Detroit in 1967 barely survived a race riot. The rioting had its roots in the black community’s frustration and simmering anger at blatant discriminatory treatment, particularly by a white, and often racist, police force. Fires flared and looting was rampant. By the end of the week, the National Guard had been called in, and government tanks patrolled Woodward Avenue. Detroit lay in ruin.
I was 12 years old and fear reached into my little community just outside the city limits. I didn’t understand what was going on but I loved Motown music and I wasn’t going to let any white grown up tell me how to feel about black people. Motown had captured my heart, and I knew, even then, what side I was on. These were affirmative action years; I heard hate speech all the time, but I knew I was on the side of right. The side that said all people, regardless of race, were entitled to respect.
In 1967, white families left the city in droves. Houses were vacant or burned and black people began to buy guns in hope of some kind of self-defense against the corrupt powers that dug ever deeper into their city. Overnight, the Motor City became the Murder City. Crime shot way up and cooperation between the races had all but vanished. Nevertheless, by the time I was a teenager, the city’s allure attracted suburban kids like me who grew up on Motown music and who learned from the lessons unfolding before us. Martin Luther King preached peace; Rosa Parks just wanted to sit on the bus. Racism is wrong.
My friends and I sought out new music in Detroit’s decaying ballrooms like Eastown and the Grande. Where once fancy dances were held, now kids, both black and white, roamed the dance floor, listening to the MC5 open for bands from like The Who, Fleetwood Mac and Cream. At one concert, I sat crossed legged on the floor in front of the stage convinced that Yes were really English housewives pulling a joke on Americans. They looked like women, they were very skinny, with shiny blouses, make up and high heels. Their voices were high, and so was I. They of course were men, just dressing up as glam rockers were starting to do back then.
Despite the fears of our parents, white kids came to the city for summer concerts on the river, for the jazz festival held at outdoor Hart Plaza, for the ethnic festivals, too. We freely mingled with black kids our own age and no harm was ever done. I think one white girl one time had her gold necklace ripped off her neck by a black girl, and the news made a big deal of it, but I was there and we were all peaceniks back then. Still, Detroit had not recovered economically and the neighborhoods had as many abandoned as occupied houses. The abandoned homes soon turned into drug houses, crash pads and crack dens.
Detroit’s first stab at urban renewal came with the appropriately named Renaissance Center, a group of skyscraper hotels and businesses on the riverfront, constructed in 1977. It’s been a slow climb uphill since then. We’ve had some bumps along the way. The 2008 housing market disaster deeply affected Detroit. One solution the city came up with was to sell houses for as little as a dollar. This got the millennials interested and a white population once again began to very so slowly grow. During the late half of the twentieth century, white people had come to Detroit to work and to play, but not to stay.
Now, in the new century, Detroit policemen are equal parts black and white. Young white folks are buying homes, putting down new roots, and staying. GM and Ford have a significant presence in the city once again. All the sports teams built new stadiums in the city and Ford Field hosted the Super Bowl a few years ago. Many shabby hotels got pricey makeovers to host football fans. Restaurants popped up everywhere. Casinos came in, adding another dash of glamour. Just this year, Ford bought the long vacant train station with plans to restore it to its former glory.
For me, Detroit is and always was a treasure. Yes, it lost a bit of its luster, but I always knew it would come back. It has, though people who are not from the area don’t seem to know it. That’s why I set my novel, Lily White in Detroit, in my favorite city. I wanted to showcase the place, the people, the relationship between black and white, as it really is today in this new century. It’s not a perfect city and I don’t pretend it is. But the potential for renewal has slowly and at times painfully, grown once again into a city Detroiters are proud to call their own.