The Classic American
“Lifetime Detroiter” Saul Green
fights every day for his city and its people
by RJ SMITH photography by SCOTT STEWART
From the 25th floor of the Miller Canfield office tower, planted downtown on the
Detroit River, you can see what Saul Green sees every morning. It’s the two sides of
Detroit: hip revitalizations, such as the waterfront, along with fraught residential
districts and the ghosts of industries past. As a member of his firm’s litigation and
trial group, Green, former U.S. attorney and deputy mayor—not to mention lifelong
resident—has spent a considerable part of his life trying to make Detroit a better
place. It’s what keeps him going.
“I really love my city,” Green says. He remembers it in 1950, with 1.85 million people,
and reflects on it today, with less than half that number. “I fluctuate between feeling very
anxious at times and feeling angry because it just doesn’t seem like it has to be this way.”
THE STRETCH OF GRAND RIVER AVENUE where the Michigan Barber School lies was
a bastion of black middle-class promise in the ’50s and ’60s. On the street these days,
buildings are locked tight and surveillance cameras are mounted overhead. The school,
founded in 1947 by Saul’s father, Forrest Green, looks like an extended version of the corner
barber shop, with a wood-paneled office and a long, mirrored main room where, Green says,
“instead of three or four chairs, you’ve got, like, 50,” in two facing rows.
Forrest was more than a businessman: He was a guy who got ahead and reached back to pull
up others. Saul remembers the basement of his childhood home—just blocks from the school
and a mere 10-minute drive from Miller Canfield—where his father and prominent leaders of
Detroit’s black community would discuss prospects for progress in their city and beyond.
Saul had no intention of going to law school. As a master barber, he assumed he’d be handed
his father’s clippers. But when he did well in an undergraduate class at the University of Michigan
taught by a law professor, he was encouraged to apply. Green worked his way through law
school at Michigan by giving haircuts—“and made a lot of money, too,” he says with a grin.