Movin on Up – To the Eastside

Last February I put my house up for sale. I asked a trusted realtor to suggest a realistic price then I added $50,000 and gave him the listing. I expected a long wait for the right buyer but I found myself packing up in May.

The buyers were a family with three teen age kids from suburban Troy. They wanted to be part of the Detroit Experience. Good for them. Mayor Duggan says he wants to be judged on whether or not people are relocating to Detroit. The last time I saw him I let him know I got him five.

This move was one of the toughest experiences of my life. It wasn’t difficult to leave the house. I was ready for that. But dealing with all the stuff in the house was much more emotional than I expected. I was going from about 5,500 square feet to 1,200. At least 85% of the contents had to go.

A good example was what to do with the box of LP records that I acquired in high school and college. I don’t own a turn table. These albums had been in the box in a corner of the basement where I placed them when I first moved in. But holding Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bookends” and mentally reviewing the playlist of songs, most of which I know by heart to this day was, um, emotional. Did I need this physical object to keep me connected to an earlier era of my life? After agonizing over it for 24 hours the answer came very clearly – NOPE. I spent the rest of the move humming “Let It Go” from Disney’s Frozen. Feel free to click the link and listen to it while reading the rest of this.

So now I’m back on my native Eastside in an “Penthouse” apartment for a year while I figure out what’s next for me. I’m in River Place – the old Parke Davis Pharmaceutical Plant on Jos Campau below Jefferson. When I was born we lived down the street on the other side of the Water Works Plant on Lemay between Jefferson and the River. We moved over by the City Airport when I was seven. But I remember being able to walk to a park and sit on the riverbank and look at Belle Isle.


Here’s one more song you can listen to.

I wouldn’t say I’m finally getting a piece of the Pie, but I’m enjoying being here.


Hats Off

Among the nicest blessings life can bestow is a good family and a rich circle of friends. I’ve scored high on both counts. Over the past number of years I’ve developed some strong friendships with members of that over examined age cohort,  Millennials.  When I think about them as being half my age I realize that in most cases I’m prematurely aging them. We have completely different historical touchstones, tastes in music, and cultural contexts.  Once I caught myself tearing up just a bit when I was asked where I was when I heard about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Then I realized the blank stares that I saw came from people for whom Kennedy is simply a distant and not so significant historical figure.

But advanced generational membership does have some benefits. I’m gratified by the phone calls I get from time to time from friends or friends of friends that usually begin along the lines of; “Do you have time to talk? I think I might have done something stupid and I’m wondering if you can help.” These are often issues that they don’t want to discuss with their parents. And they aren’t limited to legal concerns. I like to think I’ve become something like a de facto cool uncle.

It’d be malpractice for me to offer much in the way of advice in the area of criminal law. I haven’t thought much about Crim Law since the bar exam which I took around the time a lot of these friends were born.

But my attorney credential was helpful last year when I barged into a suburban lock up and demand to see “my client” following a frantic call about a friend who was cuffed and hauled away after a colossal miscommunication with police officers who came to the social service agency where he worked. He is black and the Officers were white. My friends in law enforcement (some of whom I represent) will know I mean no disrespect. But the book gets followed a bit more closely when there is a lawyer looking over everyone’s shoulder. He was released that afternoon and no charges filed.

But I have to be vigilant about not sounding like some old coot from time to time.

MariosA group of us had dinner at Mario’s restaurant in midtown Saturday night. This is a venerable Italian place with white table cloths, waiters wearing tuxedos, and an antipasto, salad, soup and pasta course before you get your entree.  In my peripheral vision I could see a couple at an adjoining table. What was wrong with this picture? The (ah-hem) “gentleman” was wearing a baseball cap. I couldn’t not keep looking.  Was this his fault? Or management, who could have simply said “would you please remove your hat while dining with us?” Or was it me because I had an anachronistic notion that gentlemen don’t wear hats indoors in classy establishments. And all of that said, why did it bother me so much?

The steak I ordered turned out to be flavorless and tough. I’m not sure my friends got it when I said “too bad this place has turned into a truck stop.” Sounds like something an old coot would say.

