The Patti Smith Group’s Ivan Král on the origins of punk, Anne Brown on her platform for the Michigan House, and restaurant owner Bee Roll on her bumpy, awesome year… on episode 39 of the Saturday Six Pack

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I’ve fallen behind in my write-ups of past episodes. I’m sorry about that. I thought, since we were off the air these last two weeks, I’d get caught up, but other things kept getting in the way. [Speaking of which, I may have something relatively big to announce in a few week’s time.] Last night, though, I finally made the time to sit down and listen to this, our 39th episode of the Saturday Six Pack, featuring Democratic candidate for the Michigan House of Representatives Anne Brown, local entrepreneur Bee Roll, and Grammy ward-winning musician Ivan Král, and take some notes. What follows are just a few of the highlights. If you have the time, you should just listen, though. It was a really good episode… the kind that makes me wonder why don’t have a million listeners each week.

ANNE BROWN ON HER CAMPAIGN FOR THE MICHIGAN HOUSE

Our first guest this episode was Ypsilanti City Council member Anne Brown. While we spent a good deal of time discussing her experience on Council, most of our conversation focused on her recently launched campaign for the Michigan House seat being vacated by David Rutledge, who, at the end of this year, will be term-limited out of office. Brown told us about her first experience in politics, as a young volunteer for the gubernatorial campaign of William Milliken, and the circuitous route that led her from a career in public health administration to Lansing, where she’s now worked for 12 years, first working for Representative Alma Wheeler Smith, and then for Representative David Rutledge. [Brown currently serves as Rutledge’s District Manager.]

According to Brown, she was working at Parke-Davis in Ann Arbor twenty-some years ago when she heard something that changed the course of her life. Evidence had come to light showing that that the stillborn rate among African-American women was significantly higher than it was for the rest of the population. And, as Brown told us, she felt compelled to find out why. The reason, as she would soon discover, was low birth weight, and Brown left Parke-Davis to address this issue head on, working as the Executive Director of a non-profit focused on this and other related issues, a position which she would hold for ten years, until deciding to accept an offer from Alma Wheeler Smith to join her team in Lansing and work on public health policy.

Brown said that she’d realized that, no matter how much she did in the community, providing services to those in need, she just couldn’t address the underlying issues through a non-profit. “At the end of the day,” she said, she realized “it’s policies that make the difference.” That, according to Brown, is where you can make significant and long-term headway, and really help people improve their lives.

On the subject of policy, Brown told us that, in her opinion, good laws come into being when legislators set out to address injustice. “You look to see where the injustice is,” she says, “and that’s where you legislate from.” When asked where she sees herself possibly contributing as a member of the Michigan House, Brown discusses a number of issues that are important to her. Given her history, though, it would seem that public health is the area where she’d first like to make her mark, if given the opportunity. [Incoming State Reps don’t choose the committees that they’re assigned to, but Brown says she’d like to serve on the Health Policy committee, as she has ideas for improving how the state interacts with its citizens around health care, increasing affordability and access, and streamlining programs within the Department of Health and Human Services.]

One of my favorite exchanges happened when Brown talked of her daughter, who is now a college sophomore, and the likelihood that she will leave the state upon graduation. Brown said that Michigan isn’t a state where young people see opportunity, and she’d like to help change that by ending “the attack in the working person” that we’ve seen over the past several years.

And, of course, we talked about what she could do for Ypsilanti, if she’s elected. Brown said the most important thing for the future of the city, as she saw it, was the development of Water Street. And she said that, if elected, she would work to ensure that Ypsilanti had Lansing’s support in moving development forward. [We didn’t talk much about it, but, among other things, she mentioned the possibility of at least trying to pursue some degree of debt forgiveness through the state.]

We also talked about the importance of working across the aisle, the possibility of finding areas of commonality with other women in the House, the importance of transparency and accountability, the problem of gerrymandering, and the prospect of actually having a Democratic majority again, thanks in part to the dismal performance of the Snyder administration. And, speaking of which, we talked at length about the situation in Flint… Here’s Brown, toward the end of our conversation, discussing how she wished that there was more of a concerted effort across the state to get Democratic candidates, like herself, talking in similar ways about the issues facing us, and the importance not just of winning individual races, but winning back the House.

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[If you would like to listen to episode thirty-nine of The Saturday Six Pack, you can either download it from iTunes or scroll the bottom of the page, where you’ll find the Soundcloud file embedded.]

BEE ROLL ON HER HARD, DARK, BUMPY AND AWESOME YEAR

Then, at the 38-minute mark, just after listening to a song written earlier that same morning in Kenya by our friend Pete Larson, we jumped into a lively discussion with local entrepreneur Bee Roll, the owner of Beezy’s Cafe, about everything from presidential politics to her plans to open a prep kitchen and production facility across the street from her current location on North Washington Street. [I’m pretty sure that, at some point in our conversation, I suggest the possibility of pneumatic tubes connecting her two locations, which could be used to transport pancakes.]

