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Once vilified, Coleman Young deserves reconsideration

His name adorns public institutions in Detroit, and rightly so – Coleman Young was a defining mayor for a defining era in the city’s history. He deserves to be a Big Head in the Thanksgiving parade. (Photo by Flickr user femaletrumpet02; used under Creative Commons license)

His name adorns public institutions in Detroit, and rightly so – Coleman Young was a defining mayor for a defining era in the city’s history. He deserves to be a Big Head in the Thanksgiving parade. (Photo by Flickr user femaletrumpet02; used under Creative Commons license)

Was former Detroit Mayor Coleman Young really that bad a guy?

I can hear a chorus of hell yeahs rippling across the state. My sense is that Young is pretty well vilified in Michigan if you are outside Detroit.

But what was it exactly he did that was so bad?

As far as I can tell his major sin was being black and taking political power in Detroit, which was not that big a feat in a majority black city smarting from the excesses of the police STRESS unit. STRESS (Stop the Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets) was a police group set up by former Mayor Roman Gribbs in the wake of the 1967 riots. It was like a commando unit running roughshod over black Detroiters.

I was stopped by them one night in 1971. Two cars pulled up on either side of a friend and I while we were walking along Seven Mile Road. They jumped out of the car, aimed at least three shotguns at us across the top of their cars, patted us down for drugs and didn’t find any, jumped back into their cars and screeched off without so much as a by-your-leave.

Young stopped that after he came into office in 1974 — which immediately made him a hero in Detroit.

You may say that Young was in charge while Detroit declined. That is true, but population decline in Detroit started more than 20 years before Young got into office. And the decline of the auto industry started shortly thereafter, in part because the Big Three automakers didn’t take the foreign car companies seriously when they began taking market share around 1960.

What big city in America did not see decline over the past 50 years as money fled to the suburbs, urged on by the illegal redlining practices of banks and insurance companies?

Okay, but what about the corruption, you say. What corruption? I admit there were probably corrupt practices by someone at the time. But technically speaking, Young was never charged nor tried for corruption – unlike one of our more recent mayors.

Yes, he was mouthy and cussed. His “Aloha mother—–rs” moment on closed circuit television was extreme. But with the body parts a few politicians have been known to tweet in recent years, are a few errant cuss words that big a deal? And he never told all the white people to hit Eight Mile Road. He said that to gangsters in the city.

Young’s biggest political adversary during his tenure was Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson. To a certain extent, both built their power by rallying the troops against the enemy. Patterson needed the evil Young as a foil to create the Oakland County he envisioned, and Young needed the evil Patterson to consolidate his sway in Detroit.

Patterson has continued that partisanship by doubling down on his remarks about turning Detroit into a reservation, “building a fence around it and throwing in the blankets and corn” for a recent New Yorker magazine profile. He’s also balked at working out prominent features of regional cooperation, including a regional water utility.

But let’s get back to Young. There are two significant things Young did that should be considered great. One is that he balanced the Detroit budget. According to a 2013 Free Press analysis of Detroit’s fortunes, Young was the only mayor since the early 1950s to balance the city budget. Not Jerome Cavanaugh, not Dennis Archer. He did it partly by cutting back on the size of the bureaucracy. It was Archer who went on a hiring spree and put thousands back on the city payroll.

The other Young accomplishment may stand out as even more important. He got the urban agriculture movement going with the Farm-A-Lot program. In the late 1970s, when flight from Detroit resulted in thousands of vacant lots across the city, Young began a program that would give seeds and technical help to residents willing to grow food on the open land. That program seeded the current urban agriculture movement.

Last year the Detroit City Council passed an urban agriculture ordinance to begin setting rules for how these practices will develop. That’s how serious it has become.

There is plenty of blame to go around for what has happened in Detroit. However, most of the hubris laid at the feet of Coleman Young doesn’t belong there.

