Detroit’s former mayor made history by destroying it.
Disgraced former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick carries himself a bit like a cool teacher, and for a time in the 1990s he was just that. He reveals in his new memoir Surrendered!: The Rise, Fall, and Revelation of Kwame Kilpatrick that he smoked pot while teaching at Marcus Garvey Academy in Detroit, but he was good at his job and the kids liked him. Yeah, he was spuriously taking food stamps as a young man, but, come on, he was getting himself through Florida A&M and actually graduating. Even in his mugshot (which, in the media, is often cropped side-by-side with that of his chief of staff/mistress Christine Beatty) Kwame looks like he’s about to remind you to get that C-average up so you can go out for varsity this year, man.
Kilpatrick was released this week from the G. Robert Cotton Correctional Facility in Jackson, Michigan after serving fifteen months for “failing to disclose assets and surrender funds that could have reduced his $1 million restitution to the city.” He’s free for the moment, but still will face trial on various other corruption charges stemming from his mayoralty, and may likely end up back behind bars.
The gregarious son of former Michigan congresswoman Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, Kwame, 41, writes in the book that what “brought him down” — i.e. encouraged certain people to dig up his corruption scandals — was a March 2007 Saviour’s Day event at Ford Field, at which he warmly greeted Louis Farrakhan. He’s way off. This isn’t the mid-Nineties, when people thought Farrakhan was a serious threat to the country. Nowadays, most people view the Bowtied One much as they view Castro — with their fear and loathing preserved safely in memory, and without too much outrage should celebrities choose to hang out with him.
If Kwame feels like he harmed his standing among Detroit old-timers and marshaled the city’s influential families against him, then he might have done it a year later, when he tore down Tiger Stadium. Built in 1912 and opened the same day as Fenway Park, Tiger Stadium was a cramped “cigar box” ballpark conducive to high-scoring games and an authentic experience for fans, with all those quirky “obstructed view” seats. Over the years it grew into a city landmark, a paternal touchstone among Detroit’s white working class, tended over by great Tiger owners like railroad tycoon Walter Briggs Sr. (1935-52) and his son Walter Briggs Jr. (1952-56), radio executive John Fetzer (1956-83) and beloved Domino’s Pizza founder and Catholic philanthropist Tom Monaghan (1983-92).
When Monaghan sold the team to Little Caesars Pizza founder Mike Ilitch (a laissez-faire baseball owner merely interested in consolidating his local sports empire, which includes the Detroit Red Wings) in 1992, the organization took a left turn. Like a true Democrat (Ilitch is a major Chuck Schumer and Harry Reid contributor) Ilitch increased spending and drove his organization into debt. By 2005, the Tigers carried one of the biggest payrolls in baseball despite embarrassing ticket-revenue results, and showed a debt-to-value rate of 84% (third-worst in MLB). Ballpark security was gutted and sportswriters started observing homeless people sleeping on the premises. Though Kilpatrick’s predecessor, Mayor Dennis Archer, proposed a popular $200 million plan to preserve the stadium, with new lofts, shops, and a swimming pool, Illitch bristled at the idea, chased off interested developers and hinted that he’d move the team elsewhere unless he got a new stadium. After the 1999 season, Illitch’s Tigers moved out of Tiger Stadium and into newly-built Comerica Park (with Illitch splitting the new stadium’s $350 million tab with taxpayers and federal grants).
So Tiger Stadium — the house that Ty Cobb built — sat there empty and unused in the historic Corktown neighborhood: Detroit’s onetime west-side depository for Irish potato-famine victims and later, as the auto-industry provided surrounding merchant jobs, for the city’s German Jews (few moments in the Ken Burns Baseball documentary were as funny or moving as when two old men recalled listening to Hank Greenberg’s Tigers on the radio during synagogue). Tiger loyalists petitioned the city to at least find another use for it, and the municipal government seemed receptive. Archer opened talks with various developers, who pitched plans for mixed-use condominiums, dog racing, boxing, off-road racing, professional soccer, and live concerts. Archer also entertained local entrepreneur Peter Comstock Riley’s plan to lease the field for his new Frontier League franchise, and thus keep baseball at Tiger Stadium alive. Peter Zeiler, the business development representative for the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation (DEGC) and a major advocate of Tiger Stadium preservation, told ESPN, “Nobody wants to shoot Old Yeller.”