As is usually the case when I talk with Bee, our conversations jumped around quite a bit. One minute we were talking about the t-shirt she wore in last spring’s New York Times piece, and the next she was giving a shout-out to Betty Green for her new haircut. Among other things, we talked about new slang, the current state of the Washington Street corridor, and the controversy surrounding the “Ypsi Real” banners that went up last fall, some of which featured her image.

And, of course, we talked about how her life has changed over this past year, since being named Ypsilantian of the Year by yours truly. We talked about the responsibility that comes along with the title, the process by which we’ll select the next recipient, and the fact that, despite several promises, I’ve yet to have a name plate made for her trophy…. Here’s Bee, showing off yer local haircut, and telling us about her “hard, dark and bumpy” year in the limelight.

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IVAN KRAL ON THE ORIGINS OF PUNK

When I arranged, with the help of our mutual friend Steffan Graf, to have Grammy Award-winning musician Ivan Král on the show, I had a pretty good sense of what I wanted to talk with him about.

I thought that, after talking about his early life in Czechoslovakia, and the circumstances that brought him to New York in the 1960s, where his father, a journalist, had been assigned to cover the United Nations, we’d jump immediately forward to the scene that grew up around CBGBs in the early 1970s, and his memories of life inside The Patti Smith Group and Blondie. I thought that a significant part of our hour together would be spent talking about the various characters I’d come to know so well through my books and records, like Tom Verlaine, Richard Hell, and Johnny Thunders, and the circumstances that led to this truly explosive period in American popular culture, during which the word of highly-polished arena rock gave way to the passion and energy of bands like the Ramones. What I wasn’t expecting, however, was for Král to throw me a curve ball during our first few minutes together, telling me that, just after college, as the result of responding to an add for an “office boy” in Manhattan, he found himself working for The Beatles at Apple Corps, joining the organization just as the band was breaking up.

I had done a good deal of research in getting ready for the interview, and I didn’t see this chapter in Král’s life mentioned anywhere. I guess, when you have such an illustrious career in the industry, it can kind of get lost that you started as an “office boy” working for Apple, but I just found it so fascinating that I couldn’t let it go. So a great deal of our time was spent discussing how he went from not being able to find a teaching job in 1970, after graduating from college with degrees in music and French, to pumping gas on Staten Island, to working for The Beatles, and knowing John, Paul, George and Ringo on a first name basis.

I just couldn’t wrap my head around it… how a kid growing up under communism, and listening to bootlegged tapes of Beatles’ songs played over Radio Free Europe and Radio Luxembourg, could, just a few years later, find himself living in New York, working in the office next to Beatles manager Allen Klein, and knowing these men that he’d grown up idolizing. [After the breakup, Klein would continue managing John, George and Ringo, while Paul chose to have Lee and John Eastman, the father and brother of his soon-to-be wife Linda, handle his affairs. Years later, Klein would be fired and sued by his former clients, but Král, I suspect, was long gone by then.]

Král talked about what a dream it was, having grown up in a Soviet bloc country, and having fantasized about the creative independence that these musicians from America and England enjoyed, of then being there, in the office next to Klein, interacting with the members of bands like The Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Herman’s Hermits, all of whom had been clients of Klein’s management company ABKCO. These musicians, he said, represented freedom to him, and, as he was still worried about being sent back to Czechoslovakia, he tried his best to document what was going on around him on film, thinking that, if nothing else, he could take him movies back with him and share them with others who might not understand the power of rock and roll. [The subject of his filming comes up often. For instance, he talked at some length about shooting John and Yoko’s 1972 “One To One” concert at Madison Square Garden.]

It wasn’t all hero worship, though. We also talked about the naiveté at the core of Apple, where decisions were driven by the idyllism and fantastical thinking of The Beatles, who had, over time, surrounded themselves with “yes” people who told them that they could do no wrong. They thought, “We can change the world,” Král said, and they ran the company that way.

We also, of course, talked at length about Patti Smith, who Král clearly still adores. He says he’d heard about this poet who loved Baudelaire and Rimbaud, and had set out to meet her. If I recall correctly, he said he first saw her performing at St. Mark’s Church. Eventually, of course, he’d join Smith’s band, contributing significantly to their brilliant debut album Horses, and those that followed. If I remember correctly, Král told Smith he’d do anything to be in the band, “even play bass.” [I found that funny.] Lenny Kaye, who was with Patti from the very beginning, by the way, has said in the past that they didn’t really become a band until Král joined them.

