A Long, Hot Summer in Detroit

Detroit surprised me. I grew up in Chicago, a few hours to the south and west of here. And, all I knew about Detroit came from the media: crime, Halloween arson, racial tension, cars, music, and the Lions. Driving through the city for the first time this morning, I saw plenty of cars and music, but no crime, arson, or obvious tension. I saw gleaming office towers, new elevated rail lines, classic 1920's style office buildings, shops, restaurants, and the new ballpark (which is more of a Tigers complex than just a park, and looks amazing). The GM building stands above everything downtown, and gives the place a sort of hopeful, futuristic feel. That's not to say there aren't problems. The legacy of the 1967 riots left empty homes and businesses, lonely streets, a troubled economy and schools, and lingering racial tension. Crime is still a problem. And a short drive from downtown brings you to the doorsteps of long deserted and crumbling homes that are heart-breaking. They're huge, stone houses with great yards and an almost majestic feel, but they-re totally empty — windows are broken out, the front of one was literally falling to the ground. It's a ghost neighborhood. Still, there are signs of recovery. Just a block away the street is lined with brand new condos and manicured lawns, with trendy restaurants and shops a short walk away. Detroit has definitely changed since 1967, and 1967 obviously changed Detroit. If you were in the city during the riots, or just before or after, how did they change you? Do you still live in the city, or did you join the many residents who fled?

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Why are they more interested in hearing from people who left rioting cities? I am more interested to know about the people who stayed; why they stayed, what they saw and what are the after effects. It seems those who still live in the city would know more than those that left.

Sent by Ellis Seiberling | 2:17 PM | 7-26-2007

I lived in detroit, and remember the tear-gas clouds, and the national guard. My family left the city, but I returned in 1998. I lived in Boston-Edison near where the riot started. I met several folks who lived through the riot. However, I got tired of the lack of amenities, and the regular burglaries, again left the city. I felt unwelcome.

Sent by John Gordon | 2:17 PM | 7-26-2007

I was an 8 year old kid in the white suburbs (Plymouth) when the riots were happening. My parents were TV news junkies so we watched endless news reports at the time. As I grew older, I realized how the riots have profoundly affected me in many ways:
It made me profoundly afraid of cities until I was 18.
It made me afraid of black people until I met some in college.
It turned my little town of Plymouth Michigan (pop 12,000 into a 80,000 pop suburb).

The news reporting at the time mentioned nothing of the police brutality. To the white suburbs, and on the news reports of the day, it was reported as a bunch of crazy, wild, dangerous people who were violent and scary. That was pretty much my view of cities until I left the Detroit area and visited other cities like Toronto, Chicago, and my current home, the Oakland/Berkeley area of SF Bay.

Suburban Detroiters, I think, still have a profound fear of cities that simply doesn't exist in other places around the country -- at least not to the profound extent it does in Detroit.

Sent by Albin Renauer | 2:42 PM | 7-26-2007

Like your guest Carol Boyd, I grew up in Pleasant Ridge and went to Ferndale High School (which is literally on the border to Detroit). I attended university in Evanston, Illinois, about as far north of Chicago as Pleasant Ridge is north of Detroit.

I moved into Chicago shortly after graduating college, and have become a teacher in the Chicago Public Schools. I take a lot of pride in living in the city, in part because my parents were part of the "white flight" from Detroit.

As a CPS teacher, I work with African American and Latino teens, many of them gang affiliated and below the poverty line. Chicago has its share of problems, including unarguable and widespread government corruption, and yet is a much different city than Detroit. Your guests have hit on the very important point, that the legacy of the riots 40 years ago is the departure of the middle class from Detroit.

The more important question now is, how does Detroit restore that base? The urban renewal projects around Greektown and Woodward Avenue are commendable, but have not had an apparent impact outside of those neighborhoods. So, what's the next plan?

Sent by James Klock | 2:45 PM | 7-26-2007

Why is 1967 described as an economically depressed time? It was still the post-war boom, and jobs were plentiful. Immigrants from Latin America, including my husband, began to pour in and they, with very dark skin, and no English, took jobs in record numbers. The state of Michigan is in much worse shape now than then. Young people are wisely fleeing in search of opportunity, you can't get a job here and you can't sell your house either. The causes of the 1967 riot cannot be rooted in economics.