This from Sunday’s New York Times. Should we think about replenishing our body’s microbes with an autologous fecal transplant rather than rely on failing antibiotics? I’m going to need a new (and separate) freezer.

The week end weather was glorious.  Two bike rides through the woods; one through the wooded path in Palmer Park and another in adjoining Sherwood Forest.

A happy Monday to you all and my wishes for a great week.


I’m a Playa

Travelers up and down Jefferson Avenue have probably noticed the Players’ Club just west of the Belle Isle Bridge.  Completed in 1924 this is the home of the Detroit Players.

Founded in 1910 and incorporated in 1911 by a group of prominent Detroit businessmen, the Players Club of Detroit is a non-profit [501(c)(3)] gentlemen’s club whose official purpose is to encourage amateur theater. On the first Saturday of the Season (October to April), Player members perform three one-act plays at what is called a “Frolic.” In the Shakespearean tradition, all roles on stage are played by gentlemen. Player members also do the costuming, directing, producing, set construction, makeup and other technical jobs, including those involving lights and sound.

Like so many older and traditional clubs and times being what they are membership standards have been relaxed considerably .  In December 2013 I was officially admitted as a Player.

The building is pretty grand.

The Player's Club

Designed by Player member and architect William Kapp, the Historic Players’ Playhouse was constructed of what were, in 1925, revolutionary materials, i.e., cinder blocks. Look closely; that’s what they are! The building includes an upstairs formal meeting room with fireplace, a small commercial kitchen, a professional four-story high stage, dressing rooms, a back-of-the-house, state-of-the-art tech booth from which all lighting and sound may be controlled, and an assortment of basement storage and prop rooms. The Playhouse is both a Federal and State of Michigan designated historic site.

Inside the walls are covered with over one hundred years of caricatures of the plays that have been staged there.  Actors from the 20s and the 30s include names that are now on prominent Detroit buildings and streets. (I don’t know much about John Lodge – but he was a Player)

At Player events the strictly enforced dress code is black tie.


An evening at Players with Christopher Kurpa, David Lilly, Ryan Anderson and Rolland Legget

I’ve dabbled in theater from time to time since my portrayal of the Artful Dodger in my High School Musical. Several years ago my friend, actor and educator Jeff Luttermoser challenged me to actually take an acting class. I spent a summer studying with Rich Goteri at his Michigan Actor’s Studio.  You saw Rich in last year’s “Low Winter Sun” and number of other television roles.  

Guess what?  Acting is hard!

Three weeks ago my Player sponsor Todd Mister called and offered me my first on stage role as a Player.  They were doing an episode from the television sitcom Gilligan’s Island and needed someone to play Mary Anne.  Oh my, a female role!  The Club does operate in the Shakespearean tradition of gentlemen playing all roles.  Why not?

Saturday night I joined the six other castaways coping with a Japanese sailor that captured their desert island.  He didn’t know World War II was over. I had 10 lines and 8 of them were questions like; “What’s going on, Professor?”  Serious acting? No. But a good time was had by all.

The Professor, a rather stout Mary Anne and Mrs. Thursten Howell

The Professor, a rather stout Mary Anne and Mrs. Thursten Howell


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.


Did You Hear? Detroit’s New Mayor is White!

Detroit has a new Mayor.  The local, national and international press leads focused on the fact that Mike Duggan is the first white mayor of Detroit in 40 years.  I’m pondering the news-worthiness of this fact.

Duggan campaign

We celebrate “firsts”.  Most recently the nomination of Janet Yellen as the first woman to be Chairman of the Federal Reserve.  I’m thinking the title of the office is statutory so we can’t immediately change it to “Chairwoman”, “Chairperson” or the convention we used when I was a member of the Wayne State University Board of Governors – merely “Chair”.  Upon her confirmation do we address her as “Madame Chairman” or “Madame Chairwoman”?  The former has a paradoxical sound to it. It was much easier with Nancy Pelosi. “Madame Speaker” is gender neutral.

