LIVING FOR CHANGE
Ford Auditorium: Metaphor for Detroit
By Grace Lee Boggs
Michigan Citizen, Nov. 28- Dec. 4, 2010
After its opening a half century ago, Ford Auditorium was home to the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and a hot spot for pop music concerts, high school graduations and famous speeches.
Today, after having been vacant and neglected for years, it means very different things to different people, depending on how you feel about Detroit’s past and future.
To Mayor David Bing, according to Karla Henderson, his executive planner:
Ford Auditorium is “like this monster right in the middle of all this progress that’s going on, so it definitely needs to be eliminated, (Demolishing it) sends the sign there is a change, there’s progress and hope. The mayor is clear he wants people to feel change.”
On the other hand, ,for veteran Detroiters and activists like myself and Ron Scott, Ford Auditorium is part of who we’ve been and are becoming. As Ron put it in his Detroit News blog:
“We must respect our history, the history embedded in the memory of that cold day when I was headed to see Donald Vail, precursor to the Winans, Vanessa Bell Armstrong, Fred Hammond and the Clark Sisters to name a few. Most of them spent time on that Ford Auditorium stage. Like the city itself, it should not be cast aside.
“Ms. Henderson’s language bothers me. It speaks of a disdain for the past and an arrogance about the present and future…. The word ‘monster’ is a strong term to use for a building still standing despite years of collective neglect by many administrations, and even to a large degree by the individuals whose name it bears.”
I have mixed but strong feelings whenever I think of Ford Auditorium.
I will never forget the night of February 14, 1965 when Malcolm made his last Detroit speech . It was at Ford Auditorium.
That morning Malcolm’s home in Queens had been bombed. He and his family barely escaped with their lives. Nevertheless Malcolm came to Detroit because he had agreed to do so and keeping his word was always important to him.
As we sat waiting in the auditorium and time passed without any sign of Malcolm or any announcement of what to expect, I got
up and went out to the lobby where I found Attorney Milton Henry, Malcolm’s close friend who had arranged the meeting. When Milton said “Malcolm’s dead.” I was devastated. But I was relieved when he explained that he only meant Malcolm was exhausted.
Much later when Malcolm finally entered from the wings and began speaking, the auditorium was almost empty. Most people had tired of waiting. After a few minutes I also left because I found it too painful to watch and listen to a sedated, exhausted but indomitable Malcolm struggling to carry on.
A week later, on February 21, “our own black shining prince” was gunned down at the Audubon Ballroom in New York.
Many years later in 1990, a handful of us, including City Council members Maryann Mahaffey and Mel Ravitz, with the assistance of attorney Curtis Blessing (son of former Detroit City Planning Director Charles Blessing) organized to oppose the effort by Mayor Coleman Young to demolish Ford Auditorium and give the site to a private developer to build a new skyscraper headquarters for Comerica Bank.
The plan was scrapped because the idea of giving public riverfront land to private interests infuriated thousands of Detroiters who recalled walking across the auditorium stage during their high school graduation ceremonies.
In freezing weather these Detroiters lined up to sign our petitions to save Ford Auditorium. ______
My USSF Conversation with Immanuel Wallerstein can be read at