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Employment Is Up, Murder Is Down—and Mayor Coleman Young Has Detroit on the Rebound

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Four years ago, when Coleman Young was elected Detroit’s first black mayor, the Motor City was on a collision course with disaster. The police department was seething with racial tension, municipal bankruptcy loomed ahead, and the crime rate—the highest in the country—had earned Detroit the dubious title of “Murder City.” Few expected that Young, a blunt-spoken state senator with a radical past, could revive the nation’s fifth largest city. But that’s exactly what the twice-divorced, 59-year-old Democrat appears to have done. In the process, Young has made believers out of some of his most impassioned critics. Henry Ford II (“Hank the Deuce,” Young calls him affectionately) is now a regular dinner guest, as are United Auto Workers President Douglass Fraser and millionaire industrialist Max Fisher. “Some of my opponents,” chuckles Young, “have actually discovered that I don’t have horns on top of my head.”

Such high-powered support is expected to propel Young to a landslide reelection victory in November—and into the national spotlight. His opponent, city councilman Ernest Browne Jr., is also a black, and is backed by the predominantly white Detroit Police Officers Association, which fielded its own white candidate against Young in 1973. But Young’s first-term record is formidable. The city’s budget stands balanced for the first time in a decade; the police department has yielded at last to integration; the youth gangs that terrorized the city last summer have dispersed; and—most significant, perhaps—Detroit’s murder rate has dipped a stunning 35 percent since Young took office. “The city’s been turned around,” declares Young, “but you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet.”

Even as Young has prospered politically, aspects of his life-style have raised dubious eyebrows. Though he has cut down on his Jamaica vacations and no longer drives over to Detroit’s East End to play poker with old ghetto chums, he has drawn fire for his 10-year liaison with Joyce Garrett, a 46-year-old divorcée whom he appointed to head the city’s Bicentennial commission in 1975. “It’s all bullshit,” Garrett says of talk that she’s a political liability. “It’s not enough that there’s a black man in city hall, but he’s out there with his ‘uppity woman’ besides.”

Born in Tuscaloosa, Ala., Coleman was only 5 when his family moved north to Detroit’s notorious “Black Bottom” section, where his father scraped out a living as a tailor. Rejected for four college scholarships “because I was black,” Young went to work instead as an electrician at the Ford plant in River Rouge—and plunged headlong into union and civil rights organizing. Commissioned a second lieutenant in the Army Air Corps during World War II, Young led a demonstration by 101 black airmen that resulted in a presidential order to integrate all officers clubs. Mustered out, Young returned to Detroit, but soon found himself blacklisted by all the auto plants. “I worked at Ford exactly 89 days—the probationary period—before I was summarily dismissed,” he recalls. “It was a rough time.”

In 1952 Young’s years of agitating finally earned him an unwanted audience with the Red-baiting House Un-American Activities Committee, which he promptly and scathingly denounced for its racism. There followed a succession of lean years for Young, but in 1959 he was bitten by the political bug and on his first try nearly won a seat on Detroit’s city council (“I figured it was proof my slate was clean again”). Elected to the state senate in 1964, he made majority leader in only five years. “I learned the delicate art of compromise in the legislature,” says Young, who enjoyed cordial—and productive—relations with even his most ardent antagonists. “He’s a damn good fighter,” says one old foe. “But when it’s all over, he’ll invite you out for a beer.”

While campaigning for his second term, Young is routinely guarded by a three-man police detail, and his sleek Cadillac limousine follows a different route to his office each morning. (Young was harassed by death threats after the 1973 election, and once admitted he was fearful that a disgruntled white cop might try to counter ballots with bullets.) The onetime radical, however, was an early and vocal supporter of Jimmy Carter, and defended the Georgian warmly even after his embarrassing “ethnic purity” gaffe. “It’s clear to me that Carter’s not a racist,” he says, “and I have faith that Jimmy will honor his commitments.” But when Carter offered the mayor a Cabinet post as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Young politely declined. “My commitment is to make Detroit a great, thriving town again,” he explains. “That’s all I want from life, man. And it’s gonna happen.”