Commentary
8:09 am
Thu December 22, 2011

How a former Detroit mayor sees the city

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At lunchtime yesterday, I got a news alert that the state’s preliminary review team found Detroit’s finances a mess.

 When I got this news, I was sitting in a restaurant in Northville with a distinguished gentleman who looked considerably younger than his eighty-six years. If anyone had recognized him, it would have been as a long-respected judge on the state court of appeals. But I was talking to him about the job he had before that. His name is Roman Gribbs, and forty years ago, he was mayor of Detroit. He served a single term, and almost certainly could have been reelected, but he’d had enough. The job was tough in his day, too for different reasons. He was elected barely two years after the devastating 1967 riot. He told me once that as mayor, he got up every single morning worrying about the possibility of another one.

 That never happened, in part because Gribbs did everything he could to avoid it. He appointed a powerful black deputy mayor, and established a principle that half his appointees would be black.

 This was at a time when the racial mix of the population was virtually equal. In an effort to revitalize the city, he poured money into Eastern Market and helped Henry Ford the second and a team of businessmen launch the effort to build the Renaissance Center.

 Roman Gribbs stayed in Detroit till a few years ago. Today, he still closely follows the city where he was born. “I think they could avoid having an Emergency Manager, but they probably won’t,” he said. “They would have to make some tough, tough choices.”  Those would include the unions making terrific concessions.

 “There’s no way around it,” he said. “Policemen and firemen are going to have to accept that they are going to have to do the same job for much less pay for awhile. Then, as things improve, they can gradually get back where they ought to be.” I told the former mayor that might balance the current budget.

 But I had no idea how the city could deal with what is now estimated as twelve billion dollars in long-term debt. Judge Gribbs sat down his fork. “That’s a real question,” he said. If he had it to do over, he said, he would have stayed for a second term. He had begun to streamline procedures to make it much easier to start a business in the city. “I wish I’d finished that job.”

 He thinks there were two major reasons for the city’s decline: safety and the schools. “If you don’t feel safe from crime and can’t put your kids in the schools, everybody who can leave, will,” he said.

 ‘And that’s what happened.? The culture of corruption he saw developing didn’t help either.  Gribbs knows Detroit’s problems aren’t all its fault. As mayor, he successfully fought hard to get Congress to pass revenue sharing bills. Since cities have the burden of most of the nation’s poor, he argued they should get some extra help.

 But now, he said, the city he loves needs to face economic reality. Mayor Gribbs? parents were Polish immigrants who lost their home during the Great Depression. He told me they picked themselves up, worked hard, and eventually got another one.

 That might not be a bad example for Detroit today.