, including the Chevy Volt.
If those plants, and the jobs they represent, were not there today, both areas would have experienced an additional 30-plus years of the decay and abandonment we see in too many areas of the city. And those jobs would be long gone from Detroit.
He started the redevelopment of the riverfront. He campaigned for Mayor in 1973 talking about the need to rebuild the riverfront “from bridge to bridge.” At the time it was a collection of abandoned, dilapidated industrial facilities.
Mayor Young convinced Peter Stroh to move the Stroh Brewing Company headquarters into the abandoned Parke Davis site at the foot of Joseph Campau, to convert one warehouse to a new office complex, and to find a top quality restaurant to locate there.
He convinced the gas company to build the Harbortown complex. Today, Harbortown has a second phase under construction.
He oversaw the creation of Chene Park, St. Aubin Park and Mt. Elliott Park, key links in the redeveloping riverfront. When Chene Park opened, he immediately decided it was too small and had it enlarged to its current size.
He took the Museum of African American History from Dr. Charles Wright’s basement to a new facility on Frederick Douglass. On the day the facility on Frederick Douglass opened, he leaned to the person sitting next to him on the stage and said, “This place is too small.” So he spearheaded the construction of today’s museum. He broke ground for the current museum in August of 1993 even though plans weren’t finalized. He figured if he dug the hole deep enough before he left office they’d have to finish it. He was right.
He was a frugal manager of the city’s finances, cutting the city’s workforce by more than a third as city resources were squeezed. When the city filed for bankruptcy, the Free Press – not always a fan of the mayor’s when he was in office – conducted an exhaustive study of how Detroit went broke. The headline on the story said “Don’t blame Coleman Young.” They said “he was an astute money manager who recognized, early on, the challenges the city faced and began slashing staff and spending to address them.” They concluded he was the most fiscally responsible financial manager the city had in the last half of the 20th century.
There are any number of examples of the vision, determination, courage and strength of will that he brought to the job of Mayor of Detroit. Here’s one.
One of his greatest achievements was the building of Joe Louis Arena to house the Red Wings. What few remember today is that the Red Wings almost moved to Oakland County. In fact, in the mid 1970’s they signed a contract to move to a new facility that was planned adjacent to the Silverdome.
Coleman Young believed it was critical to the city’s future to keep the Red Wings in Detroit. So he started negotiations to keep them downtown. And he started building a new arena. He did this without a team to play in it, without architectural plans to complete it, and without any financing in place to pay for it. He believed that if he started building an arena in Detroit, it would be much harder for the Oakland County developers to finance their arena. And he believed, correctly as it turned out, that with the right deal the Red Wings could be convinced to stay in Detroit.
So he took $5 million in federal public works money and started digging a hole. There was a great deal of controversy at the time. The newspapers and other critics were beating him up pretty badly. How, they wanted to know, can you start building an arena without financing, without architectural plans and without a team to play in it?
This came in 1977 in the middle of his first re-election campaign. At the time he was considered vulnerable. He was running against a popular president of the City Council – Ernie Brown. One day in the middle of the controversy staffer Bill Ciluffo, who was handling the Joe Louis Arena issue, got a call from Bob Millender, a key political advisor to the mayor. Millender told him a new poll showed the issue was hurting the mayor. Millender was worried it could lose him the election. Bill went in to tell the mayor about the call. The mayor asked Bill what he thought; whether he thought what they were trying to do was important. Bill answered that yes, he thought it was very important to the future of the city to keep the Red Wings. The Mayor paused for a minute, and then said, “F— the poll.”
It was an incredible roll of the dice and it worked, reversing the outward momentum of city institutions.
Today, the Red Wings sell out Joe Louis Arena for every game and are building a new spectacular arena in the midtown area, the Lions are back downtown and the Tigers are drawing 3 million people a year to Comerica Park.
Coleman Young was about empowerment, about assuring everyone operated on an equal footing. That was why he maintained a 50-50 black-white administration from day one all the way to the end.
Mayoral appointees – departmental executives and mayoral staff – in the administration prior to Coleman Young were overwhelmingly white – about a 95-5 distribution. So when he took office, some of his supporters said, “It’s our turn.” They wanted it 95-5 the other way.
But he said no. He believed that if the city and the region were going to make it, we had to do it together. So he maintained a 50-50 black-white mix of staff and department heads and deputy directors in his administration for all 20 years. It went so far that when he was out in public with two security people, it was always one black, one white. So don’t ever let anyone tell you Coleman Young hated white people.
Coleman Young touched lives on every point of society’s spectrum. When he was in the hospital during his last stay in 1997, I had a meeting at the Capuchin Center on Mt. Elliott. I pulled up about 11 in the morning and there was a line of people waiting for lunch. As I walked up I heard someone say, “That’s Coleman’s guy.” And immediately they left the lunch line and crowded around me, asking how he was doing and saying to let him know they were praying for him. Just the day before, then-President Bill Clinton had called the hospital to see how he was doing. Very few people have touched lives of such a diverse spectrum. At the time it occurred to me that he would be more gratified by the concern of the folks at the Capuchin Center.
For all the passion that he brought to his job, Mayor Young always recognized politics as the art of the possible. He had basic principles he stuck to, but he recognized that to get things done, you have to be able to work with other people.
Gov. William Milliken – a great friend of the Mayor – described it this way at the Mayor’s funeral. “For all his intensity of purpose and his commitment, he could sense when he’d won as much as possible. This ability to know when it’s time to compromise, time to blend your ideas with those of others, to settle for what you can get and live to fight another day, is a gift that does not come to all who enter politics. But it separates the giants from the ordinary, the leaders from the fools or the bullies.”
The Mayor went into the hospital for what was intended to be a brief stay in August of 1997. He ended up staying four months as his health slowly deteriorated. If you were around then you may remember it turned into an ongoing vigil as he experienced a series of crises that had the media camped out at Sinai Hospital and generated continued headlines and that served to underscore his reputation as a tenacious fighter.
At one point, one of the doctors who was caring for him expressed utter amazement at the fact Coleman Young was still alive.
“What’s going on with him has nothing to do with medicine,” he said. “There is no medical reason he is still alive. It’s strictly a matter of will.”
It was the same will that opened up city government to all, remade the police department, built the Poletown plant, built Joe Louis Arena, expanded Cobo Hall, managed the city’s finances in very difficult times, started the rebirth of the riverfront, and accomplished so many other breakthroughs throughout his life.
In the following days he remained in a mostly comatose state, but after a few days his family noticed a difference. His cousin Claud, a doctor, said he sensed the mayor was giving signals he was ready to go off life support. The Saturday after Thanksgiving, he was taken off life support. Within 10 minutes he slipped away. He had conducted his death as he conducted his life — fighting tenaciously, and in the end accepting the best deal he could get.

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