Detroit pastor talks downtown developments
Many people have a strong emotional connection to Detroit’s old train station that is about to be transformed by Ford Motor Company. That is why the recent announcement by Ford chairman Bill Ford Jr. has been greeted with jubilant celebration in diverse circles.
The promise of new development under a Ford ownership after such a long wait is sure to make true lovers of Detroit happy.
Among them is Bishop P.A. Brooks, regarded as the dean of the faith community in Detroit and the senior pastor of New St. Paul Tabernacle Church of God in Christ, COGIC, on the city’s west side.
The octogenarian minister, who is also second-in-command of COGIC, the nation’s largest black Christian denomination, opened up to me last week in his office about how the old train station is inextricably tied to his own journey of destiny that brought him to Detroit more than 60 years ago. The iconic building that once projected pride, but for a long time has stood as an eyesore in the city, and now proves pivotal to the renaissance of the city, has a special linkage to Brooks.
“When I first came to Detroit from Chicago in 1949, I came through the train station. This is the station that received me from my birthplace of Chicago to the Motor City,” Brooks told me. “It is very personal for me and I’m glad to see that Bill Ford and his group are going to make a major contribution to the rebirth and health of Detroit with that station.”
Brooks has seen the ebb and flow of Detroit, and the reality of what it means to be ministering in an urban city for decades while facing the dreariness of life in the inner city. He has also seen Detroit during its golden period, before the downward spiral, including the Coleman A. Young era, when the former mayor often sought counsel from him.
In fact, a photo of Young, former Democratic Gov. Jim Blanchard, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, is displayed in his office. It shows Brooks brokering peace between Young and Blanchard at his church during a crucial 1990 election, in which Blanchard lost to Republican John Engler, and explains his statesman-like leadership over the course of this city’s post-industrial history.
His powerful, museum-like memories of the city can best be summed up in Charles Dickens' “A Tale of Two Cities,” where the author noted, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity.”
Brooks has seen it all.
“I have seen Detroit as a proud city,” Brooks said. “It was an important part of the great migration, and a place to come and make a great middle-class family. I was always fascinated by the residential tree lines.”
But Brooks, a breathing, walking, engaging and inspiring history himself, thinks Ford stands to make a significant and lasting positive difference with the purchase of the building that evokes so many memories about the city’s own journey to 21st century significance.
“There is a special relationship between Ford Motor Company and African-Americans in this city,” Brooks said, as he showed me a photo of William Perry, the first known black to be hired by the car company’s founder, Henry Ford. “Ford opened the doors for a lot of minorities and black people in this town and they are principal supporters of the Charles Wright Museum of African American History.”
That special bond between blacks and Ford, according to Brooks, “should be reflected in the vision for the redevelopment of the train station. I would like to see a cross-section participation of African-American entrepreneurs in this development. You’ve got to have minorities at the table.”
And Brooks is right.
Ford Motor Company has a storied relationship with the black community. So, if revitalization of the historic building that first greeted Brooks when the late minister William Rimson invited him to Detroit as a young musician, becomes a bold and instructive example of economic inclusion, it is nothing but a win-win for the city.
“I don’t see an issue calling for diversity. Someone has to say something about it,” Brooks said with an infectious smile.
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