Sent by Catherine Meza | 2:50 PM | 7-26-2007

I grew up in what is now Auburn Hills, Michigan. Our neighborhood was at least 99% white. In 1967 I was 10 years old and my most vivid memory of that summer is that some of my friend's parents overreacted to the point that they stayed up all night patrolling the entrances to our subdivision with shotguns. This scared me much more than the riots.

Sent by Suzan Rowe | 3:10 PM | 7-26-2007

As a 16 y/o in 1967,the riots that summer made me ask why would residence destroy their own communities. I grew up in an enlighted, educated home, but soon realized that my rural high school American History class was not properly covering the history of slaverly and the Jim Crow laws that followed. In the summer of 1968 I went to work in the inter-city of St. Louis to further my education.

Now as an adult I am still very frustrated at the failure of the American school system to properly teach our children about what really happened. So many high school textbook's "purification" of our true history has only left us limited in our ability to progress.

Sent by E. Lindeman | 3:13 PM | 7-26-2007

I couldn't wait for Don's program today, have listened to him and followed his broadcasts since I lived and listened to him in Detroit. I worked at the A&P on Hamilton and Webb and had left earlier that spring to be with my husband in the service since we knew he was to leave for Viet Nam by the fall of that year. I called my folks that morning from a pay phone near the base because I was so worried about them and they told me the A&P was gone, burned-out. I was saddened, loved the people in the neighborhood, learned to live simply and wisely from them. And what was even sadder still was to visit it long after the fact to see that nothing had been done. Although I understand that change had to come, it was such a devasting time for all of us who believed that Kennedy and King really could change the world for good.

Sent by Joan Elkins | 3:28 PM | 7-26-2007

I was born, reared and educated in Detroit. I was 26 years old when the riot broke out. I lived on Webb Street, a block from where the National Guard troops were based at Central High School. The day of the riot I was in Davison, Michigan at the Bahai Educational Center when we heard the news that there was a riot in Detroit. I found it surreal that I could be in such a loving envirionment with people of many races and there be such hatred stoking the fires in my home town.
I currently live in Louisville, Kentucky but have maintained a residence in Downtown Detroit. Over the years I have seen the deterioration of the city and it breaks my heart. I feel that a large part of Detroit's problem is economic. The lack of quality education, high unemployment and a low tax base are the major cause of the ills the city faces.

Sent by Rita Sterrett | 3:38 PM | 7-26-2007

I was 21 in 1967. I had left the greater Detroit area a year earlier for employment in upstate NY. I had heard about the riots and was concerned. My parents were there and I was worried. I drove all night and as I exited the tunnel from Windsor Ontario the border agent said to me "Don't you know that there's a riot going on?" Of course I did but it didn't matter. I wanted to make certain that my parents were safe which they were. It was many years later when I heard the song "Black Day in July" by Gordon Lightfoot that I had a better understanding of what happened and why. I never moved back after my parents died. I miss the city and what it was but a lot of what I remember is gone. No Bob Lo, No Belle Isle aquarium. I'm not sure that I would want to come back now. I wish the people that live there well. With the auto industry in trouble I'm not certain if recovery will take place in my life time. Detroit, a great city with an uncertain future.

Sent by Ron M. | 4:03 PM | 7-26-2007

It's been 40 years since the riots, have the situations for African-Americans changed for the better or worse since the riot?

Sent by E. Sowe | 8:28 PM | 7-26-2007

I know that this is a bit late but I remember watching the riots on tv they were bad. I live in Cincinnati and I remember riots from the past including when King was murdered. What they called a riot here, we called a skirmish. I remember the atmosphere when King was murdered and it was the same as then in Detroit. I was living in Miss. as the time and White folk were scared of Black folk and or Colored or Negro folk were mad at White folk. I lived 40 miles away in Holly Springs then. My best friend from Saint Louis, the uppity South, was suppose to visit and their parents were concerned for his safety. A real riot is nothing to celebrated or commerated.

