Jewfro: Crossing The Threshold With Al Taubman

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By Ben Falik

To better get to know the man as he lived — beyond the obits, eulogies, shouts and murmurs — Al Taubman and I spent the day after his funeral together.

9 a.m., my kitchen. For $3.99, I’m downloading A. Alfred Taubman’s 2007 autobiography Threshold Resistance: The Extraordinary Career of a Luxury Retailing Pioneer (the source of his quotations to follow). I’ve never used Kindle before, though I’ve always admired the pink case on my wife’s. Threshold resistance, for Taubman, describes “the physical and psychological barriers that stand between your shoppers and your merchandise.” Far be it for me to resist…

9:30 a.m., Twelve Oaks Mall. Empowered by my pink Kindle, I take a full lap around the ring road, one of which surrounds every Taubman center. I’ve never been to Twelve Oaks, which appears to be breaking one of Taubman’s rules: “There is a very distinctive sound to shopping: heels clicking, people in conversation, shopping bags in motion. Music is not necessary to set the mood.” Maybe they turn the music off (or down) when the stores open.

I drink coffee I brewed at home next to Starbucks and wonder if Taubman and I were fundamentally different, or just products of different eras.

I have lowered threshold resistance for people who want to get involved in Detroit. Still, my autobiography would be called Never Pay Retail: Nobody Goes There Anymore, It’s Too Crowded. As promised, I can gaze at the stores upstairs through “clear handrails on the upper level that preserve unobstructed sight lines.”

When I leave shortly before 10:45, a group is gathered in front of the Cheesecake Factory 15 minutes before it opens: “Attractive sit-down or ‘tablecloth’ restaurants hold the customer longer in the mall and increase the number of monthly visits.”

Noon, Riverfront Towers. I bike from my office in Southwest Detroit to Riverfront Towers. I’m riding along the Riverwalk because I can’t reach Downtown by street without detouring around Joe Louis Arena. The tangle of skywalks, overpasses, gates and fences would no doubt give heartburn to the students at U-M’s A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Studies.

The first tower was started in 1982, and the third was completed in 1992. Riverfront Towers came from the combination of the crippling recession, Mayor Coleman Young’s desire to catalyze residential development in Detroit, and his trust in Taubman and Max Fisher’s close relationship with Ronald Reagan.

Architect Abe Kadushin recalls the project fondly. Taubman was very hands-on, insisting on upgrades that “drove the FHA crazy” and meeting Abe in New York to pick out Persian rugs from Sotheby’s for the lobbies.

Steve Yzerman and Sergei Federov were two of the first tenants. Later tenants included Young himself, Aretha Franklin — and Rosa Parks, whose rent was paid by Taubman and Fisher. The project lost more than $50 million.

Ben Falik pausing at (but not resisting) a threshold at the Detroit Institute of Arts

4 p.m., Detroit Institute of Arts. Just past the Detroit Medical Center (where a Taubman-funded lab developed AZT, the first drug approved by the FDA for the treatment of HIV infection and AIDS), I arrive at the DIA. Visitors have him to thank for pieces he donated and for overseeing the $170 million renovation:

“I’ve helped plan the new internal circulation patterns at the DIA. (You could say we are breaking down threshold resistance!)”

I’m also here to see “Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit,” a special exhibit about the couple’s tumultuous time in the city.

At a glance, Communist Rivera and Capitalist Taubman couldn’t be more different. Guess which said, “Our consumer society, not driven by the satisfaction of basic needs, is fueled by the fantasy, flight and excitement of a possible purchase. People will buy — on impulse — products and services they feel will make them happier.”

Yet both responded with optimism to (albeit anticipating different ends from) mass production and mobility.

And each of them had a unique relationship with the Ford family. Looking back, Rivera once said, “I should have attempted to write a book presenting Henry Ford as I saw him, a true poet and artist, one of the greatest in the world.”

Henry’s only son, Edsel, commissioned and then defended Rivera’s extraordinary frescoes at the DIA. Edsel’s eldest son, Henry Ford II, partnered with Taubman on Sotheby’s and Detroit Renaissance.

6 p.m., College for Creative Studies. I should have known I was overwhelmed by Diego and Frida when I found myself strolling past Pablo and Vincent without breaking my stride. But I couldn’t leave Detroit without stopping by the CCS building named for Al. (Note: At this point, I seem to be on a first-name basis with everyone.)

It’s beautiful — a far cry from its latter years as GM’s Argonaut Building. And based on the work on the walls and the CCS grads I know, it is indeed “a unique institution that is effectively training the next generation of artists and automotive designers.”

CCSThe presence of a charter school in the building is also a legacy of his. He advocated for the creation of charters in Michigan, on the premise that “I remain convinced that without a healthy injection of market forces, our entrenched public school systems — especially in inner cities — will never embrace the necessary reforms.”

Al and I will have to agree to disagree on this.

7:30 p.m., Pontiac. “The comfortable four-bedroom Tudor-style home at 300 Ottawa Drive in which I was born” in 1924, built by father Phillip, is in excellent condition, as are the nearby houses.

 

7:40 p.m., Pontiac Silverdome. Less than 5 miles away from Ottawa Drive, the Silverdome, where Taubman’s national champion USFL Michigan Panthers played in 1983, is now dark and domeless.

 

7:55 p.m., Taubman Headquarters. Maybe I’m just getting tired, but the Bloomfield Hills complex seems to reflect his preference for retail development: “Office buildings, by contrast, are a commodities business.”

300 Ottawa

8:30 p.m., A&W. Taubman sold A&W over 20 years ago. It has clearly regressed to the “consistent mediocrity” he sought to avoid, though even he could never persuade consumers that his Pounder was bigger than McDonald’s Quarter Pounder. The frosted mug of fresh root beer was neither frosted nor a mug nor, I suspect, fresh. But, in the interest of journalism, I overcame my hyperglycemic lactose intolerance to drink a root beer float in its entirety, along with a hotdog that bore no resemblance to the garlicky “A&W quarter-pound hotdogs — always steamed first, then rolled on a grill —” that Taubman modeled after “the Wurstmackers [sausage makers] in Budapest.”

A New Day
Of course, more has changed than the contents of the hotdogs, even since Threshold Resistance was published in 2007.

Kwame Kilpatrick, who attended “a welcome-home luncheon for me at the Detroit Athletic Club,” later took Taubman’s place in federal prison. My Kindle purchase may help explain why it is no longer the case that “the brick-and-mortar outlets of Borders and Barnes & Noble have never been stronger.”

Then there’s this: “Detroit’s hoped-for extension of dense commercial development from the river to the New Center area never materialized. And it never will (at least not in my lifetime).”

With the M-1 Rail project and construction up and down Woodward, this proved to be uncharacteristically pessimistic.

More so, though, there is the example of Taubman’s better self and the habits I hope will endure — making and nurturing strong relationships, embracing and mitigating risk, giving away wealth as passionately as you create it.

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