Larry Gabriel is a freelance Detroit Metro Times contributor who was named Best Columnist by the Association for Alternative Newsmedia in 2012. He believes there is wisdom in blues lyrics and that the best brunch is poached salmon, scrambled eggs and avocado. The views and assertions of guest columnists do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan.

6 comments from Bridge readers.Add mine!

  1. Ren Farley

    Coleman Young should be remembered for the role he played in locating the new GM assembly plant in Detroit/Hamtramck, for his role in
    assembling land for the highly successful Jefferson North plant, for building the Joe Louis arena and for laying the groundwork for
    casino gambling although he failed to bring that about. However, there was considerable corruption while he was in office and his
    friend, Police Chief Hart, served time in federal prison for his misdeed regarding city money. Given the hand he was dealt, Coleman
    Young did a very gooid job. But, that said, he said in office one or two terms two many.

  2. Eloise

    Good article, Larry. I do take exception to one point. The Mayor didn’t “need” L. Brooks Patterson” to consolidate his sway in Detroit.” He made many attempts, as part of the Big Four, to elicit a level of cooperation from Patterson. Patterson needed the “evil Young” to consolidate his power base in Oakland County far more than Young needed him for that particular purpose. Young knew and worked very hard to achieve regional cooperation on a variety of issues. His public image was often an impediment, but he did not forge that image in a vacuum. He had a lot of help from the media who loved to get that quote or a sound bite from an impatient, exasperated Young being badgered after he’d politely answered a question several times. To my mind, Young’s most memorable quote, as regards regional cooperation, and discussions with members of the legislature in Lansing, was ” I ask your cooperation, not your permission.” People always marvel at the fact that Young had lasting, productive relationships with governors, legislators, corporate dons, and a host of others. It would be nice if some day someone listed those.

    I will leave you with one other memory: Jimmy Carter was the only President who had a substantial Urban Policy. It was one that Young was instrumental in helping to develop, and Detroit benefited. One of the elements of that policy was the Community Reinvestment Act passed sometime in 1978-79, my memory is faulty. When Comerica Bank was very quietly negotiating a move to Texas with a merger, etc. Young invoked the CRA to block the merger and the move. A provision of the CRA was that a bank had to demonstrate it was a good corporate citizen in the local community before it could to that. Young felt they needed to do better. He was further incensed when, during a day in Chicago for meetings, he saw huge construction sites all over downtown Chicago, with billboards announcing that NBD was a major investor. He called all the banks into City Hall to address the fact that they were falling short in their commitments to the City of Detroit. In the end, he got a commitment of some $60 Million. He later commented that he should have asked for more. Young’s relationship with key corporate leaders, and with political leaders all over the region, outstate legislators, etc. were in large measure responsible for his successful leadership in Detroit. He built a solid coalition of Corporate leaders, Labor, and the communities of faith, and he got things done. His profanity was theatre, but his accomplishments were very tangible.

  3. John Hilton

    I actually looked up the “hit Eight Mile” quote recently; here’s how Wikipedia has it, attributed to a Bill McGraw book:

    “I issue a warning to all those pushers, to all rip-off artists, to all muggers: It’s time to leave Detroit; hit Eight Mile Road! And I don’t give a damn if they are black or white, or if they wear Superfly suits or blue uniforms with silver badges. Hit the road.”

    Declaring moral equivalency between pushers and cops surely didn’t single-handledly turn the city into a no-safety-zone, but it just as surely didn’t help.

    1. Londre

      I don’t believe the statement meant they were the same, just that illegal activity needed to go, whether a citizen or by a police officer.

  4. Richard McLellan

    I am one non-Detroiter who had and has substantial respect for Coleman Young. He was the right person for Detroit when first elected. He certainly had his faults, but we should be able to value what he did and what he meant to the City.

  5. Dave

    Young oversaw a police department that quit responding to resident complaints (break in’s, car theft etc.) He did this while raising the resident city income tax to 3%. Race aside, I left because it was safer and less expensive to do so. And Coleman should get credit for creating that atmosphere.

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