Sent by Vishnu Oak | 8:53 PM | 7-26-2007

i've lived in Detroit and near Detroit since 1971. How could you do a program on 1967 and ignore the same problems building up again? Schools falling apart, unemployment around 75% for young men, services for ordinary citizens (buses, clinics, electrical grid) declining. Housing in crisis for the non-wealthy. Homelessness. Crime. Drugs. National grocery chains leaving town -- oh, but we're getting the Grand Prix race on Belle Isle!
Every problem is disproportionately hitting the part of the black population that hasn't made it in the business and professional world. You ignored and glossed over all of this, which will last until another riot gets some attention. Whoever is in charge of "sanitizing" your programs, they are doing a heckuva job.

Sent by Larry Christensen | 8:54 PM | 7-26-2007

When the Detroit riots took place in 1967 I was 11 years old. I am one of twelve children. My dad worked for the Detroit sanitation department. My mother was a stay-at-home mom. The home that our family lived in was located in the 5th Precinct on Detoit's east side.Prior to that my family lived in a rented house in "black bottom". By the time the riots took place my family had resided on that street for about 7 years. There was only the width of the alley that separated my neighborhood from the historic Indian Village. The house was a three bedroom bungalow that our large family squeezed into.Three of my older siblings combined their savings from their paper routes and a key punch job to give my parents the money for the down payment. If not for my siblings thrift and sense of responsiblity, we might still be in "black bottom" as renters.

My parents were the first black family to ever own that house but not the first blacks in the neighborhood. In fact there was a restrictive covenant in the original deed that prohibited the sale of the house to any one who was non-white. I think this probably included dark skinned Italians and Jews as well as Negroes. Apparently this was not uncommon because when I was attending a private school in Grosse Pointe on an academic scholarship,in the early 1970's, a class mate of mine said that the only way her Italian father was able to purchase their home which was located on Lake Shore Drive, was to have a white friend "front" for him.
So as I was saying, my family was able to buy this house only because the "block busting" had already occurred, meaning that many of the white residents once realizing that blacks had started to migrate to the area, they wanted to sell before the property values really completely hit rock bottom("there goes the neighborhood").
And interestingly, the street where we lived, Fischer Street was only a few blocks west of the street Garland Avenue where the black physician ,Ossian Sweet, was run out of his home by a mob of angry white members of "The Waterworks Park Neighborhood Improvement Association" in 1925. All because he dared to move out of "black bottom" onto their "white" street. This case is famous and a historical marker is at the side of the Garland street house which still stands on the corner of Garland and Charlevoix.
Anyway, to my recollection the
so-called "white flight" was well underway decades before the riot took place. But admittedly, in my opinion, this senseless violence perpetrated by a small segment of the black population, accelerated the process.
I remember being very frightened. I imagine that my family was just as terrified as any of the white residents in the area. My family seemed to be just as mystified as whites about what triggered the riot of 1967. I remember over hearing the adults at my house saying that they thought the riot started because a white policeman shot two unarmed black men on the west side of town. They all guessed that this incident triggered the mayhem.
The classes at the local schools were canceled, there was a curfew which I and everyone in my family adhered to because my dad said "keep your a-- in the house and away from the windows because those white folks will kill yo' a--" and we had every reason to believe him because when we looked out of the rear window of my house, there in all their military regalia complete with automatic weapons, stationed around an "army tank" ,was the National Guard. At the time I didn't realize the National Guard was there to protect us. In our area the "police" were feared. It was not uncommon for the street to completely empty of people if anyone spotted the so-called "Big Four"/Big Fo'.The Big Four was a "task" force of four large white guys in one big black police cruiser who regularly patroled the area and who with little or no provocation, randomly and mercilessly beat up blacks, especially black young men. I think later on, the official name for the "Big Four" became the dreaded S.T.R.E.S.S. unit. My high school sweet heart fell victim to the S.T.R.E.S.S unit on his way to visit me on Valentine's Day in 1971 (they fractured his skull with a heavy metal flash light and fractured his femur. But,ultimately the police said it was a case of mistaken identity. None of the officers were fired or even reprimaned) I don't remember what the acronym stood for but the mere mention of the name S.T.R.E.S.S. struck fear into the blacks in my neighborhood.
Once the riot violence erupted we were instructed to fill our bathtub with water, just in case the water supply was interrupted.
I can also remember my dad turning on the TV to look at the news and hearing the channel 7 news anchor, Bill Bonds, describe the rioters as "animals". In addition, I recall my parents being worried that we would run out of food because most of the stores in walking distance from our house, "Bill's Store" and "Normandy's Market" were closed because their owners were white and were afraid to venture into the area for fear that the rioting was race based violence.By the way, the building that used to house "Bill's Store" is still standing and is in relatively good condition. I wish I could say the same for our old family residence. Until about a year ago there was a family living in our old house. However, when I drove by there about 4 weeks ago the house had been vandalized (stripped of all the aluminum siding,that my parents paid to have applied back in the 60's), and fire bombed. Now it looks like a gutted burnt out cinder.
When the curfews were lifted, all the fires put out, many of the trees cut down (so that cruising National Guard helicopters could have an unobstructed view) and all the snipers were either killed or arrested, the schools reopened. On the first day back, I discovered that one of the girls in my 5th grade class narrowly missed being killed by a bullet and she had the graze mark of the bullet on the side of her head near her left temple to prove it. No one knew if the bullet was from the police or from a sniper.
Pretty soon everything seemed to go back to "normal". My family continued to live in the that same house and most of our immediate area didn't really change initially. In my memory our neighborhood didn't really start to resemble it's current state until the Chrysler assembly plant on Jefferson Avenue closed down. The area continued to be somewhat integrated racially. Whites never totally abandoned the houses closest to the river on the east side of Detroit.
How much the 1967 Detroit riot contributed to Detroit's downward economic spiral, the world may never know.
Presently, I do not live within the Detroit city limits but most of my siblings do. And I plan to move back in the near future. Most of my memories in and around Detroit have been positive. I think that many others, white and black would probably consider moving back if we all began to realize that it only takes a few bad people to spoil it for the rest of us.

