December 30, 2011
NORTHVILLE — Roman “Ray” Gribbs still loves Detroit, the town where he was born back in 1925, in an era when the city was growing so fast builders couldn’t keep up.
His parents were Polish immigrants who were basically farmers, though his dad worked on the assembly line. They beamed with pride when their son graduated from law school. The son’s secret ambition was to be a judge, and he eventually achieved that, serving for years on the Wayne County Circuit Court and then the Michigan Court of Appeals.
But he once held another office, too, one that now comes up mostly in trivia games. He was the last white mayor of Detroit.
“I never thought that would be the case. I thought it would go back and forth,” he said over lunch near his home. Dapper, active, and looking much younger than his 86 years, Gribbs still occasionally fills in as a visiting judge and works as a mediator for FINRA, the federal agency that regulates the security industry.
Occasionally, old-timers still come up to him and tell him, “you were the last good mayor Detroit had,” and he admits, chuckling, “I don’t mind all that much.” But he thinks Dennis Archer, who served from 1994 to 2002, was a “very good mayor.”
He even has some good words to say for Coleman Young, his successor and the man suburbanites love to blame for the city’s decline. “He did a pretty good job his first couple terms. But he stayed too long [20 years] and didn’t keep an eye on things, and people around him became corrupt,” he said.
Gribbs served a single term as mayor, from 1970 to 1974, an era when the city still had more than 1.5 million people, more than twice as many as now. Financially, there were problems, but Detroit was in far better shape than today, and the population was almost evenly divided between black and white.
But times were tough in other ways. Gribbs was elected in an extremely close race, beating Richard Austin, who later became Michigan secretary of state, by barely 1 percent of the vote.
That was just two years after the devastating 1967 riot, which accelerated white flight and the city’s decline. “Every year, we woke worrying about the possibility of another hot summer, another riot,” Gribbs remembered. “I knew that what I had to do to prevent that was bring the black community into the city administration.”
He did what he could, appointing the respected Walter Greene deputy mayor. His administration improved Eastern Market, and worked with Henry Ford II and a coalition of business leaders to build the Renaissance Center in an attempt to revitalize downtown.
“I think I stabilized the city, got it moving again. We brought down crime three years running and, of course, another [riot] never happened,” he said. Nationally, he lobbied hard for Congress to begin a revenue sharing program, arguing that since the nation’s cities have a disproportionate share of the nation’s poor, they deserve extra aid.
That helped, for awhile. But all the stress took a toll. Odds are that the mayor could have won a second term. But a year before the next election, he announced he wouldn’t run again.
“That was a mistake. I became an instant lame duck, lost influence, when I said I wasn’t running. And, if I could plan my life again, I would have said, well, if you really want to do something for Detroit, you’ve got to commit to eight years, not just four.”
Among other things, he had begun to streamline procedures to make it easier to start a business in the city, a process that for years has driven potential investors mad. “I wish I’d finished that job.”
Today, the former mayor regards what is happening to Detroit as an epic tragedy. “I think they could still avoid having an Emergency Manager, but they probably won’t,” he said.
“They would have to make some tough, tough choices. That means huge [union] concessions. There’s no way around it. Police 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 to where they ought to be.”
That might serve to balance the current budget deficit. But Detroit also has an estimated $12 billion in long-term liabilities, for which there is no revenue stream. How can the city cope with that?
Roman Gribbs put down his fork. “That’s a real question,” he said.
What happened to ruin Detroit? In his view, two immense problems: Safety and the schools. “If you don’t feel safe from crime and can’t put your kids in the public schools, everybody who can leave, will. And that’s what happened.”
Gribbs knows the city’s problems aren’t entirely its own fault, but thinks the city needs to face economic reality. His immigrant parents had a small farm they lost during the Great Depression. They picked themselves up, and his dad went back to work on the line.
Eventually, through hard work, they scraped together the money and bought another home. That might sound quaint. But it also might not be a bad example for Detroit today.