I grew up in a vibrant Detroit, the proud and thriving automobile capital of the world. And in 1967, as I studied for my undergraduate degree at Wayne State University in the heart of the city, I had no idea that a raid on a nearby after-hours club that summer would ultimately signal the collapse of many of the city’s neighborhoods and eventually ignite massive white flight. I thought our country’s involvement in Vietnam would remain the focus of protest that year, not our own angry citizens burning down the inner city.
In 2017, media attention on the 50th anniversary of the Detroit riots, revolution or uprising (depending on who you ask) is forcing residents to reassess what brought on such rage. The violence lasted five days following the original police raid on July 23 – and Stephen Henderson, the editorial director of the Detroit Free Press, and others are questioning if the city has really learned the lessons of those violent days. While it is clear that change is coming to some areas of Detroit –focusing for now heavily on the vibrant downtown and some midtown neighborhoods, including around Wayne State University – many angry black residents still live in neglected areas and continue to question whether their lives will ever improve.
On Sunday the 23rd, I joined college friends to watch the local ABC-TV premiere of the Detroit Free Press documentary on those five days – “12th and Clairmont.” I found that the focus on the home-made films submitted by those swept up by the violence gave an authentic voice to the complex emotions behind the turmoil and lingering anger. Now a movie is premiering here called “Detroit” by award-winning filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow that details the particularly brutal deaths of three black teenagers in the Algiers Hotel in the course of those five horrific days. I hope the local Free Press documentary and the nationally distributed film will give Americans a greater understanding of that ominous year in Detroit – and an appreciation for the on-going struggle facing not only the Motor City, but cities across our nation. Let’s continue to listen to the anger, learn and move forward.
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I watched the Ken Burns documentary on the Statue of Liberty this week on PBS. It was a complex film that showed all the ironies in the both the building of the statue and the shifting meaning attached to it. The idea of the Statue of Liberty actually was fostered as a gesture of ongoing friendship between the French and American people forged during the American Revolution – there was no original homage to immigrants or emphasis on “land of the free.” Sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi was commissioned to design a sculpture in time for the 1876 Centennial celebration of the American Declaration of Independence. However the film indicates it was the ensuing struggles in fundraising that ultimately made it a populist, not an elitist effort and expanded its meaning
Only after the project was well underway did the French ultimately determine that they should only be required to raise the money to build and ship the Statue to America, while the pedestal needed to be financed by U.S. citizens. In the end, it was bullying by the New York newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer in the pages of “The World” that successfully motivated citizens from every class to chip in whatever they could afford to get the project completed. Pulitzer lashed out equally at the rich and the middle class and finally shamed everyone into contributing the necessary funds, allowing the statue to finally go up, although delays on both ends meant it was finally dedicated in 1886, ten years after the Centennial.
Over the ensuring years, the Statue of Liberty, with its proximity to Ellis Island, gradually became a symbol of America’s welcome to immigrants from nations around the world and the torch transformed into a beacon of hope for freedom from oppression. In part, that shift was inspired by a sonnet written by Emma Lazarus for one of the fundraisers for the pedestal, but not memorialized with a plaque until the early 1900’s, after her death. The poem includes the famous lines: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teaming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
So on this 4th of July, why not celebrate the original signing of the Declaration of Independence, the ongoing beauty and powerful symbolism of the Statue of Liberty, and the current challenge we face to reinvent the spirit of our founding fathers. As we increasingly become a land of entrepreneurs, we can find new solutions to making it a better world for everyone in the next generation. It’s the American way.
Former New York City Mayor Ed Koch’s death on Friday brought back memories of a city on the brink. I was a young freelance writer living on Avenue A in the tough, drug-infested East Village when Koch was elected Mayor in 1977. Urban decay was destroying neighborhoods and crime was rampant. I loved New York even in its worst days, but took self-defense classes and karate to feel safe in the subways after dark. New York was trying to come back from a brush with bankruptcy in 1975 that is best encapsulated by a Daily News headline that read “Ford to City: “Drop Dead.” Mayor Abe Beame, an accountant by training, lacked the charisma to rally a city awash in debt. Not so Ed Koch.
