Some members of the Detroit City Council become well known because they are crazy, crooked or both.
But Mel Ravitz became famous during nearly 30 years on the council by acting smart. He was also contrarian, and always prepared, and he defended the poor and criticized the powerful and never stopped coming up with new and provocative ideas for rebuilding Detroit.
Ravitz died in Ann Arbor on April 11, at age 86. His passing, I think, was underplayed in the local media, partially because Ravitz had been out of office for 13 years and partly because his style was low-key in a city hall dominated during his life by such alpha males as Jerry Cavanagh, Coleman Young and Ken Cockrel Sr.
Ravitz was an unusual hybrid. He had a Ph.D in sociology, so he had more book smarts than most politicians and more street smarts than most professors. His ideas poured out in countless speeches, statements, dissents, resolutions, book reviews, letters to the editor, op-ed pieces and even scholarly articles. You never wondered where Mel Ravitz stood on an issue, and if you had a question, most of his staff members were among the smartest people in City Hall.
He had wavy hair that turned prematurely white. He wore horn-rimmed glasses and smoked a pipe. He had an engaging personality and a wry sense of humor. During his early years on council, observers called him "Councilman Egghead," "The Dreamer" and "The McLuhan Next Door."
I took his urban sociology class at Wayne State University in the early 1970s. Ravitz was a passionate scholar, and he helped a generation of students think seriously about what was happening to Detroit. For one assignment, students took a long city tour that he designed to show racial, ethnic and industrial change.
Ravitz joined city government just as experts were beginning to realize the city was beginning to fall apart. In 1953, as a staffer for the long-defunct plan commission, he worked to revive an east-side neighborhood around Mack and Concord that was battling blight and racial change. He organized block clubs, collaborated with architects and worked on getting blacks and whites to work together, even though, as he put it, "anti-Negro prejudice" and white flight were major hurdles.
"Ravitz proved to be an exceptionally good choice for this position," wrote June Manning Thomas in her 1997 book on urban planning in Detroit, Redevelopment and Race. She added: "His commitment to social reform was a crucial quality for a neighborhood planner."
Ravitz took a seat on council in 1961, and immediately stood out. He proposed confiscating rents from slum buildings and using the funds to make repairs that landlords refused to make. He defended welfare recipients. He criticized southeast Michigan's balkanization and said the region needed one government. He told suburbanites they should pay taxes to help Detroit and stood up for cross-district busing. He advocated civilian control of the Detroit police and asked such companies as Ford Motor and Chrysler what they were doing to help the city.
In 1963, Ravitz and William Patrick, the only black member of council, waded into one of the most controversial issues of that era when they introduced an open-housing ordinance that would have outlawed discrimination. At the same time, white homeowner groups submitted a petition for a measure that would have, in essence, allowed homeowners to discriminate. The white-backed proposal became law, but was later ruled unconstitutional.
Like the housing ordinance, many of Ravitz's positions in the 1960s went against the prevailing sentiment in white Detroit and were politically risky for a white politician. He was a friend to Detroit's black community when blacks had little power and few friends in city government. That's why it was unfortunate that Ravitz became the focus of a racially charged protest by some black unionists in 1973 after several labor groups, including the UAW, backed him for mayor. The dissidents believed another non-incumbent candidate, Young, was a better choice.
Young became mayor, of course. Ravitz, having given up a council re-election bid to run for mayor, was off the council for two terms. But when he returned, he and Young were often at odds, especially over redevelopment. Ravitz offered a fact-based critique of what he called Young's obsession with big projects downtown, along the riverfront and in industrial areas, such as the Poletown automobile assembly plant. Ravitz was not on the council in 1980 when it voted to demolish a diverse, working-class neighborhood for the General Motors Corp. facility, but after rejoining the panel in 1981, he tracked the massive cost overruns and asked if the city would ever get its money's worth.
Poletown "will be a very advantageous thing for GM," Ravitz said in 1984, "but I am doubtful whether the city will find it equally bright and smiley down the road."
Ravtiz believed the city could attract new people and business if it bolstered the bus system, picked up the trash, spruced up the parks, improved the schools and hired enough public safety employees to give residents a sense of security. We'll never know if Ravitz was right, but his ideas continue to resonate in a city struggling more than ever to re-invent itself.
Critics considered some of the positions he took late in his career to be obstructionist. In 1997, for example, he was the sole vote against the Super Kmart in northwest Detroit, saying he thought it would disrupt the neighborhood.
That does sound kind of cranky. Nonetheless, Ravitz was rare, not only as a Detroit politician, but as a politician in general. He not only had courage and a heart, but he also had a brain.
A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. May 2, at the Ann Arbor Marriott Ypsilanti at Eagle Crest, 1275 S. Huron, Ypsilanti; 734-487-2000.Bill McGraw is a former columnist for the Detroit Free Press. Send comments to [email protected]