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Commentary

Oak Park's unsung shero

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Four years ago, Marian McClellan was a retired teacher who’d lived for the past quarter century in the small Detroit suburb of Oak Park, just north of the city.

Oak Park’s story was similar to that of many older, so-called inner ring suburbs. It was largely pastures and swamps before World War II. Then, as the freeways came, it exploded. Barely a thousand people lived there in 1945.

Fifteen years later, Oak Park had 36,000. On the walls of its new city hall are large color photos from the early 1950s. Young families moving in; smiling contractors overseeing a forest of homes, some sturdy brick houses; others Levittown style ranches.

Back then, Oak Park was known as Detroit’s Jewish suburb, though several star major league baseball players lived there too, including Al Kaline and Norm Cash. Jeffrey Sachs, the world-famous economist grew up there; so did Geoffrey Fieger and his musician brother Doug. Gradually, however, the more affluent moved north and west.

Tax revenues fell, and the population started declining. McClellan had time on her hands and some ideas on how to revitalize the place. But she couldn’t get the time of day from city hall. She said the mayor, who’d been in office more than twenty years, wouldn’t call her back. She found other residents who’d had similar experiences. So she decided to run for mayor herself, as much as a protest as anything else. On election night, she was stunned to learn she had won.

She threw herself into what was supposed to be a part-time, $6,000-a-year job. She was startled to find that she qualified for full health care benefits. “For a part-time job? When the city is laying people off? No, no, no,” she said.

This week, Mayor McClellan showed me around. “I refused to accept we were doomed to decline,” she said. She went after grants, for bike lanes, for a Corridor Improvement Authority, to bring lights and landscaping to shopworn retail districts.

And she got them. People rolled their eyes when she said she’d try to get Federal Express to put a distribution center in an old World War II machine gun plant. That is, until FedEx held groundbreaking ceremonies last week. That will mean hundreds of jobs. When she ran for reelection two years ago, she had only write-in opposition.

This year, the voters decided to allow liquor to be served in restaurants for the first time. City council decided to allow outdoor dining. Last year, the census bureau estimated that for the first time since the 1960s, Oak Park is growing again. The demographics seem to have stabilized at roughly 60% black, 40% percent white.

Marian McClellan showed me a picture of herself with the governor and Michigan’s two U.S. senators. “The nice thing about a job like this is that you get to meet the big shots,” she said. “But it’s all about community.”

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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