Then, in 2001, Detroit elected 31-year-old Kwame Kilpatrick: America’s first “hip-hop mayor.” Not yet born when Denny McLain pitched the Tigers into the ‘68 World Series against the Cardinals, Kwame ignored Zeiler, tabled Comstock Riley’s plan, and set about demolishing Tiger Stadium. He may have started listening to Cleveland State urban affairs professor Mark Rosentraub, who publicly argued that no ballpark had ever been redeveloped after a new stadium was built, that demolishing the park would cost only $4.5 million (according to John Adamo Jr. of Adamo Demolition) and that the city could make quick money auctioning off seats, lockers, and dirt from the playing field. “The nostalgia market — you can do very well” Rosentraub said. So Kilpatrick traveled to Las Vegas in 2003, and again in 2004, to pitch the Tiger Stadium lot to retailers like Wal-Mart and Kohl’s. Though Tiger Stadium preservation movements intensified, and despite the park’s listing on the National Register of Historic Places, Kilpatrick continued to pursue demolition plans.
By early 2008, demolition was a foregone conclusion, and
it came time for the city to hand out a contract. By then, insiders
noticed that most big-money city contracts were going to Bobby
Ferguson, the son of legendary Detroit contractor Homer Ferguson,
and a family friend to Mayor Kilpatrick. Kwame had recently held up
a $50 million sewer-lining contract until the winning bidder agreed
to pay Ferguson, and then inflated the contract to a ridiculous
$137 million so that Ferguson — who did no work on the project —
could walk away with a $24.7 million cut. Everyone knew that Tiger
Stadium was going down, and that Bobby Ferguson was getting the
demolition contract. So when a lone, still-unnamed official at the
DEGC spoke up against the burgeoning plan — citing the fact that
Ferguson was not low bidder on the demolition project —
Kwame Kilpatrick tried to get the official fired. The official
stood his ground, prompting Kilpatrick to send
his staffer Kandia Milton to the DEGC office to ask for that
official’s resignation. Ferguson lost the contract, but demolition
went forward — after the new contractors agreed to finance the
project by selling Tiger Stadium scrap metal.
The wrecking ball hit on June 30, 2008, and demolition concluded the following September. The opening scene in the HBO series Hung painfully depicted the process, and Detroit’s own Mitch Albom played Philip Roth-on-Newark in the pages of Jewish World Review. Comstock Riley publicly mourned: “Tiger Stadium deserved better.” It did. If Red Sox fans suffered an 86-year curse merely because owner Harry Frazee sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees to finance his Broadway show No No, Nanette, then “Kwame’s Curse,” borne of crooked dealings and blatant disregard for tradition, will likely be much worse. In a sense, Kwame’s destruction of Tiger Stadium marked the defining moment of his mayoralty, the day that Detroit officially changed forever.
Beginning from the city’s industrialization, Detroit’s political machine — like Philadelphia’s — was Republican, and the mayor was usually a nationally-prominent businessman, like entrepreneur Oscar Marx (1913-1918), railroad-tycoon James Couzens (1919-1922) or Albert Cobo (1950-57) a Burroughs Corporation executive who the company “loaned” to the city of Detroit for mayoral duties. Everyone was somebody’s son or nephew, and everybody was a Republican. With the auto industry booming, Detroit’s GOP machine governed with firm popular support.
The machine broke down with progressive crusader Jerome Cavanaugh’s historic 1961 election as a Democrat, his marches with Martin Luther King Jr., and the devastating 1967 race riots. As the North Side Irish of Chicago drifted out to the suburbs of Evanston and Oak Park and started commuting to Wrigley Field, so too did vast numbers of Detroit’s conservative city-Irish leave Detroit, and Tiger Stadium with it. All of Detroit’s past seven mayors starting with Cavanaugh have been Democrats.
Kwame Kilpatrick — the son of two Baby Boomer Detroit politicians — was the first second-generation leader of Detroit’s Democrat political machine. His six-year mayoralty, then, holds historic significance. With his cool-teacher antics and sappy business dealings, mediocre Kwame — his funny little grin usually plastered on his chubby little face — proved, simply by occupying the mayor’s office, the existence of a relatively-young postwar political machine. His demolition of Tiger Stadium made perfect sense. Kwame was the living embodiment of New Detroit, and so naturally he tore the symbol of Old Detroit to the ground.
Kwame will return to U.S. District Court in Detroit next summer to face further public corruption indictments in an ongoing, taxpayer-funded legal saga. “Assault” even appears in the litany of charges against him (apparently he shoved an investigator delivering his friend a perjury subpoena). Regardless of the outcome, Kilpatrick will be impossible to ignore in the annals of city history (though not for his criminality, for which he’ll stand out like “Waldo”). Little Kwame bridged the influence of Detroit’s liberal political machine into a new generation, and burned the last proud vestige of prosperous, conservative middle-class Detroit.
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