Discussing how things had taken off for the group, Král attributed a lot of it to good PR, and the fact that Patti had Lisa Robinson behind her, writing about her shows in the Soho News and the Village Voice. Later, he said, the New York Times go onboard. And that’s when people started “descending” on the scene. Clive Davis from Arista started coming to shows. Eventyally Dylan would show up. That, he says, was the only time he remembered seeing Smith even remotely flustered. They played a “cat and mouse” game, he said with a laugh, remembering how they interacted with one another, jockeying for position. [Clive Davis, of course, would offer them a deal at Arista Records, and they would release their first record, Horses, in 1975.]

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We talked about the politics of the scene. He said it was collegial, and not very competitive, at least at first. After a while, though, according to Král, things started to change, as copycat bands started appearing on the scene. Before that, however, things were good. All of the bands were so different from one another that there wasn’t much jealousy or competition. Sure, there was some tension, as people left bands to join other bands, but it wasn’t bad. We discussed, for instance, his decision to leave Blondie to play for Smith, and the decision he made years later to stay with Smith after she broke several neck vertebrae during a show in Tampa, Florida. [Smith fell off the stage, dropping 15 feet into a concrete orchestra pit.] Saying that he’d never told anyone else this before, aside from his wife, Král told us that he got a call from Debbie Harry shortly after the accident, asking him if he’d like to go on tour with Blondie, as he knew all of the songs. He said, even though he didn’t know if she’d ever perform again, he chose to pass up the opportunity to rejoin Blondie, and make a lot of money, to stay with Patti through her rehabilitation and see what would happen.

If it’s not coming through here, his love and admiration for Smith is terribly sweet… Calling Smith an amazing artist, Král said that she was incredible to play with, as she could hold everything together by mesmerizing people in the audience. As members of her band, you could make mistakes and it would’t matter. “She was like a shaman,” he added.

Král and I also spent a good deal of time talking about another of his collaborators – Iggy Pop. Upon first seeing the Stooges perform live, Král says he “fell in love” with Iggy, who he calls Jim. [Iggy’s real name, as I’m sure most of you know, is James Newell Osterberg, Jr.] “This is the most gorges man on earth,” Král remembers thinking to himself when he saw Iggy performing under a single spotlight. “I don’t care that I can’t understand the words,” he says, reliving the moment. He was drawn to Jim’s his confidence… Their relationship would grow over time, as Iggy flirted with the idea of producing a record for Luger, which was another of Král’s bands at the time. [Luger, says Král, was more of a glam band, inspired by the likes of Marc Bolan and David Bowie.] Iggy, he said, would come to see him and Patti perform, and come out to his apartment in Jackson Heights to do naughty things with other members of Luger.

And, at some point, he and Iggy began working together. Král says with a laugh that he co-wrote Iggy’s worst album, Party. “I’m a proud writer of the worst record that Iggy ever put out,” he says… Král didn’t know it at the time, but, while he was trying to write a good album, Iggy was trying his best to write an album that would kill a record contract that he wanted out of. So he spent four months writing songs that Iggy would lyrically kill. He says that he got over it a long time ago, though. “I was shocked and amused,” he told us, “not angry.”

There was more… so much more. I can’t, however, get into all of it here. He told us about Johnny Thunders, who he described as “cuddly,” putting honey in his hair before a show. He told us about Dee Dee just staring at a wall and crying before a Ramones show. He told us about meeting Iggy’s father. We talked about what the recent CBGBs movie got wrong. And we talked about how, of all the places in the world, he wound up here, in Ypsilanti, Michigan, just a few miles where Iggy grew up, in a mobile home off of Carpenter Road. [He says he’s here because he fell in love ten years ago.]

I was struck, among other things, by how Král still approaches life. His need to understand and document his surroundings apparently didn’t end in New York City in the 1970s. While he may not be shooting as much film these days, he came across as genuinely interested in this place that he now calls home. He talks of visiting Ypsilanti’s museums and trying to understand what things might have been like here early on. “I love Americana” he says, adding that, even though he’s been in America 50 years, he’s still catching up, and still learning. Michigan is like a country, he says, noting that our population is about the size of Czechoslovakia’s, where he lived until just before 1968, when Communist party officials called in Soviet forces to crush the burgeoning democratic revolution being led by artists and intellectuals. [Party members in Czechoslovakia, he said, asked the Soviets “to betray us.”] At that point, he says, he parents knew that they could never again return home.

I could seriously go on and on forever about the hour Ivan was in the studio with me. We covered an incredible amount of ground. You really should just listen, though. He was truly wonderful.

I would have loved to have talked more, as I felt like we were just scratching the surface, but I felt good about what we covered. As readers of this site know, I very much identify with the music coming out of New York in the early ’70s, and I found it incredibly fun to be able to just sit down and speak with someone who was there, who not only contributed in his own right, but also had the presence of mind to record what he was seeing happen around him as this relatively small group of inspired visionaries reimagined what popular culture could be. [Král would release a compilation of his documentary footage in 1976 under the title Blank Generation.] There was so much more I could have said, but hopefully Ivan will come back and talk with me again in the not too distant future. [I didn’t ever get to ask about David Byrne’s teeth.]