But Detroit has had white mayors before.  Lots of them.  Seventy out of seventy five to be exact. That’s a whopping 93%.  In the historical context a white mayor is no big deal.  So what makes Mr. Duggan’s race significant today?  Is it really that shocking that a city whose population is 81.3% African American would give 55% of its votes to the white guy?  If so, it’s based on the troubling assumption that in the normal course of business black voters will only vote for black candidates.  That is simply racist nonsense.  Detroit’s voters have been both subtle and sophisticated in casting votes in the past.  I’m not the least bit surprised that appeals to race largely fell on deaf ears.  Mayor elect Duggan bristles at the topic.

“I resent it. I’ve resented it from the beginning,” Duggan said. “People in this city got past it almost a year ago, as people got to know me and we started to relate as individuals.”

I’m not suggesting we are living in an Obama induced post racial society.  One comment I heard on election night at the Duggan rally was “I never thought I’d live long enough to see a black President of the United States and a white Mayor of Detroit”.

The continuing significance of race was brought home in other news this week.  19 year old Renisha McBride died of a shotgun blast to the head in the largely white suburban community of Dearborn Heights.

Little has been publicly released about the circumstances of Renisha McBride’s death Saturday. The 19-year-old from Detroit died of a shotgun blast to the head outside the home in the 16800 block of Outer Drive near Warren Avenue. Dearborn Heights police said they have “identified the person who fired the shot and killed the woman.”

Her cellphone dead, her family said, she made her way to the house for help after the early morning accident.

“She probably wanted to ask him to make a call for her or if she could use the phone,” said McBride’s maternal aunt, Bernita Spinks.

The law gives us an absolute right to protect our homes.  But claiming self defense in the shooting of an unarmed teenage girl on one’s porch is absurd.

And yes, it’s significant that Renisha is black.

After the death of Trayvon Martin I read a number of stories about “the talk” that happens with teens in African American families.  Washington Post columnist  summarized it nicely.

“Don’t run in public.” Lest someone think you’re suspicious.

“Don’t run while carrying anything in your hands.” Lest someone think you stole something.

“Don’t talk back to the police.” Lest you give them a reason to take you to jail or worse

There was also being mindful that you are being watched in stores. Watched turned to followed as I got older. To this day, if a sales person is overly attentive to what I might be looking for I leave the store. Never to return. And then there was keeping a distance of deniability from white women when walking on the street. Lest you be accused of any number of offenses, from trying to snatch her purse to sexual assault.

In the early 1990s, I saw a T-shirt for sale on Canal Street in New York that neatly and bluntly summed up my frustration with this situation: “No white lady I don’t want your purse.”

Last fall I was pulled over while driving in a Detroit suburb with a young African American friend.  When the officer came to the window I took control of the conversation.  “I know my tail light is out.  I just noticed it and have an appointment to get it fixed tomorrow.  Here’s my license and proof of insurance, but I seem to have misplaced my vehicle registration”.  His response; “That’s okay, I can look it up on the computer”.  Then he went back to his scout car.  My friend was pissed.  “I could never get away with talking to a police officer like that and not having a registration”.

Even Oprah is not immune. 

Now we have to add “Don’t knock on the door of a white person at night if you need help.”

Still, we move forward on civil rights.  My friend Joe Posch had a nice Op Ed in the Detroit Free Press noting Mike’s victory night’s comments of inclusiveness.

At the end of his acceptance speech, mayor-elect Mike Duggan stated, “The way we are going to rebuild this city is to value every single person in our community. It will no longer matter if you are black, brown or white. It will no longer matter if you are Christian, Jewish or Muslim. It will not matter if you are gay or straight. We want all of your talents. You’re all going to be equally valued and welcomed, because only in that way will we rebuild the kind of Detroit everyone in this city deserves.”

It seems like a little thing, in 2013, to include the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community in a statement of acceptance and unity, but politics and the power of the pulpit have kept gay people out of the discussion in Detroit for years.

And what’s up with the United States Senate?  They vote 64 – 32 to provide legal protection for employment discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation?

