Champange Bob and the Detroit People Mover

The death of an old person who’s lived a long life and accomplished much is not necessarily a sad thing.  But news of Robert E. McCabe’s passing a year ago at 89 brought on a sad smile..  McCabe was a visionary for Detroit in the 70’s and 80’s.  The obituary in the Detroit Free Press summarizes the high points of his career as President of Detroit Renaissance, Inc.  But I have some personal Recollections.

Detroit Renaissance, Inc. was organized by Henry Ford, II and  Max Fisher as a business leaders forum.  Membership was by invitation only and limited to CEO’s of Detroit major corporations.  The CEOs had to show up to the meetings in person.  You could not send a representative.  It was a table at which Ford, Fisher and the leaders of the Banks, Auto Companies and the like discussed social and political issues important to Detroit.  Bob was the organization’s first President and served from 1971 to 1993.

Robert E. McCabe

Robert E. McCabeIn

In the late 70’s and early 80’s I was a twenty something Executive Assistant to Mayor Coleman Young.  Among my responsibilities was representing the Mayor with the Southeast Michigan Transportation Authority (SEMTA).  SEMTA was charged with the responsibility of building the Detroit People Mover.  The People Mover has a checkered history.  It was originally designed to transfer passengers around the Central Business District from what was to be a comprehensive light rail system with lines along Woodward, Gratiot, and Grand River.  When funding for the comprehensive system failed to materialize the area leaders were determined to at least keep the People Mover.

Interestingly, the developers of people mover technology were elevator companies.  They knew how to move people vertically.  It’s just a question of going sideways.  SEMTA only received two bids to build the People Mover.  One was a collaboration between the French Company Matra and the U.S. Otis Elevator.  The second was a Canadian subsidized company called Urban Transportation Development Company or UTDC.

You can’t award a $200 million contract with out kicking the tires.  And the Matra Otis tires were in France.

A delegation was organized to go to Paris and Lyon.  It was comprised of the Directors of SEMTA and its key staff.  Also included were three others; MaCabe from Detroit Renaissance, Inc., Diane Edgecomb from the Detroit Central Business District Association, and me representing Mayor Young.  The press had fun reporting about this political junket.  One colleague came into my office whistling “I love Paris in the Spring Time”.

But that’s how I got to know Bob.  If you are going to be known as a visionary then you have to think big.  And Bob always thought big.

When you come to town with a nine figure contract expect to be wined and dined.  One night we had special tables at Les Folies Bergères.  Yes, the place where they do the risque dance the Can-can. It was a very late night and we were up early to do some more tire kicking.  Toward the end of the day I told Bob I was beat and was going to go back to the hotel and get room service.  He was aghast.  “We are having dinner at La Tour de ‘Arger poinez.  It’s likely it will be the best meal you ever had in your life.  He was right.  We had a private room with a view of the illuminated Notre-Dame de Paris.

The View I remember

LaTour was the inspiration for the 2007 Pixar movie Ratatouille.  

I’ve always turned up my nose at all things liver.  But Bob practically forced me to try the foie gras.  “You can’t get this at home” I remember him saying. “Look, it’s the consistency of ice cream.  They force feed the ducks until their livers almost explode.  They can’t do that back in the States”.  Oh my God it was good.  Sorry PETA.

The Ash Tray I Stole from La Tour.  It sits on my desk at home.

The Ash Tray I Stole from La Tour. It sits on my desk at home.

I have no idea how much this meal cost.  I never saw the bill.  And Matra-Otis didn’t get the contract.  Their people mover had rubber tires.  UTDC had traditional steel flanged wheels on steel rails.  While steel wheels make that awful screeching sound on curves the rubber tire technology was never used in a cold weather environment.  Would their People Mover run on ice and snow?  We could not take the chance.

This July the People Mover turned 27.

And I still love duck paté.