Sent by Danita L. Peoples-Peterson | 9:37 PM | 7-26-2007

I was an 11 year old white girl living on the NE side of Detroit at that time. My mom, a widow, worked at the UAW Solidarity House on Jefferson. (My dad, also from the UAW, had died suddenly at age 42, so my mom went back to work). I remember the news reports, and focused mostly on the looting and fires. I was fearful for my mom to go to work--I think one of the guys from her office came to pick her up to drive her for a few days.
I also had tickets to see The Monkees on July 29th at Olympia Stadium in Detroit. The concert was cancelled and that was probably the most upsetting thing to me at that time, although the concert was later rescheduled for late August.
Ours was a "liberal" household, but I had no idea at the time of the of the depth of frustration and anger of many in the black community. In the aftermath, nothing much changed in my world. We continued to live in the same house, still attended public schools, etc.
I do remember the following summer being momentous for more than the Tigers winning the pennant. Mom took us downtown in our red convertible (with the top down) for the celebration after the World Series. It was one huge traffic jam and people, black & white, were running around among all the cars, hugging & giving high fives to everyone. That made quite an impression on me having had such a summer of violence the year before.
I now live in the Los Angeles area, in a racially diverse community. It breaks my heart when I go back to Detroit (to visit my sisters). My beautiful city appears to be more of a wasteland.

Sent by Toni | 11:54 PM | 7-26-2007

I was born in Detroit in 1935. I grew up during WWII learning that Detroit was the Arsenal of Democracy and Joe Louis was the pride of the city. I also remember the 1943 riots.

Detroit was my home while I was serving in the Air Force from 1959 to 1980. I voted by absentee ballot during that time period. I have lived in Yellow Springs Ohio, Ann Arbor MI, Washington DC, Mongomery Alabama, and Boston MA. All these places were racist, some more, some less.

I was home on leave on the day the riots broke out in 1967. As I flew out of Detroit Metro Airport the next day, I could see the smoke rising from the city. I wondered why a Detroit was again on fire.

