Young vs. "the Coal Man"

Speaking of Coleman Young, some 36 years after his first State of the City address, his presence still looms — though often distorted into a caricature. Young's presence was certainly felt last week at a gathering of scholars, city boosters, activists, journalists and others. Organized by New Detroit, it was a response to last October's Time magazine cover story "The Tragedy of Detroit," that struck many — reflected by MT in a critical News Blawg posting — as off-base in its assessment of the roots of the city's malaise. Getting that record straight is more than an academic or existential exercise. For one thing, William Taubman — Taubman Co. COO and New Detroit chairman —  pointed out that the image Detroit projects to the world directly impacts how investments are made here, or not.

The most pernicious myths about Detroit in the Time piece? The noted scholar Thomas Sugrue — author of The Origins of the Urban Crisis, which takes his native Detroit as a case study  — placed among them the notion that the 1967 riot was "the decisive event in the remaking of the city," when, in fact, capital had been fleeing throughout the post-World War II era. Even in The New York Times, Sugrue said, "the riot shows up again and again as the pivot point in their journalistic concept of Detroit."

And then there was the matter of Young, whose story needs to be understood not only by outsiders like Times' Daniel Okrent, but by metro residents beyond the city. As characterized in Time, the city's first black mayor "was a talented politician who spent much of his 20 years in office devoted to the politics of revenge."

Here's some of what Sugrue said:

I don't speak to that many suburban audiences, and, in some ways, in metropolitan Detroit, it's there that these stories are most deeply rooted and most difficult to untrench. So when I sit around the campfire in northern Michigan with my relatives, inevitably we start talking about Detroit and Coleman Young will arise as specter from the fire — nicknamed the Coal Man — and off we'll go. And I'll say, wait a minute, let's understand this is someone who, yes, sometimes engaged in polarizing politics. But this is also someone who built all kinds of ties to the Detroit business elite, who was involved with helping to try to — in some ways, in very controversial ways — to forge links with the auto industry, to build new plants in Detroit, the Jefferson East plant, the very controversial Poletown plant. Whether they have long-term effects or not, positive long-term effects or not, I think is a debatable question. But the reality is this wasn't just a guy who, as the great News or Free Press cartoon showed, imagined moving the Joe Louis fist out to 8 mile and having it point toward the northern suburbs. This is someone who also, like most African-American mayors around the country, someone who built very close working relationships and coalitions with all sorts of folks, not just the base that he relied on to get re-elected.

As to Sugrue rarely carrying his message to audiences in the burbs, News Hits notes that the University of Pennsylvania professor will speak at Macomb Community College's Lorenzo Center on Friday, April 30, at 1 p.m. Details at

News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]
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