Tuesday, May 22, 2018
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Jack Lessenberry


Detroit Vietnam vets’ bid for memorial park in limbo



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DETROIT — Paul Palazzollo remembers the days when he, along with other veterans, chased away junkies and cleaned up a large vacant lot next to what used to be Greenfield’s Restaurant on Woodward Avenue here.

Vietnam Veterans of America, Detroit Chapter 9, took the abandoned restaurant, fixed it up, and made it a welcoming place for veterans — and not just those from Vietnam.

“We had a motto,” said Mike Sand, a high school teacher and former chapter president. “Never again shall one generation of veterans abandon another.”

Vietnam veterans remember how they were treated when they came back home. Not only were they spat on and reviled by war protesters, they were sometimes shunned by veterans of World War II and the Korean War, who saw them as somehow tainted.

Soon, Vietnam vets were reaching out to homeless veterans and others in trouble. Nearly a decade ago, they restarted an annual November Veterans’ Day parade in Detroit.

But they also had a dream: A veterans memorial park in Detroit.

“A place to come and reflect, and also a place that would teach young people about our history,” said Charles Merz, an architect who has been involved heavily in the project.

The veterans have a professional design, some money, and a well-thought-out plan to collect the rest. There’s only one problem: For years, they have been betrayed and put off by the City of Detroit.

Members of the veterans’ group said they originally were told by City Hall that they could build the memorial on their lot on Woodward. But formal permission never came. Then-Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick let someone else use the lot. So the group looked for another place and settled on the empty Gabriel Richard Park on the Detroit riverfront.

The vets had a windfall this year. Pizza baron Mike Ilitch, the owner of the Detroit Red Wings and the Detroit Tigers, wanted their building for his new entertainment district. According to the vets, he paid them $2.5 million for it and said they wouldn’t have to move out for two years.

Last fall, the veterans’ group presented its plans to the city. The cost of the entire project was estimated at $1.75 million. The vets intend to provide $2.5 million, to cover cost overruns and park maintenance.

After their presentation, they got a letter from Alicia Minter, head of Detroit’s recreation department. It said: “After reviewing your organization’s proposal … I offer the Detroit Recreation Department’s approval and support.”

But then, nothing. Their attempts to contact Ms. Minter failed. Finally, she apparently told one of the veterans that they should build the memorial in another, essentially deserted city park, which has little traffic and, the vets say, a broken sewer.

The veterans are frustrated — and are aging. “We don’t have much time left,” Mr. Sand told me when I met him and some of his buddies. They are baffled at Detroit’s attitude.

They say now that they would like, simply, to tell their story to Mayor Mike Duggan.

You might think he’d at least want to listen.

Few Michiganians paid much attention to the news last week that Democrat Godfrey Dillard, a Detroit civil rights attorney, had suddenly dropped his bid for state attorney general and decided to run for secretary of state instead.

But there is an underlying political significance: Mr. Dillard, 65, starts the campaign as a decided underdog to GOP incumbent Secretary of State Ruth Johnson.

Last week, he said he had decided to run for secretary of state because that official runs elections, and it is critical to protect the right to vote and to police campaign-finance and other abuses.

The way in which this shift played out is a tribute to the deft hand of Lon Johnson, Michigan’s Democratic Party chairman. He managed to head off a dilemma. Traditionally, Democratic statewide tickets in Michigan need to field a woman and an African-American among nominees for the top four jobs: Governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, and secretary of state.

Nominees for the last two positions are picked not in primaries, but at the GOP and Democratic state conventions held in late summer. Mark Totten, a young former federal prosecutor and law professor at Michigan State University, has been running hard for the attorney general’s nomination for months.

In past years, under former Democratic chairman Mark Brewer, the party did not hesitate to shove even deserving candidates aside for ethnic balance.

Mr. Dillard’s willingness to run for secretary of state apparently means the Democratic ticket is set. These and other candidates will be ratified at the Democratic state convention in two weeks.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade’s ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

Contact him at: omblade@aol.com

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