Carl Levin is a true statesman. He’s served as an United States Senator for 36 years to advocate (and pass) meaningful legislation, not for accolades. At public events he shuns self-promotion and focuses on policy. When a supporter approaches him with a compliment he turns the spotlight on his staff. His popularity is well-deserved and although he is a ranking Democrat, Republicans often tell him that they’ve supported him throughout his tenure because he is a great man.
As he concludes his final term, there are plenty of pieces with farewell interviews and well-wishes that include personal anecdotes from people who have known him – here’s another one. I’ve been fortunate to work in his office for five and a half years. It’s been an incredible experience and I’ve learned a lot. People often ask what Senator Levin is like and expect a flashy description that matches some motion picture persona. Carl is a rockstar, he demands high quality work but he is not fancy. When he’s in a parade, he walks behind the car and doesn’t ride in it. When sidewalk watchers call to him and ask a question or for a picture, he’ll go to them and fulfill the request. This makes things a bit awkward for the staff member who drives in front of him in the parade. One awkward car moment can be exchanged for an awkward but exciting lunch in the parking lot of McDonald’s.
Although Senator Levin has achieved a laundry-list of meaningful accomplishments, my favorite memories of him will always be the casual encounters. My favorite of these moments are the random staff meetings we have when there is a break in his schedule. He sits back and opens the room to questions. Often my co-workers don’t have much to say and I happily take the lead with questions such as “Do you watch House of Cards?”*
Since Carl is a casual person, I prefer the casual questions. I asked no policy or legacy questions for this interview. Instead I focused on something I know is meaningful to him – Detroit. Carl Levin was born, raised and continues to live in the city of Detroit. He served eight years on City Council in the 1970s. His decision to have his main office in Detroit, allowed me the opportunity to witness the city’s development firsthand on a daily basis and inevitably led to this blog. I’m grateful to Carl Levin for a lot of things and answering my questions certainly tops the list.
What was Detroit like when you were younger?
When I was younger Detroit was a place we were happily going to school. We were in the middle of World War II and everyone was pitching in together to win a war effort. All the kids were collecting pieces of metal foil from cigarette and gum wrappers and bringing them into the school to help produce bullets that would win the war. We lived in a wonderful neighborhood – the Boston-Edison area. We had great friends at Roosevelt Elementary School and Central High School. We played a lot of baseball and basketball. We had great teachers. Loved to take the streetcar downtown to Olympia to watch the hockey games or to Tiger Stadium to watch baseball games. It was a very wonderful city where people seemed to get along really well until we had a riot. Until then everything seemed to be okay but then the riot broke the ice. It became clear that not everyone was as happy as my brother, sister and I were.
Did you foresee the drastic decline of the city or did it surprise you?
It would have been shocking before it began. Up to 1947, I did not foresee the decline but then two things happened. One was a lot of racial tension, racism and white flight. Plus the building of the freeways which helped drain Detroit – its economy and jobs. Freeways took jobs and shoppers to the suburbs. I would say those two things fairly gradually helped drain the city of some of its economic base. If I were looking ahead at the age of 10, 11, or 12, I would not have foreseen that – I don’t think many people would – but once it began to happen, it was gradual but still not surprising.
What do you think the determining factor of Detroit’s success will be?
Young people. The younger generation is more able to overcome bigotry, hatred, discrimination, and stereotyping. They want to be where other young people are. They don’t care as much about race, gender and sexual orientation. The younger generation has overcome a lot of the hobgobblins of the older folks. Also the younger generation is participating in a huge economic rejuvenation. A lot of entrepreneurial stuff related to new technology: social media, websites, apps. Detroit is one of the five fastest cities growing in terms of technology.
Young people want to live in the city. People who before would have moved to the suburbs, to safer neighborhoods that might have better schools, are now seeing that there are disadvantages to living in the suburbs where you don’t have sidewalks and distances require having to drive everywhere and the population is less diverse. I think the diverse population in the city is now a plus rather than a minus.
Tiger Stadium is really important to you. What is your favorite memory there?
One: I would say the World Series in 1945 when I went to the first game. I sat way out on the left field foul post in the upper deck and watched Newhouser lose 9-0. He won the other times he pitched so the Tigers won the series but they were clobbered the first game. I loved being out there for the World Series, I remember it vividly. Secondly, would be running into Hank Greenberg – physically – as I was walking on Michigan Avenue after a game… I was 10, 11 or 12. The third memory has nothing to do with the Tigers, it has to do with football. The Lions played Green Bay in Tiger Stadium on Thanksgiving. It always seemed to snow but I went there a number of Thanksgivings.
What’s your perfect day in the city?
Perfect day in the city would probably include two things: walking the Riverwalk and eating in some new restaurant. New restaurants are opening up all over the place and experiencing that would be part of a perfect day. Ofcourse, coming to work with all of my wonderful staff – that’s always part of a perfect day. I would say those would be the hallmarks.
*He has seen it but prefers The West Wing (another reason he totally rocks in my book).