North Corktown rental to feature homage to legendary teachers union leader

Chalk it up to fate, serendipity, or otherwise, but as Detroit Public Schools teachers conduct a series of sick-outs to draw attention to school conditions in the city, a mural of legendary labor leader Mary Ellen Riordan is being pieced together in the city's North Corktown neighborhood.

Developer Jon Zemke--who is also an editor at Model D--has commissioned a mural to adorn the side of a two-unit building he is renovating at the corner of Cochrane Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. The subject is Mary Ellen Riordan, the first full-time president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers who also happens to be Zemke's great aunt.

The roughly 20-by-36-foot mural features a portrait of Riordan with some students, uttering the quote, "Teachers want what children need." It's the work of Nicole Macdonald, a local artist whose work can be seen throughout town, including the recent series of Detroit literary figures installed on the outside of a Woodbridge party store.

Riordan served as president of DFT from 1960 through 1981. A significant force in teachers' labor rights, Riordan is recognized for her role as a woman leader in organized labor, a typically male-dominated field. In 1965, she led the fight to amend Michigan's Public Employee Relations Act to guarantee teachers and all public employees the legal right to collective bargaining.

Riordan led one of the largest local unions in the United States and was the first woman to lead a union of such size. At the time of her retirement, DFT counted more than 12,000 members. In 2001, Riordan was inducted to the Michigan Women's Hall of Fame. In 2004, she won the Distinguished Alumni award from Marygrove College, having graduated from that school in 1941. Mary Ellen Riordan passed away in 2010.

While Riordan may be his great aunt, Zemke says he commissioned the mural to honor all of the leaders and teachers who have helped shape the city yet might not be as familiar to its residents as mayors and other high-profile public officials.

"Like most other people in the city that have really made an impact, you kind of lose track of them over the years, the stories fade. And that's happened with her," says Zemke. "I didn't want that to keep happening."

Zemke, a Midtown resident, owns and leases several properties in the city, most of them in Woodbridge. The North Corktown building, which had seen its share of damage from squatters and scrappers over the years, has been his biggest renovation project to date, he says. The building is split into two flats and features all new heating, cooling, electrical, and plumbing work among its upgrades. Demand is high for the units, says Zemke, and on-site workers field leasing questions from passers-by nearly every single day. Units should be move-in ready within the next month.

Got a development news story to share? Email MJ Galbraith here or send him a tweet @mikegalbraith.

Read more articles by MJ Galbraith.

MJ Galbraith is Model D's development news editor. Follow him on Twitter @mikegalbraith.
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