One of the things that has occured to me was the Detroit system of city wide elctions for Council did not allow the Black voice to be heared until the Detroit electorate reached the tipping point - 51% black. And because Detroit was a racist city the whites voted with their feet and built a new Detroit beginning at 8 Mile Rd.

I have also thought that that Detroit election process provided no way to train and integrate Black leadership into the City Council between 1943 to 1967. Thus there were no official spokespersons for the Black community and 49% of the city population was effectively shut out from municipal government. Thus after the tipping point Detroit had an inadequate infrastructure to govern the city during its transition from White to Black majority. The whites left the city to its own devices when the majority changed.
I believe the Black majority wanted to govern the city well but were left holding a bag full of dirty laundry.

I have wondered how the transition would have occurred if Detroit had had precint elected Councilmen between 1943 and 1967. New York, Chicago, Boston all used the precinct system (with all its problems) and had given/or were capable of giving the Black community a formal and official voice in the transistion from all white to less white municipal government.

I recommend the article in the July 2007 Harper's Magazine, Letter from Michigan, Detroit Arcadia, Exploring the post-American landscape, by Rebbcca Solnit, a sometimes visitor from San San Francisco, for an intersting perspective on Detroit as it is in 2007.

My best wishes go to the city of my birth and my former hometown. I pray that it's people will find their way forward and leave the status quo behind as a sad period for a great city.

Sent by Tom Bailey | 12:04 PM | 7-27-2007

I was only 13 when the Detroit riots broke out. I lived in Pontiac -- an industrial city on the then outskirts of suburban Detroit. My father was born and raised in Detroit -- on Garland Avenue -- and we often visited my Grandmother and Grandfather who still lived on Garland at the time of the riots.

We observed the riots from a distance but did not feel particularly threatened by them. Only later, when I moved into Detroit to attend Wayne State University as an undergraduate and later as a law student did I come to appreciate the devastating impact that the riots and other changes were having on the city. Detroit was still a vital city in the 1960's and was still the economic center of the region. The riots clearly took a huge toll on the city and certainly accelerated white flight into the suburbs. But the riots were also symptomatic of the larger economic and societal changes that were adversely affecting "rust belt" cities like Detroit before and after they occurred.
The decline of the auto industry and its enormous network of suppliers mean that the physical nexis of Detroit as the economic center of the region was less and less important. As big as Detroit was, it was essentially an economic monoculture -- it lived and died by the health of the auto industry. That is essentially what was killing Detroit -- and still is.

Cities are essentially a constantly renewing economic presence. If you reduce the flow of money, and capital flowing through that central place then the need for that city declines. "Great" cities like New York and Chicago still are powerful, diverse, and centralized economic engines that allows them to remain a powerful draw to upper and middle class workers even with the expansion of suburban communities around those cities. It also gives them the resources to constantly renew their commercial sectors and their infrastructure. Their economic diversity allows them to survive an economic down turn in one or more of their core industries. But that is a constant battle even for those great cities --witness New York's struggle to retain the major investment banks after the 9/11 attacks and, more recently, the extended fight in New York over the Giant's stadium and other new features that would continue to draw people and money into the central city. It is an unending struggle even for the greatest cities.

Will Detroit return to its former glory? Not by virtue of the Auto industry. It will need to find a different economic formula. And it may never again be necessary as a major economic nexus. It may live out its days as a mid size city after the population stabilizes and resources even out with the suburbs. Only time will tell.

Sent by Bob Sevigny | 2:34 PM | 7-28-2007

I want to thank everyone for the really interesting comments on here. I very much enjoyed them.

I am 23 years old currently and was raised near Saginaw, Michigan. Being from a very similar and connected area, I am very interested in Detroit and its history and things. Until adulthood, I was mostly clueless and uninterseted in the history of Detroit. Nevertheless, even at a young age I was always very curious about the state of my local city (Saginaw), its segregation, its general poor condition and unwillingness of people to visit the city or live within it, and etc.

Sent by Nick | 5:06 AM | 7-31-2007

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