Oh, one last think… I told Král at some point in our discussion about my desire to get Iggy in a car, just driving around Ypsilanti and telling stories from his youth, and he encouraged me to pursue it, saying, “That would be fabulous.”

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[One bad thing about this episode… I asked my occasional co-host Jim Cherewick to drop for the final segment, thinking that it would be fun to get him involved in the conversation with Ivan. Unfortunately, though, my inner geeky fanboy took over as soon as Ivan sat down, and I didn’t give Jim a chance to speak. He says he’s not angry, but know that he is.]

Thanks, as always, to AM 1700 for hosting the show, Kate de Fuccio for documenting everything with her camera, and Brian Robb for running the board, making sure the bills paid, and insuring that the toilet paper and bleach stays stocked. [All photos above come courtesy of Kate.]

If you like this episode, check out our archive of past shows at iTunes. And do please leave a review if you have the time, OK? It’s nice to know that people are listening, and, unless you call in, that’s pretty much the only way we know.

Now, if you haven’t already, please listen for yourself, and experience the magic firsthand.

[Episode 39 of the Saturday Six Pack was recorded live on February 6, 2016, in historic downtown Ypsilanti, Michigan, in the studies of AM1700 Radio.]

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Reader Poll… what’s more likely?

In an effort to get to know my readers better, I’ve decided that, on occasion, I will pose simple questions to this site, just to get a sense of what you’re like as a group. Here’s my first question.


For those of you who would like to read up on the evidence before casting your vote, you will find everything you could possibly need here: Ted Cruz is the Zodiac Killer, Katie Perry is JonBenét Ramsey.

Speaking of Cruz, I know a lot has been written these past several months about why people find his face so unsettling, but I really like this theory put forward my friend Jeff Meyers. “Is it me,” he asks, “or does Ted Cruz remind you of a shape-shifting extra-terrestrial that can only maintain his human form through enormous concentration?” Until reading that, I’d always thought of Cruz being more of a Scooby Doo villain than an alien, like he’s just a minute of two away from having his rubber mask torn off. Now, I’m not so sure.

And, yes, I was working on a much better post for tonight. It just didn’t come together in time, though.

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With a number of staffers now confirming that Snyder not only knew of the toxic water situation in Flint a year ago, but had been asked to address it, all pretense of “plausible deniability” is gone

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Up until last night, when Rick Snyder’s office released an additional 2,528 pages of emails from his executive staff related to the Flint water crisis, I’d thought that our “let’s run government like a business” governor might possibly be able to escape the consequences of his actions. Now, though, I’m not so sure. Thanks to this most recent collection of emails, and the subsequent comments by former members of the Snyder administration, it would seem as though there’s now more than enough evidence to prove conclusively that he knew exactly what was happening in Flint, and yet chose not to act. And, for this reason, it’s not at all surprising that groups like Progress Michigan are now demanding that he leave office.

The following quote comes from Lonnie Scott, executive director of Progress Michigan.

“There’s no reasonable person who can believe at this point that every top advisor to Rick Snyder knew that there was an issue, but Snyder knew nothing. At worst he’s been lying all along and at best he’s the worst manager on the planet. Under either scenario he’s clearly unfit to lead our state and he should resign immediately… We knew that there was a reason the Governor was refusing to release these documents and now it is all too clear: to him Flint families weren’t as important as the bottom line on his spreadsheet. There are no more excuses and no more scapegoats. The Governor must resign.”

According to the report in today’s Detroit Free Press, it would seem that these most recent emails prove two things. First, they show that several in Snyder’s staff urged him, as far back as October 2014, to switch Flint back to Detroit water. And, second, they demonstrate that members of Snyder’s staff purposefully communicated about the toxicity of Flint’s water in ways that would keep their concerns private, and undiscoverable by means of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, indicating that they knew how terrible their actions would appear if made public. Here, with more on these items, is a clip from the Detroit Free Press.

…Two of Gov. Rick Snyder’s top lawyers privately advocated moving the city of Flint back to the Detroit water system because of quality problems only months after Flint began to draw its drinking water from the Flint River and treat it at its own plant in mid-2014, according to a review of e-mails made public Friday by the governor’s office.

The governor’s top aides discussed the city’s water-quality problems as early as the fall of 2014, according to a review of 550 e-mails released by the Snyder administration.