“I’m the sort of person who will never get ulcers,” he said upon taking office. “I say exactly what I think. I’m the sort of person who might give other people ulcers.” Koch, a Democrat, was a master showman, as much at home on the city streets as he was in the halls of power.
In its obit, The New York Times proclaimed Koch “parlayed shrewd political instincts and plenty of chutzpa into three tumultuous terms as Mayor of New York with all the tenacity, zest and combativeness that personified his city of golden dreams.” He was arguably the most colorful mayor since Fiorello H. La Guardia nyti.ms/14zLmAV .
As the Times obit pointed out, historians give the mayor’s three terms mixed reviews, but everyone agrees he came in like a bull. Said the Times, “Confronted with the deficits and the constraints of the city’s brush with bankruptcy in 1975, he held down spending, subdued the municipal unions, restored the city’s creditworthiness, revived a moribund capital budget, began work on a long-neglected bridges and streets, cut antipoverty programs and tried to reduce the friction between Manhattan and the more traditional other boroughs.” He went on to steadily improve the city’s finances in his second term.
The glory days didn’t last forever, and it took another tough Mayor, Rudy Giuliani, to revive New York from the excesses of the junk bond era, and current Mayor Bloomberg to keep it on track after the 2008 Wall Street crash, but Koch left his mark on some incredible years that I’ll always treasure.
Last winter I blogged about the lessons in failed leadership resulting from the historic and messy Blizzard of 2010 in New York City and the fury of my Brooklyn neighbors as days went by without subway service or adequate snow plows. Now in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene, some New Yorkers are grousing that there should not have been so many evacuations or closings. Yet Friday, when Mayor Michael Bloomberg held a press conference to announce mandatory evacuations in Battery Park City, Coney Island and other coastal regions, including the beaches in Staten Island, he didn’t have the luxury of hindsight. He even announced that the city’s subways and buses would shut down for the first time in the city’s history rather than risk stranding passengers in flooded streets or underground railways.
When you review the unfolding scenario, it’s clear our leadership did not over-react. As Irene first headed up the coast as a category 2 Hurricane, the worst case scenario presented by meteorologists predicted a slightly weakened category 1 monster flooding lower Manhattan and driving in the high tides with 100 mile per hour winds. That scenario could have resulted in severe damage to the subway infrastructure and power grid in the lower Manhattan area, not to mention blown out windows in many high rise buildings throughout the boroughs. Coastal regions like Coney Island, the Rockaways and Long Beach could have been flooded and cut off from the mainland under this early prediction.
Irene was not downgraded to a tropical storm with winds closer to 60-70 miles per hour until just before the eye of the storm set down on Coney Island on Sunday morning. I watched the ominous early flooding that could have been so catastrophic if the winds had remained stronger. The fact is New York City had no reported fatalities that day and little major damage. As the sun returned over New York City on Monday morning, the subways and buses were running again and my neighborhood was cleaning up. Irene had remained a ferocious storm, as thousands of residents flooded out of their homes in Long Island and New Jersey can still attest. Yes, I am grateful for over-preparedness! That’s the New York I love!
President Obama used his State of the Union address this week to announce that “this is our generation’s Sputnick moment” as he outlined the need to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build our competitors and yet carry out government reform.
His words come just days after the 50th Anniversary of the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy, who challenged Americans to beat the Russians in space. Amazingly a modern day astronaut named Mark Kelly is dominating the news lately, the husband of wounded Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona. He was shown holding his wife’s hand in her hospital room during the President’s speech. Her condition has now been upgraded to good, and she will be starting rehab this week.
Kelly has taken over Gifford’s recovery from severe brain injury as though it were a space mission. He asked to have her moved to Houston so he could resume his role as the commander of the Endeavour Space Shuttle, due to make its last mission in April, while also overseeing her care. He’s already declared Giffords “is a fighter” and will be back in Tucson, walking through the hospital doors for a visit in months, not years. His early bedside vigil, accompanied by her devoted congressional friends, produced “miraculous” progress, according to her Tucson Doctors. And the miracle continues in Houston.