Quite a week.

Is it a new day in Detroit?  Naw. I’ve head that one too many times before.  But one significant item of Tuesday election is that Mike’s opponent’s use of the old circa 1974 playbook that pandered to “we/they” lost; and lost badly.

Now the real work begins for Mike Duggan and the rest of us.  Let’s all wish him well.

A Not So Common Council

This morning I’m appearing before the Detroit City Council as one of the Directors of the newly minted Public Lighting Authority.  This Authority was born during the legislative tsunami that was the  2012 lame duck session of the Michigan legislature.  At the same time the Republican majority was greasing “Right to Work” legislation to the Governor’s desk with no public hearings and precious little debate they were also doing something to help Detroit.

At night much of Detroit is dark.  It’s estimated that nearly half of Detroit’s 88,000 streetlights are out.  Let’s temper this often quoted stat with some context.  Detroit has 88,000 streetlights because it once had almost 2 million citizens.  With a current population of 700,000 and some change a “right-sized” number of lights is a much smaller.  But those numbers mean nothing to people who come home to dark streets which invite crime.  I’m hoping we can have some dramatic results in a few months.  I’ll be writing more about my experience on this authority in the future.

City CouncilIt’s been a long time since I’ve had to appear before the City Council.  It was a regular part of my job as an Executive Assistant to Mayor Coleman Young. I never looked forward to it.  There’s always tension between the executive and legislative branches of government.  That’s the whole point of checks and balances. But city council members then and now were never above asking long leading “gotch-ya” questions. You know – cheap shots.

Historically the City Council was elected from individual districts known as wards.  But at the turn of the 20th century a new charter was adopted that provided for the election of 9 members of a “Common Council” from the city at large.  This was unusual for a city the size of Detroit.  It reflected then “progressive” attitudes that it was too easy for incompetent individuals to get elected from a smaller ward.  A city should be run like a business in which the common council was more like a board of directors and the Mayor like the chairman of the board.  Familier argument?  It was thought that the day to day business was best conducted by commissions appointed by the Mayor.  There was a Recreation Commission, a Transit Commission, An Art’s Commission and so on.  The people who manged the departments were selected by the commissions rather than the Mayor and through the years became part of a civil services system that largely made them immune from political pressure but also politically unaccountable.  This “weak-Mayor” from of government persisted into the 1970’s

In 1973 the city adopted a new charter which abolished the commissions and created a “strong-Mayor” form of government.  All senior staff and department heads would be appointed by and serve as the pleasure of the Mayor.  Oh, at the same election Coleman A. Young became Detroit’s first African American mayor.  He understood what it meant to be a strong mayor.

Bernie Klein served on the Charter Commission which drafted the 1973 Charter. Bernie was Budget director in the administration of Mayor Jerome Cavanagh.  He subsequently served as a political science professor at the University of Michigan, Dearborn.  Bernie has a wicked wit.  In giving a presentation on the proposed new charter he noted that the name of the Common Council was being changed back to the City Council.  “I always wondered why Detroit’s legislative body was called ‘Common’.  I found out the first time I had to appear before them.”

There was a former speakeasy on the corner of Jefferson and East Grand Boulevard called Pinkys.  Bernie said he arranged to have a plaque placed in an upstairs room that said (and I paraphrase) “The City Charter Commission held secret meetings in this room and drafted a city charter that made secret meetings illegal.”  Pinkey’s met the wrecking ball.  I hope someone saved the plaque.

A city council elected entirely at large is running its final lap. In 2012 Detroiters adopted a new charter electing 7 city council members from individual districts and 2 city wide.  Pubilus’ Director Vince Keenan rightly calls this year’s election a “once in a century opportunity”.  We shall see.

I’m looking forward to working with the current City Council to turn on some lights.  We should have a productive discussion this morning.


Anyone interested in Detroit in the progressive era would find Melvin G. Holli’s “Reform in Detroit, Hazen S. Pingree and Urban Politics” (Greenwood Press, 1969) a very good read.