Valerie Brader, deputy legal counsel and senior policy adviser to Snyder, raised problems with Flint River water in an e-mail to the governor’s Chief of Staff Dennis Muchmore and other top aides on Oct. 14, 2014…

(Braider) wrote in an October 2014 email to chief of staff Dennis Muchmore and other top aides to Gov. Rick Snyder, saying the return to Detroit’s water system for the city of Flint made economic and environmental sense, calling it an urgent matter to fix…

She argued for returning the city to Detroit’s system drawn from Lake Huron, saying it made economic and environmental sense for an “urgent matter to fix.” She cited bacterial contamination in the treated river water and reduced quality that caused “GM to leave due to rusted parts.”

“As you know there have been problems with the Flint water quality since they left the DWSD (Detroit Water and Sewerage Department), which was a decision by the emergency manager there,” Brader wrote to Muchmore and three other top Snyder aides.

Michael Gadola, then the governor’s legal counsel, echoed those concerns in an e-mail responding to Brader and sent to the governor’s top aides. He called the idea of using the Flint River as a drinking water source “downright scary.”

Flint “should try to get back on the Detroit system as a stopgap ASAP before this thing gets too far out of control,” Gadola wrote 12 minutes after Brader’s e-mail…

And that’s not the worst of it. The Free Press tracked down Muchmore, who now works for a law firm, and he confirmed that these concerns had been discussed with the Governor. “We shared them,” he said. But, in spite of this, no action was taken for almost a year. Worse yet, the people of Flint were told repeatedly over this period of time that their water was safe to drink.

When asked why no action had been taken by the Governor, Muchmore, according to the Free Press, indicated that cost was a major factor.

To my knowledge, this is the first time we’ve had people inside the Governor’s office telling us that they had gone to him as early as October 2014, asking him to take action, only to have nothing done. Yes, we knew several weeks ago that one of Snyder’s top aids had been told of a possible link between the deadly outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease that had hit the region and the drinking water being pulled from the Flint River, but, at least in that instance, evidence never surface that the Governor had been informed. And, now, we have that… we actually have people going on the record and saying that Snyder not only knew what was happening, but instructed them not to act.

As for the attempts to hide these items from public view, here’s a quote from one of Brader’s emails. “I have not copied DEQ (the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality) on this message for FOIA reasons,” she said, referring to the fact that, if the MDEQ had been copied, their conversation about the water’s toxicity could be discoverable by the press. (Michigan, as we’ve discussed before, is one of only two states where the governor’s office and state legislature are exempted from FOIA laws. The MDEQ, however, does not share that protection.) So, it would seem, we had an administration that was more interested in keeping their concerns quiet than actually working with the people at the MDEQ who would be best positioned to deal with such things.

As my friend Jim just reminded me, this most recent revelation serves as a good reminder of how incredibly fortunate we are to still have something of an investigative press here in Michigan. If not for the people working for the likes of the Detroit Free Press, we might have had to be satisfied with the narrative of events as put forward by Snyder’s “independent” commission. “Snyder’s response to the ‘What did you know and when did you know it?’ question was to say that he looked forward to reading his commissioned report,” my friend Jim just reminded me. “Thank goodness,” he went on to say, “we have enough of an independent press left that Snyder can’t control this story.”

At the rate things are now happening, I’m not sure how much longer Snyder can stay in office. And, to be honest, I don’t know if he really even wants to at this point, especially as he’s scheduled to testify win D.C. before the U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on March 17. If I were a betting man, I’d say that he’ll announce plans to step down before then, saying something to the effect of, “Given the fact that the Democrats have chosen to politicize this terrible tragedy in Flint, I feel as though I have no choice but to leave office so that we can put this distraction behind us, and focus on serving those who so desperately need our help.” Up to a few weeks ago I was somewhat torn as to whether or not we should expend our effort attempting to drive Snyder from office, but he’s done very little since then to prove to me that he’s capable of either telling the truth or helping the people who he’s hurt. So, if you’ve got a petition ready, I’m willing to sign… just in case he doesn’t walk away on his own.

[The lead paint portrait at the at the top of the page of Rick Snyder was painted by local artist Michael Dykehouse, who I interviewed here a few days ago.]

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I’ve got the Trump Christie campaign slogan, if they want it

Today, as I was eating lunch alone in my car, listening to the radio, an interesting thought crossed my mind. “Which of our country’s established Republican leaders,” I wondered, “would agree to be Trump’s running mate, if they were asked?” While it’s true that, in general, I have a very low opinion of those who have decided to stay in the Republican party through the Charles Koch takeover, and the subsequent descent into madness, I’d like to believe that a good number of them would refuse to be a part of an administration that promises to be violent, angry, sexist, authoritarian, intolerant, cruel and racist. So, as I was sitting there, eating my sandwich, I was running through the list of prominent Republicans one by one, and trying to determine who would stand up to Team Trump, issuing he wins the nomination, and who would choose to join him.

