Motor City Rediscovers Its Groove


You should have seen Herman Carter back then, with his broad shoulders and money to burn, strolling down 12th Street in a custom-tailored suit, wingtips with white stitches, and a black Borsalino from Jack the Hatter's.

Jazz was his passion then, and he'd wander from Klein's Showbar to the Green Hat, soaked in music. Detroit moved to an assembly-line tempo, and the trumpets and pianos on 12th Street provided the melody.

"Friday and Saturday nights it jumped down on 12th Street," recalls Mr. Carter, a retired auto worker and lifelong Detroiter. It was a happy place where blacks and whites shared the sidewalks in a raucous "black and tan" carnival that echoed the restlessness, prosperity, and integration of an industrial city at full throttle.

But it was here, on this spirited thoroughfare surrounded by a stately neighborhood called Virginia Park, that the 1967 riots began. On July 23, a police raid on a 12th Street club sparked four days of citywide disturbances that left 43 dead and whole city blocks smoldering.

For Carter and his Virginia Park neighbors, it was the day the jazz died and the song of Detroit began to sound like a dirge. The city lost one-third of its residents in following years and became an emblem of racial division and urban decay.

Thirty years later, Detroit is on the mend.

A popular new mayor, a strong economy, and an infusion of state and federal money have produced a palpable tone of optimism. Here in Virginia Park, residents who stayed through the lean years are beginning to witness the closing of a circle, whether they realize it or not.

"We've still got a drug problem here, and some people who still don't want to work," Carter says, sitting on the porch of his neatly kept brown-brick house. "But this has always been a close-knit neighborhood and young families are moving back in. Detroit is becoming a wonderful city again, you mark my words."

Although this anniversary finds the Motor City on the verge of redemption, its citizens have still not reached any consensus on the lessons the riots taught.

In a poll taken shortly afterward, a pair of political scientists from the University of Michigan found that whites viewed the disturbances as the work of lawless hoodlums bent on looting.

Most blacks, however, described the four-day ordeal as a "rebellion" borne of oppression at the hands of an all-white city government and police force. Those perceptions persist today.

Among many older residents, the animosity these riots engendered dies hard. At the time of the disturbances, Virginia Park was a racially mixed neighborhood in the heart of what used to be the city's Jewish community. Today, it's an almost entirely black enclave. Many of the stately homes have fallen into disrepair.

Anger persists

Esaw Woods has lived on Euclid Street in Virginia Park since coming here from Alabama in 1952. During the riots, he sat on his front porch with a shotgun, protecting his property from looters.

He credits his job as a welder at Chrysler's Jefferson Avenue plant with affording him a comfortable life, but he's still bitter about the sight of neighbors torching homes and businesses owned by blacks.

"Since the riots, this neighborhood has gone down, down, down," he says. "You can't even trust your next-door neighbor anymore. I think about leaving all the time."

In the years following the riots, Virginia Park residents struggled to revitalize the mile-long swath of homes and businesses that burned. In 1982, neighborhood residents agreed to buy $90,000 in bonds to help finance construction of a shopping complex and community center. The city pitched in soon after to build a sprawling new housing development.

To Mr. Woods, these projects are a sad substitute for the independent, black-owned appliance stores, barbecue joints, and filling stations that once thrived here. The memory of the Virginia Park he once knew is still stronger than the progress those new structures suggest.

But this man chose to move here

Down on 12th and Clairmount, just across the street from the place where the first rioter threw a brick through the windshield of a police cruiser, Vince Ramsey sees a different picture.

Mr. Ramsey moved to Detroit last year from Philadelphia, lured by the promise of a diverse and vibrant economy and the prospect of owning a large home with a garage and a backyard.

"This is all new," he says, pointing toward clusters of two-story yellow duplexes down the street and the Farmer Jack grocery store some blocks distant. "If the riots helped bring these things to the neighborhood, I guess something good came out of it."

Terrence Oden left the military two years ago and searched nationwide for an "up-and-coming neighborhood" in which to raise his young children.

He settled on Virginia Park, where he bought a spacious home on Chicago Avenue. Soon he landed a plum job at Northwest Airlines and was set to volunteer in the public schools.

"Some people here were hurt by the riots, and they carry that baggage around with them," Mr. Oden says, hefting a bag of groceries into the trunk of his Pontiac.

"They don't understand they've managed to hold this community together since then and paved the way for a renaissance."

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