TCF Center

Detroit's big convention center, TCF Center, was originally called Cobo Hall after Albert Cobo, Detroit's Mayor in the 1950s. As Detroit's black and white political and business leaders worked more closely with each other in the last 30 years or so, a movement grew to change the name because of negative impact Cobo's policies had on black Detroiters and led to the city's decline.

You may think I’m going to write about how the elections of 2016 and 2020 brought out so many people with the maturity of four-year-olds in this nation. However, I’m not going to do that. Instead, I’m going to tell a story that could perhaps help all Americans deal with the painful parts of our history while respecting our history at the same time.

That big convention center in Detroit where they’re doing the counting is now known as TCF Center. When I lived near Detroit, it was called Cobo Hall. I even went to see a Detroit Pistons game there when I was a kid. That’s when they had players like Dave Bing and Bob Lanier.

Albert Cobo was Detroit’s Mayor from 1950 to 1957. For many years, his time in office was seen as a time of great progress and growth in Detroit. He was largely responsible for building the big convention center on the riverfront as part of Detroit’s Civic Center. He also oversaw many urban renewal projects and new infrastructure, like the city’s freeways.

During Cobo’s administration and for a decade following his death while he was in office, Detroit was seen as a symbol of progress and prosperity. That image was shattered when the terrible riots broke out on July 23, 1967 and spread through the city. It was only then that Detroit’s leaders and the rest of the nation realized that, far from being a model city, Detroit was very, very sick. It would get even sicker as time went on.

In the following decades, Detroit’s black leaders in politics, the professions and business began interacting and working with their white counterparts to try to get things done for the city. As personal relationships developed and people of all races started to listen to each other, a new view of Cobo’s time in office began to emerge.

The first thing that came out was Cobo was a segregationist. His policies favored property owners, who were mostly white, over renters, who were mostly black. His “urban renewal” projects destroyed traditional black neighborhoods. Many blacks saw “urban renewal” as “black removal.”

His freeways nearly always plowed through black neighborhoods. As an example, the Paradise Valley neighborhood was known for many black-owned businesses and its thriving jazz scene. It’s now the site of an interchange on the Chrysler Freeway.

Cobo’s freeways allowed for wealthy whites to move to the suburbs. They took up land that now couldn’t be taxed. Cobo also dismantled the city’s streetcar system at a time when many blacks used it to get to and from work. Most black households in Detroit didn’t have cars.

Far from being a time of growth, Detroit’s decline began under Cobo’s watch. By 1960, the city’s population had declined by over 200,000 residents, from 1.8 million in 1950 to 1.6 million in 1960.

All of this led many Detroiters to want the name on the convention hall changed. Mayor Mike Duggan, who’s white in a city that’s 75 percent black, said he wanted the name changed.

The trouble was Cobo was an important figure in Detroit’s history. He was responsible for building the convention center, which was one of the few major successes of his urban renewal projects.

The city owned Cobo Hall, and they needed money to upgrade and maintain the place (the City of Detroit needing money? Imagine that!). They took care of the name change and got the money they needed with the same solution:  they sold the naming rights.

That’s how Cobo Hall became TCF Center.

My point is this:  we can deal with painful elements of our history, and we can achieve successes that both respect and try to make amends for that history. However, to do this, we need to get to know each other, respect each other, talk to each other, and, most importantly, listen to each other and empathize with each other.

The name change on Detroit’s convention center might not have gone as smoothly as it did except that Detroit’s black and white leaders had built personal relationships and listened to each other. That’s the key. Get to know each other and listen to each other.

You can get a lot more done that way than calling each other the enemy and yelling and screaming at each other. That’s something many Americans seem to have forgotten.

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