Interestingly, just as I was thinking about this, wondering which Republican candidates might turn down and offer from Trump, or even say publicly, “If Trump wins the nomination, I will not be supporting him,” it was announced that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie had endorsed the reality television celebrity turned politician. I don’t know that this will lead to an eventual announcement that Christie will be his running mate, but, as he’s the only national political figure to endorse Trump thus far, I think it’s definitely a possibility.

As an offer of good faith, just in case they do choose to join forces, I’ve just designed a graphic for them. Hopefully it serves them well.

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On a related note, I had another thought today… We’re either witnessing the end of the Republican party or the end of humanity… I’m not sure which it is yet. It could go either way.

Posted in Ideas, Mark's Life, Politics, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 22 Comments

Lee Azus on how urban renewal remade Ypsilanti’s Southside

Almost five years ago now, I interviewed a new transplant to Ypsi by the name of Lee Azus as part of our ongoing Ypsilanti Immigration series. Azus, a former San Francisco bookstore owner, as you might recall, was anxious to hit the ground running and really get to know this community which he had chosen to become a part of. Well, since then, Azus has been keeping himself busy as a graduate student working in the areas of historic preservation and architecture, and doing research into the history of Ypsilanti’s ever evolving residential landscape. And, this coming Monday evening, at 6:30, he will be presenting some of his ongoing research into the changes Ypsilanti’s Southside experienced in the 1960s as a result of so-clled “urban renewal” efforts. I’m afraid the following exchange with Azus will be infinitely unsatisfying to some of you, seeing as how we just begin to scratch the surface, but, as his presentation is coming up in just a few days, we just didn’t have time to go too deep… Fortunately, though, if you want to know more, all you have to do is show up at the downtown library this Monday evening and join in the conversation.

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“In 1952, the city of Ypsilanti took the first step towards an Urban Renewal project to combat what it called ‘blight’ and ‘slum’ conditions on the Southside—the area south of Michigan Avenue. From the beginning, the Urban Renewal program divided opinions in the African-American community as to the best way to improve social and economic conditions on the Southside. Residents were faced with forced eviction, while being unable to move into other Ypsilanti neighborhoods outside the Southside due to legalized housing segregation. As hundreds of homes were destroyed, there was no rush by developers to build new housing or businesses as the City had promised. It was only after 1997 that the last large parcel of land was developed.” – Lee Azus

MARK: How is it that you came to be interested interested in Ypsilanti’s history relative to urban renewal?

LEE: I had been doing research on the Brewster-Wheeler Recreation Center in Detroit, which is the one remaining building around what had been Hastings Street, the main business thoroughfare of the city’s great African-American neighborhood, Paradise Valley. And that led to a comparison to the ABC-Polk Brothers Recreation Center in Chicago, the story of which my father had often recounted to me. (Its origins lie in the Leopold and Loeb murder of Bobby Franks, and the subsequent donation of money by Bobby’s father for a boys’ recreation center in my dad’s neighborhood. But I digress.) So, when I was in a Historic Preservation “Building Systems” class at Eastern Michigan University, I chose another recreation center, the Parkridge Community Center on Harriet Street, to look into. And I found the history of the controversy around its construction to be incredible… Anyway, when I interviewed some of the neighborhood elders at their weekly card game at the Community Center, I was introduced to the story of the urban renewal program on the Southside, which was clearly a pivotal moment in the lives of those in the generation that married and started families here after World War II. And, later, when I was working on a different project concerning the Federal Housing Administration and the shaping of the suburban landscape, I couldn’t help but make the connection between the segregation that the FHA encouraged in its mortgage underwriting policies, and the segregation of Ypsilanti. So I returned to the story of urban renewal and wondered what exactly happened here. And that’s what got me started.

MARK: As I understand it, prior to Ypsilanti’s urban renewal program, there was a thriving black business community on Ypsilanti’s south side, along Harriet Street. Was it this urban renewal project that we’re now talking about that killed it?

LEE: That’s a complicated question. Yes, there was a business area on the Southside, which was centered along Harriet Street. There were also stores and a pool hall on South Huron Street, and businesses on Monroe, and Jefferson. Unlike along Michigan Avenue, some businesses there began in homes, which, because of the lack of zoning, then became commercial properties. While, through the 1930s, there was a pool hall and a bar, as well as barbershop on Monroe owned by Mr. Fletcher, it was only during and after World War II that the number of businesses on Harriet Street really increases. This was due, in part, to the huge migration into the neighborhood during the war from families moving up from the South.

Not all of these businesses were destroyed during urban renewal, though. The northern boundary of the Parkridge Urban Renewal Area, as it was officially called, cut through the center of Harriet Street. The businesses on the south side of the street were doomed, basically. Those on the north side, however, were not affected. In fact, even after the businesses on the south side of the street were demolished, the number of businesses on the north side of Harriet remained fairly stable well into the 1980s.

