Touring a Neighborhood’s Remains
Benign life that once centered on a Catholic parish is all but a memory
By Richard Bak
Mine was the quintessential postwar Detroit childhood, almost embarrassingly benign. Between 1953 and 1969, our family lived on Pinehurst Street in the heart of Epiphany Parish. I played catch on elm-shaded streets and rode my bike through piles of burning leaves. I watched Cap’n Jolly and listened to Motown. Our milk was delivered by Twin Pines. Everybody we knew drove a Big Three car. Dad was an autoworker and Mom kept house.
Much of my everyday life centered on the Catholic church and grade school at the end of the block. The seven of us lived in a cramped bungalow that was typical for our working-class neighborhood. The parish had been slowly changing for a while, becoming a bit poorer and more frayed-looking as those who could afford it left for more expansive digs in the suburbs.
In 1966, Epiphany qualified for federal funds under the Model Cities Program. Of course, at the time I was unaware of any of this. What I recall is the sense of loss when friends suddenly moved to Livonia, Redford, or Warren. Decades before email, Facebook, and cellphones, they may as well have died. But who could resent upward mobility?
By the mid-1960s, a handful of black families were moving into the neighborhood, assisted by block-busting real estate agents who frightened longtime residents into selling before “the coloreds” took over. When I started eighth grade six weeks after the riot, our class was missing several familiar faces.
The riot didn’t directly touch our neighborhood, though I remember seeing army vehicles rolling down Grand River Avenue. My brother Dennis was among the paratroopers in spit-shined jump boots sent to the city. My brother Bob drove to work downtown with a loaded “riot gun” on the seat next to him.
Some have characterized the riot as a rebellion against “The Man.” While there’s certainly some truth to that, racism was hardly a one-way street. Twice in my early years, I was “jumped” and beaten by groups of blacks. My only crime was being white and forgetting my surroundings. I also recall a Black Panther once boarding the West Chicago bus, a rifle casually slung over his shoulder. Remarkably, at the time there were no city ordinances against the open carry of “long guns:” rifles and shotguns.
This was about this time that Officer Michael Czapski, a young member of our parish, was infamously cut down outside New Bethel Church during a meeting of the Republic of New Afrika. His funeral during Easter week in 1969 was deeply affecting. Epiphany Church overflowed with thousands of officers from around the country, with police cars parked on lawns for blocks around.
Czapski’s unsolved killing seemed of a piece with the signs of an increasingly unstable neighborhood: break-ins, stabbings, assaults, drugs. More homes became rentals or were left vacant. Dad grew worried. In October 1969, he got $12,000 for the house he’d originally paid $10,000 for. Our neighbors resented him selling to a black man, though the new owner was a solid citizen who kept up the property long after the area deteriorated.
I recently toured what remains of long-closed Epiphany Parish. Our house is still there, surrounded by jaw-dropping blight. One of my grade-school classmates was Sue Mosey. She grew up on Appoline Street, now a checkerboard of empty lots. Her family left in 1970, but she returned as an urban planner and community activist who has garnered rightful acclaim for helping to revitalize the area now called Midtown.
But anyone who grew up in postwar Detroit knows that hipsters, while welcome, aren’t the key to remaking the city. The emphasis has to be on somehow rebuilding the neighborhoods into the kind of orderly, thriving communities so many of us once took for granted and now can only look on with nostalgia.
Where do we go from here?
Five generations reflect on the state of Detroit, then and now
By Sydnee Thompson
In 1923, my maternal great-grandmother, Mable Diamond, moved to Detroit at the age of 1 from South Carolina. Here, she met her husband, Louis. Her uncle, Peter McDonald, ran an after-hours bar in the North End.
For many Detroiters, blind pigs were places to kick back and relax after a long day. “You did not have to be dressed up, like if you were at a club,” says my grandmother, Beverly Johnson. “Most were a lot of fun. … I’m sure [owners] all carried guns, but I was never around when bad stuff happened. This was before drugs was the thing. People just smoked and drank.”
At the same time, the civil rights movement was in full force. In 1963, Beverly attended Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech at Cobo Hall. Two months later, my great-great aunts, Josie Huyghe and Helen Gentry (then both in their 30s), traveled to the March on Washington, D.C.
Beverly was 21 in 1967, and my mother, Iris, was 1. Living in Northwest Detroit, Beverly watched the riots on television. My grandfather, Robert Johnson, was overseas in the Army. My dad, Darrin Thompson, was 2, living in the Brewster-Douglass Projects.
One cousin, Audrey Pierce, was 9 and remembers being at an east side party store when the whispers started. Her mother rushed her from the store, and as they walked home, she started to hear booming sounds, like thunder. Once inside, she watched from her window as the party store she’d just left burst into flames.
“I wouldn’t call it a race riot,” Beverly says. “Yes, it was a riot, but it started in an area that was mostly black. The businesses were owned by whites.” Aunt Josie remembers it more strongly as a “rebellion.” “They were rebelling against the conditions they were living in,” she says.
In 1944, Josie and Helen attended Southeastern High School, but black students weren’t allowed to play most sports, and they avoided many places “because you knew you were not wanted there,” Helen says. De facto segregation was the law of the land.
Josie says the violence was a boiling point. “The Algiers Motel Incident,” when three black men were killed by the police, made that clear. “Most of the people who were fighting didn’t represent us,” she says, but it stirred greater engagement among blacks.
Aunt Helen became a member of the Detroit chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality a few years before the riots — and earned a “Red File” for her trouble. She was under surveillance by the Detroit Police Department and FBI for years. It wasn’t until 1990 that her Red File was finally destroyed.
My family has trickled into the suburbs. My parents settled in Southfield in 1996. “We wanted a safer, newer neighborhood,” my mother says, “and Detroit didn’t offer that.” They had first considered a home in the University District, but one day witnessed several drug transactions taking place next door. That was that.
Grandma Beverly followed us in 2011, and now owns a condo nearby. Granddaddy Robert still lives in Northwest Detroit, as do many cousins. So does Grandma Mable.
“Do I think things have gotten better since ? Definitely yes,” Josie says, but she stresses that black Detroit’s hardships escalated as drugs poured into neighborhoods in the ’60s. “We didn’t get here on our own.”
Beverly, now 70, feels Detroit is on the rise, but says Southfield probably still offers the most in terms of size, safety, and price.
“My opinion is [Detroit is] dying,” my mom says. “People are trying to resurrect it, and they’re mostly trying to resurrect it at a cost of the people who have been there, who are legacy and can’t afford it.” She expects the black population to plunge as white people move back in. She mentions our Grandma Edna used to live near Henry Ford Hospital. But that neighborhood was mowed down in favor of luxury housing. “Where do the poor people go when you knock down houses?” she asks.