turning rust into steel.
Years before he became Michigan’s longest-serving Senator, Carl Levin was developing his taste for politics in a slightly smaller arena.
“My interest in politics started at the dinner table with our parents, who were strong Democrats and New Dealers. My dad was a lawyer and an activist. He did pro bono work, like helping farm workers improve sanitary conditions. Governor Soapy Williams also appointed him to the Prison Commission, which was a citizen-volunteer group that oversaw the treatment of prisoners. And my mother volunteered almost every day at a Jewish organization called Hadassah. They really taught us the importance of politics in peoples’ lives and about being involved in organizations aimed at helping people improve their circumstances.”
Those dinner table forums took place in the City of Detroit, where Levin was born and raised, and still lives today.
“We lived on Boston Boulevard which was not a predominately Jewish neighborhood, but most of the kids in my school were Jewish. I remember the community was very close. Many of my friends today are the same ones I had at Durfee and Central High School. World War II was happening when I was 7 to 11 years old. It had a big impact on us because the community was pulling together for a common cause. We would flatten cans at home or pick up gum wrappers and cigarette packs off the street and peel off the foil and bring them all to school. Then they would be shipped off to become bullets or other military equipment. It was a city-wide public school effort, so it made us feel like we were a part of something larger than ourselves.”
After graduating from Harvard Law School, he returned to Detroit to begin his career. Despite his interest in politics, becoming a politician was not the plan. Instead, he practiced law privately and taught at Wayne State and U of D Mercy, then became General Counsel of the Michigan Civil Rights Commission when it was created in 1964.
“I argued some very significant civil rights cases while I was there. We took on Mayor Hubbard in Dearborn, who was a racist… We fought against the rampant housing discrimination, including winning a Michigan Supreme Court case against the biggest builder in town, Pulte, who refused to sell land or houses to African-Americans. I then helped form the Legal Aid Defender's Office in 1965 or 1966. So, I wasn’t planning on getting into politics, but when the riots happened in ’67, I was urged to run for Detroit City Council.”
Detroiters viewed Levin as a strong candidate because of his proven ability to build bridges between communities divided — and devastated — by racism. He won the 1969 election and served two four-year terms during one of Detroit’s most challenging decades in recent history.
“We had an integrated city council; not quite proportional but at least a solid representation. Financially we had a lot of pressures, so our goal was to keep the city on an even keel, and that meant doing whatever we could to try to balance our budget, while at same time providing critical services to keep people in the City of Detroit — which, I’m afraid, we did not succeed in doing at the time.”
As Detroit’s population dwindled and the financial crisis worsened, the growing number of vacant homes across the city became hotbeds for crime, drugs and prostitution, which wreaked havoc on neighborhoods. Levin pleaded with landowners — especially the Federal Government, who owned many of those properties — to board up or demolish vacant homes to deter crime. But after months of inaction, he led council to take matters into its own hands.
“The Federal Government was not being responsive — in fact, they were fostering danger in our neighborhoods by not maintaining thousands of vacant houses that they had repossessed. We were enforcing a very clear ordinance that said these properties had to be boarded up; we even had weekly hearings telling owners to take action or we were going to tear the houses down. HUD said it would indict me if I did, but I knew the jury would convict them, not me. So one Saturday I went out with a bulldozing crew that was employed by the city and told them to tear down a HUD-owned vacant house that was open to trespass. There was a big picture in the paper the next day. I think we got their attention.”
Though he’s had his share of victories, Levin has also seen firsthand how unresolved issues often driven by racism have, at times, stunted Detroit’s growth.
“In the 70s we had some important construction going on — including the Renaissance Center and the Joe Louis Arena — so there were glimmers of progress. But, despite being on Jefferson, both buildings were really isolated. The Renaissance Center was sort of separated from the city by a big wall because it was supposedly more safe. So, symbolically, we had this major development right at the edge of Woodward, right in our key riverfront location, being isolated from the city. So we had a lot of those kind of issues.”
Levin served on City Council until early 1979, when he decided to make a run for the United States Senate. He won the election and would hold the position for the next 36 years.
“I was interested in the management of federal programs in ways that were both cost-effective and productive. There was important work to be done, but it wasn’t being done well. That was my message to Washington: We have a lot of important programs, but people will turn against them if they don’t work. I also wanted elected officials to be accountable to the people; constituents should be able to go to their elected officials and tell them what’s not working so they can use their power to fix it.”
During his time in the Senate, Levin worked on issues ranging from education to health care to the environment, and often used the platform to bolster Detroit because he believed so deeply in the city’s potential.
Today, he is proud to see that potential being realized.
“Detroit's momentum and rebound is stunning. I've always argued that we would have a strong comeback someday, but I never imagined what’s going on now would happen in my lifetime. It is not yet as strong a comeback in the neighborhoods as in the commercial areas, but there are several that are on the rise, like Indian Village, Palmer Woods and Green Acres, where I used to live. Those neighborhoods are stronger now, and that’s key because that will gradually happen in other areas.”
From Levin’s perspective, Detroit has turned a critical corner, and now it’s up to the next generation of leaders to keep pushing the city forward.
“Detroit is becoming a place where more and more young people want to live, and I have a lot of confidence in the younger generation. I think they see the value of community; of living among and learning from a diverse group of people. Detroit also reflects strength — enduring tough periods and emerging stronger, more tolerant and more respectful… It’s turning rust into steel. That story has given Detroit huge momentum around the country and around the world; it's an excitement that’s contagious.”