While the commercial district was affected, the heart of the story wasn’t really the destruction of the Harriet Street business district, as I’d originally thought that it would be. Both “urban renewal” and “urban redevelopment” were legal schemes to redevelop residential areas that the local government had determined to be “blighted” or “slum-like.” Those aren’t arbitrary terms; the government actually had to make those declarations to begin the process to get federal housing funds. “Urban Renewal” was a product of the Housing Act of 1954, and it was a huge win for the building and real estate industries, which could finally reverse the course of Truman’s Housing Act of 1949, which called for 810,000 units of public housing to be built over five years. While Truman called for “slum clearance” through wholesale flattening of neighborhoods, under Eisenhower, the term “urban renewal” was introduced to signify a more holistic approach centered around conservation, selective clearance of property, and infrastructural and cultural improvements. While that sounds way better than the earlier version, the Eisenhower version was crafted by the building and real estate industries to give the private sector a greater role in redevelopment.

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[above: 566 Jefferson Street. Demolished 1970.]

MARK: Have you, through your research, been able to identify exactly when this idea first surfaced here in Ypsi, or how the decision was ultimately made, and by whom?

LEE: The first scheme began in 1952. The city applied for a grant of around $6,000 to conduct survey work for a redevelopment program. And it wasn’t supposed to just be about the area south of Michigan Avenue, at least at the outset. With that said, I’ve only been able to find one article that makes mention of the city even considering a neighborhood north of Michigan Avenue for redevelopment. That would have been the area bounded by Cross south to Michigan Avenue, and River Street east to Grove. But, other than that one article in The Ypsilanti Daily Press, it seems that all consideration was given to the Southside. The city eventually chose the area bounded on the north by Michigan Avenue; on the south by Harriet Street; on the west by First Avenue; and on the east by Hawkins Street. This portion of the South Side was labeled a “slum,” where the houses “almost without exception… appear worn-out and dilapidated.”

MARK: So, this started in the early ‘50s?

LEE: That’s when the discussion started, but the city dropped this first plan. The conversation, however, started up again in 1958 under the new terms of the Housing Act of 1954, which made the promise of federal funds too good to pass up. Under a provision called “grants-in-aid,” new public buildings, like new schools, or infrastructural improvements that would affect at least ten percent of the targeted urban renewal neighborhood, could count as the city’s one-third contribution towards the urban renewal program. And, in cities with under 50,000, like Ypsilanti, the city had to contribute only one-fourth the cost of the program. So 1958 was significant because the voters had just approved the building of two new junior high schools. And the new police station on West Michigan Avenue was being built then as well. Taken as “grants-in-aid,” the city could credit these buildings as their share towards urban renewal and pay basically nothing for the proposed renewal work. In actuality, it didn’t quite turn out that way… but it’s fair to say that the urban renewal plan that was rolled out in the 1960s had its genesis with those new junior high schools. Even the new boundaries of the Parkridge Urban Renewal Area were indebted to those schools. The 1952 plan, and even a 1960 plan that the City Council considered, the boundaries were north of Harriet Street, while the Parkridge plan was from Harriet Street south to the I-94.

MARK: In addition to looking at historical documents, did you talk with many people who were actually involved in either making the decision to redevelop this area, or fighting against it?

LEE: I haven’t met anyone who was involved in either making the decision or fighting against it. I have met a woman, however, who lost her home on Goodman Street, and a man who went to East Junior High School after it opened. Mr. Currie, the owner of Currie’s Barbershop, was involved with the Ypsilanti Business and Professional League, the group that partnered with Brown Chapel AME Church to get the Parkview Apartments built on the south side of Harriet Street. He is as close as I’ve come to interviewing an actor in the shaping of the neighborhood. But, I’m still talking to people who lived through that period in the neighborhood.

MARK: But you did find evidence of people fighting against this, correct?

LEE: Yes. The biggest opponent to urban renewal was Mrs. Mattie Dorsey, who has long since passed away. Everyone I talked to remembered Mrs. Dorsey’s fight again the program. She went to over 200 consecutive City Council meetings and always managed to call for the program’s immediate halt. She once led fifty supporters in songs to disrupt Council from voting on urban renewal legislation. Luckily I found some of her mimeographed newsletters. And, The Ypsilanti Press loved to quote her at length, because she was incredibly smart and witty. I think The Press quoted her to make her seem eccentric, but I don’t read it that way, especially with hindsight.

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[above: A proposal for the 10.6 acres between Huron and Hamilton as seen from I-94 westbound, approaching the off-ramp.]

MARK: I suspect, as with most things, there wasn’t just one single reason why this moved forward. My guess is that there were some who were truly concerned about the health and safety of people living and working on the Southside. And, as you mention, it appeared as though there was free federal money to go after, which I’m sure helped convince others. In addition, I assume some were probably motivated by the prospect of both reining in the black community and driving more business to the primarily white merchants along Michigan Avenue. I’m curious to know your sense as to why things played out like they did, and what the contributing factors were.