It was 50 years ago this month that Kennedy brought the spirit of the mythical Camelot to Washington and announced that the torch was being passed to a new generation in his inaugural speech. Soon afterwards he declared his intention to develop a program that would send Americans to the moon first.
Kennedy was concerned that Russia was developing an ominous lead in space rocketry that would upset the balance of power. Despite Kennedy’s tragic assassination in Dallas before the end of his first term, his dream came true. On July 20, 1969, American Neil Armstrong was the first man to literally step foot on the moon. It was a historic achievement by the United States and was, according to historians, a persuasive demonstration of national will and technological capability for the United States.
Astronaut Kelly’s assured, optimistic assessment of his wife’s recovery reminds me of the best of the space race – and the jubilant early astronauts like Armstrong, who were such strong role models for kids of that era. Where the fear of the 60s was grounded in the specter of nuclear war with Russia, today we face more complex fears, including the rise of China as an economic rival, the fear of nuclear proliferation to rogue states and an on-going war against terrorism overseas we can’t seem to win, but that is driving up our national debt.
Kelly has been showing this country how to stay positive and driven in the face of great uncertainty. And now President Obama is evoking the spirit of Camelot again as he presided over a Congress that was showing remarkable unity , applauding repeatedly together as he asked the nation to “please stand together with me.” Kelly’s optimism and Obama’s call to action reminds us that we met the enormous, almost unimaginable challenge of the space race in the 60s, so why can’t we accomplish miracles on that scale again?
As we celebrated Martin Luther King Day this year, I saw hopeful signs that we may all get along one day. My optimism actually started before the year-end holidays when the subject of civility in our nation’s courtrooms came up at a memorial for a distinguished trial lawyer who had been a treasured family friend, Larry Barcella was a famous terrorism prosecutor in the 1970s and 1980s and then an equally passionate white-collar defense lawyer – not exactly an arena known for collegiality. But after his death from cancer, his partners at the law firm of Paul Hastings wanted to find a way to honor Larry’s respect for his colleagues and his adversaries on both sides of the courtroom throughout his career.
As a result, Paul Hastings chairman Seth Zachary announced that the firm is planning to partner with the American Bar Association to establish a fund in Barcella’s name to foster collegiality in the courtroom. Barcella believed vitriol between prosecutors and defense lawyers was unnecessary and counterproductive, Zachary said at the memorial ceremony at the E. Barrett Pettyman U.S. Courthouse in Washington DC.
Now if there’s a serious effort afoot to make the halls of justice more civil, why can’t our legislators get the point? I grew more hopeful in watching the coverage of the aftermath of the shootings in Tucson last week when President Obama appealed to the nation to remember the dreams of our children, as represented by the youngest victim, 9 year old Christina Taylor Green, who wanted to go into public service and was born on 9-11-2001. The audience was in tears.
Later that day, a moving interview with New York state senator Kirsten Gillibrand revealed the miraculous moment when she was holding the hand of gunshot victim U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and she first opened her eyes. Giffords, a centrist Democrat who urged civil discourse among her colleagues, is now off life support and her chances for survival are assured, despite being shot point blank in the head by a determined killer. When her many friends, her husband NASA astronaut Mark E. Kelly and even her doctor went on television to talk about her recovery, they also talked in terms of “miracles.” I consider it the miraculous power of friendship, love and a steel will at work against the forces of anger and hate spewed out by the troubled gunman.
I often hear that today’s tumultuous discourse is very reminiscent of the ‘60s, when violence in reaction to civil rights produced a great leader in Martin Luther King. He urged his followers to respond to the vicious attacks of that era with non-violence and quiet determination. The battle for equal rights was eventually won. May the legacy of professionals like Larry Barcella now rule the day with their message of civil discourse as we face the challenges of getting along in the global community.