A one-to-one man. Mayor of Flint, Mich. Facing crime and racial unrest, the city's tough but tender mayor uses a personal touch and an on-the-scenes presence to bring people together
Flint, Mich. — Mayor James A. Sharp Jr. of Flint, Mich. -- a father figure with gentle manner and a steely core -- is convinced that families must be the cutting edge against crime. ``I try to hammer it home to people that the solution to crime, murder, is in the family, in the family structure,'' says Mr. Sharp, the city's first popularly elected black mayor, who took office in November 1983. ``We can build more jails. We can have more agencies concerned with social and behavioral disorders, but these are only band-aids.''
Married with four grown children and six grandchildren, Sharp is big on teaching basic values around supper tables and on front porches. ``When these aren't taught, we have a problem person on our hands,'' he says.
And problem persons make for a problem city. Nobody knows this better than Sharp, who sits at the helm of a troubled town with a population nearing 160,000. There's crime ``that's just rising out of sight,'' says the middle-aged mayor, showing statistics that record a 21 percent increase in violent crimes between 1984 and '85.
Racial tensions smoulder steadily, too. Having a reputation for racially segregated housing, Flint is about 55 percent white and 41 percent black, with other minorities comprising the remaining population. Large pockets of blacks live on the city's north and southeast sides, and you can drive by various schools to see children clustered by color on the playgrounds.
The mayor turns to the home for help, believing that jail cells aren't the final answer for curbing violence. ``Our social ills rest in a lack of family values, in a lack of respect for each other,'' he contends. ``When you begin to respect others, you eliminate anger. Then you don't have murders that erupt over a pack of cigarettes or over who's going to put gas in the car.''
Early in his term, Sharp had a chance to put his respect theory into practice. In the spring of '84, citizens looked to summer with dread, aware that heat and hot tempers might boil into gang violence. So the mayor hired 28 ``opinion leaders'' -- his term for gang members -- to work on the nightly cleanup detail around city property. The result: Streets were more free of gang members, and police department and city hall were free of dirt and litter. But best of all, according to Sharp, 28 guys gained respect for what they were doing -- from each other, their peers, and outsiders.
The mayor's latest plan for building respect among youth now rests with the Board of Education. Sharp requested that the high school curriculum require 75 hours of volunteer service in the community. He says when students devote time to the Red Cross, the Drop-in Center, and other agencies, a respect for such organizations is bound to grow.
Sharp looks back on his own growing up days in New York and sees respect and values as part of the daily bread. He remembers his father as the disciplinarian, while his mother handled ``the school stuff'' and his grandmother provided ``the fun time -- trips to the zoo and things like that,'' he says.
Born during the Great Depression, Sharp spent his grammar school years in Harlem. It was a time when caring for your neighbor was common as cracks in the sidewalk. Early in the morning, his mother went off to do household day work, and his father to the railroad where he worked as a chef. ``The family that lived downstairs from us knew they had to hear my feet getting myself ready to go to school. And if that didn't happen, they'd be upstairs to find out why,'' Sharp recalls.
``There was a system on the street of people who cared. You couldn't pass by a door on your way to any place without being observed,'' he says. Neighbors even made sure his shoes were tied.
By the time Sharp was 9 years old, the family had moved to the Bronx. ``And there was a cop on the beat. He'd make contracts with us,'' Sharp remembers. ``If we behaved, we got to play stick ball in the street,'' even though that was illegal. So while the cop turned his back, the broom handle slammed the soft balls.
Sharp recounts a solidarity in his Bronx neighborhood, regardless of the ``incredible hodgepodge of Germans, Italians, Jews, and blacks,'' an unorganized organization that kept youth walking straight.
Armed with memories of yesterday's streets, Sharp tries to keep in touch today with people around the city. Despite an alert last year through federal channels that there was a contract out on his life, he continues to take regular walks through Flint's neighborhoods. Strolls of this sort are common with campaigners, not so common with elected officials. Via handshakes and chats, he picks up both the rhythms and the rumbles of the neighborhoods.
On Thursday afternoons, his office in downtown Flint opens its doors to anyone with questions, gripes, or solutions. Sharp comes from behind his cresent-shaped desk to sit near the visitor, a move that gives the t^ete-`a-t^ete a comfortable equality. Sometimes he sees a string of 20 guests; sometimes only a handful.
His voice is soft; his mien, mild, and he gives the idea that the mayoralty never has pressure-cooker moments. One begins to wonder why he's known for being tough. Then, on this particular Thursday, he learns that someone has cancelled the calling hours, on the assumption his noon luncheon will spill into mid-afternoon. His tone is still quiet, but a bit of the bear shows: ``Who's running this place?'' he says. And the calling hours are quickly put back on the afternoon's agenda.
Sharp, who has one year remaining of his four-year term, has weathered flack on the crime rate and withstood lesser barbs for firing the city's first black police chief and for an affirmative action policy he helped institute in the Flint police department.
But whether day-to-day activities are upbeat or downbeat, the mayor is adamant about getting pipelines to the people. He's highly in favor of the city's human relations commission, which is trained -- and on call -- to help smooth out spats in neighborhoods. Incidents might be as minor as a yapping dog or as major as racial unrest because blacks are moving onto the block. If there's a threat of violence or fire bombs, the group is prepared to physically guard the house.
About 14 years ago, Sharp and his wife, Tessie, assistant to the chancellor of the University of Michigan at Flint, moved into their present neighborhood -- the first blacks on the block.
Sharp was schooled in the ins and outs of politics and government service during 11 years with then-Rep. Donald W. Riegle Jr. (now a senator), the last years spent as the senator's chief aide.
A former marine with 20 years of service, Sharp saw active duty in Korea and nearly three years of fighting in Vietnam. Buried somewhere among his memorabilia are three commendation medals for valor and the Vietnam Cross of Gallantry.
Duty overseas made Flint alert to potential spots for violence. He sees a tie between violence and unemployment, because without work people's frustrations hit a high. ``We saw clear evidence here that when our unemployment went up, so did our child abuse. Our hospitals experienced an increase in emergencies on child abuse cases right around dinner, 5:30 to 8.''
Since the late '70s, unemployment -- at 10.6 percent here (down from 24 percent in 1980) -- has plagued this largely blue-collar city with its auto-dependent economy. Sharp's aim is to diversify the area's industrial base, not an easy job in the best of times. But the city has scored some economic pluses lately. There's a new downtown pavilion with a potpourri of shops and food stalls, a renovated office complex, and convention business has more than doubled since the early '80s.
There are other touches, too, that please a visitor. The downtown streets are clean, and parks are free of litter. You can still find parking meters that take pennies, and if you're slow to shift gears when the traffic light turns green, nobody blasts a horn.
As Sharp says of Michigan's fourth-largest city, ``It's still small enough that you can get your arms around it.'' And that's what he tries to do.