LEE: This is the most difficult and complex question because there was a structural problem around housing and lending discrimination against African-Americans. What could the community do when it was shut out of the credit market, when FHA-backed mortgages were not available to them, and the infrastructure – sewers, sidewalks, paved streets – lagged behind other parts of the city? Where does self-interest collide with altruism? All of the African-American leaders and major property owners on the Southside supported urban renewal. Sure, they had reservations. Councilmember John Burton went back and forth, although he mostly supported it. They knew how many people would be displaced with no plan to relocate them. (Displaced black residents couldn’t just move into a house north of Michigan Avenue, except maybe on Norris Street.) But, given all the factors at play, it seemed to many like a good deal.

So the city recommended 250 low-cost rentals, a fraction of which were actually built. (They got 144 units at Parkview Apartments and others at Arbor Manor.) They also wanted 40 new units of public housing, which they eventually got. And they had plans for more.

The Chamber of Commerce and the Ypsilanti Industrial Development Corporation were big supporters of the urban renewal project and saw it as the first step towards other projects around Michigan Avenue. The big one would have been the “Heritage Square” neighborhood (Huron to River Street, Cross to Michigan) and a new Greek Theater, which was to be built on the site of the old Ladies’ Library on North Huron at Washtenaw.

As for your comment about driving business to Michigan Avenue, you know the Huron-Hamilton interchange onto I-94? Until it opened in 1972, the on and off ramps were on Grove Street, convenient to the Ford plant and other industries. How did the Huron-Hamilton interchange get built? Not only did it get built, Huron and Hamilton, Washtenaw and Cross Streets were changed into one-way streets to feed the traffic flow. Now, Dan Boatwright, who lived on West Cross and was head of a homeowners’ association, allied himself with Mattie Dorsey and started a revolt against the traffic changes. They called it “a gift to Central Business District” (Michigan Avenue), where sales had been declining since 1957. Obviously, the neighborhood associations lost, but Boatwright then ran for City Council, and then became mayor.

MARK: I’m not sure to what extent you’ve looked at other black communities in the midwest and how they were affected by urban renewal, but I’m curious to know your sense of how unique the events that took place here were.

LEE: I can’t speak to small town urban renewal plans other than Ypsilanti’s. Detroit’s story is well known, and began with the clearance of parts of Paradise Valley in the 1930s for the Brewster Homes, a segregated public housing project. The building of the I-75 and Chrysler freeways, and the destruction of Black Bottom to build Mies van der Rohe-designed Lafayette Park were huge clearance projects, not selective clearance as in Ypsilanti’s program. Thinking about Chicago, San Francisco, and Atlanta, their urban renewal projects were more similar to Detroit’s, not Ypsilanti’s. But, while the landscape looked different between Ypsilanti and the large cities, the structural underpinning of social and economic discrimination ultimately united all these urban renewal projects.

MARK: It’s difficult to talk about established black districts being destroyed and not think about what happened in Tulsa in 1921, where America’s most prosperous black community was burned to the ground. While I don’t know that it really factors into the Ypsilanti story, as they were completely different circumstances, I do think it’s important to note that we have a history in this country of undermining and destroying black business districts.

LEE: Here, in Ypsilanti, the Harriet Street district was not an economic threat to Michigan Avenue interests. Arborland, Gault Shopping Center (by the old off-ramp on South Grove), and the new K-Mart and strip malls opening on Washtenaw Avenue, were what finished off the legacy businesses in downtown Ypsilanti, and the business owners knew it. I do think, however, that, as the urban renewal program was originally conceived (in 1952 and 1958), starting at Michigan Avenue and going south to Harriet, it was an opportunity to increase property values in the area immediately surrounding the Central Business District, which could only be a plus for Michigan Avenue business.

MARK: I saw it mentioned online, in a post about your upcoming presentation, that 190 families were relocated as a result of Ypsilanti’s urban renewal initiatives. Where were they relocated to?

LEE: I’m having a hard time finding out where all the residents went. I found a 1969 list of new addresses of relocated people, but who knows if those people found permanent housing, or were just living provisionally until the urban renewal programs’ promise of new homes would finally be realized? (Parkview and Arbor Manor were completed in the early ‘70s, so I suspect and hope that those who managed to hold out that long may have remained in the neighborhood once the new apartments were opened.) The woman I interviewed who owned a home on Goodman, bought a home on Ferris, which was a short walk away. My friend Janice’s grandmother moved from Jefferson Street to either Pittsfield or Ypsilanti Township, I forget which. A good number of people did move to the Willow Run area, I think. I need to do more research on that question. The Urban Renewal program was officially over in 1974, even though there were still lots of empty parcels on the Southside. So, the trail kind of grows cold, at least in terms of official documents.

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