At 33 stories, the Millender Apartments make up one of Detroit’s tallest and best-known residential buildings. The tower rises on East Jefferson, connected to city hall and the Renaissance Center by enclosed walkways.
When Farmington Hills-based Village Green announced recently it had purchased the Millender Apartments, the company also said it planned to change the name.
The naming news received virtually no public comment. The purchase seems to be another example of the accelerating trend of new money and energy pouring into downtown, as Village Green said it would renovate the 338-unit tower and offer 24-hour concierge service.
Yet a number of people across Detroit raised their eyebrows when they heard the Millender was to be renamed. They recall the apartment’s namesake is Robert Millender, a Detroit lawyer who died in 1978.
Again, no big deal. Buildings receive new names from time to time.
But Detroiters who were paying attention recalled Millender as a giant of black Detroit.
Bob Berg, a public relations executive who served as a spokesman for both Gov. William Milliken and Mayor Coleman Young, said Millender continues to enjoy “legendary status” in Detroit’s African American community.
“Coming in and changing the name is extremely insensitive and confirms the worst fears many have about the impact of growing suburban influence in the city,” said Berg, who happens to be white.
Millender, an attorney with close to ties to labor, played a major role in establishing black political power in Detroit at a time when that was virtually nonexistent.
As his bio says at the Detroit African-American History Project:
Millender was a driving force behind the first generation of successful African-American politicians in the city of Detroit. . . . Millender’s significance to the people of Detroit is demonstrated by the naming of the Robert L. Millender Center in his honor.”
Millender was a strategist and often a campaign manager, with clients who included:
- U.S. Rep. John Conyers.
- George Crockett Jr., the first African-American elected to Detroit’s criminal court and later a U.S. congressman.
- Robert Tindal and Erma Henderson, among the first black members of the Detroit City Council.
- Richard Austin, who lost a 1969 mayoral race before becoming Michigan's first black secretary of state a year later.
And, of course, Coleman Young. Millender was behind the complicated strategy that led to the election of Detroit’s first black mayor in 1973.
It’s easy to overlook Millender’s accomplishments today with an African American in the White House. But black Detroiters faced enormous obstacles in their quest for equality; whites refused to give up power voluntarily.
Memory is important to every ethnic and racial group. That’s why many buildings, parks and streets around the world are named after people. Detroit, despite being the biggest black-majority city in the nation, has relatively few African Americans memorialized within its city limits.
Blacks in Detroit have little economic power, but they do have political clout -- though the Millender name change comes, coincidentally, just as the white-run state government has taken over city government with the appointment of the emergency manager, and as a white businessman, Dan Gilbert, seemingly assumes command of the future of downtown Detroit.
While both developments might be welcome and needed, they create a context in which the stripping of Robert Millender’s name from the apartments seems even more inappropriate.
Village Green is a private business run today by Jonathan Holtzman.
It is one of the largest privately owned, luxury multifamily housing companies in the United States, the company says on its website. Begun in Detroit in 1919, Village Green evolved from building single-family homes into owning and developing upscale rental housing. It manages, 40,000 units in 13 states.
Holtzman apparently was too busy to talk about changing the Millender name. His spokeswoman, Jacqueline Trost, noted that Village Green bought only the apartments at the Millender Center, and that the center will continue to be named Millender.
True, but the main components of Millender Center are the apartments and a hotel, and the hotel is called Courtyard by Marriott. The remaining parts of the center, which is owned by General Motors Corp., are rather mundane: a parking garage, People Mover station and a small amount of retail and dining space.
Trost said Village Green typically renames the properties it purchases, including the Trolley Plaza/Washington Square Apartments on Washington Boulevard several years ago. They were renamed Detroit City Apartments.
True again, but that building’s original name basically meant nothing to anyone.
Millender means a lot to many people. While his name might not resonate in Farmington Hills, in Detroit it recalls black heroes, the civil rights struggle and self-determination.
For someone who is essentially a neighbor -- he lives a lot closer to the Millender Apartments than to most of the units his firm controls -- Holtzman appears to be exhibiting an unusual quality for a successful businessman in this purchase.
Even if this issue is largely symbolic, he seems kind of tone deaf.