Motown on our minds

What could we bring to the party? It’s a question we here at the Metro Times wrestled with for months. Detroit was about to celebrate its tercentennial, and we had to do something special — but what? After much discussion, we decided that a collection of thoughts and images would make a fine gift. Recollections and reflections about this town of ours, what we’ve seen and done and learned here, and how these experiences have affected us. And in doing that, we came to realize that this city — with all of its strengths, and all of its struggles — has given each of us much more than we could ever provide in return. Best wishes.

Cultural capital

Washington may be the capital of our government, but Detroit is the capital of our culture. You name it: cars, malls, freeways, suburbia, depopulation, Motown, techno, tumbleweeds blowing down the streets where a million former residents used to live. We thought of it first. Right here. Detroit took us in, gave us jobs, made us rich, beyond any workingman’s or -woman’s wildest dreams. Then Detroit taught us how not to need it any more. Whether you still live here or not doesn’t matter; we’re all in this together. This is the city the future built, All-American, where we forgot how to remember the past. Otherwise, we’d have known better than to even try inventing Detroit in the first place. But we did. —Jerry Herron

The sign

It’s a holy shrine, as far as I’m concerned, that sign in Niki’s window, downtown, the one on the right-hand side: “Dodge Brothers Engineers and Machinists.” The glass has been there since 1901, and you can still read the faint imprint of the once-gold lettering. The Dodges—John and Horace—were sitting there one afternoon when Ransom E. Olds came calling. He wanted them to supply engines and running gear for a new car, a little curved dash model. The Dodges said OK. “Come away with me Lucille, in my merry Oldsmobile”: The song was a hit, and so were the cars. Olds became the first automotive millionaire in history. The Dodges built the works for Henry Ford’s first successful car too, the Model A. Then they made cars for themselves. Which means the Big Three — Ford, GM, Chrysler— all got started right there, behind that sign. The world hasn’t been the same since. Makes you proud. —Jerry Herron

My real education

In 1949, I joined a carload of radical University of Michigan students to give our moral support to UAW Local 600 workers who were on strike against speedup at the Ford Rouge Plant. I was awed by the size of the plant and inspired by the sights and sounds of workers on the mass picket line. I dropped out of college that year, moved into Detroit, married the mate of my life, and had to go to work without a salable skill. Until 1963 I worked in several auto plants, first as a production worker and then — after a UAW apprenticeship program — as a tool and die machinist.

I worked in the auto industry during a disgraceful period of our country’s history when the Bill of Rights was nearly dumped in the trash bin of history and we were ruled by racism, militarism, and anti-Communist hysteria called McCarthyism. And although the workforce and union membership expanded in the ’50s, “labor peace” at home and support for corporate foreign policy abroad changed the face of the labor movement. Between 1951 and 1953 I worked at Chevrolet Gear and Axle in Hamtramck. Under the GM five-year contract of those years — which had decimated effective shop floor union representation — working at that plant was like working in a prison.

In the early ’60’s I returned to college and in 1964 began a career in computing, retiring in 1992. But my experience as an autoworker — and as an active local union member — taught me some things that I’ve never forgotten. I appreciate the hard work involved and the tenacity of the people I worked with. I appreciate their comradeship and basic sense of solidarity. I appreciate the power for good that the UAW and other unions bring to the struggle for a better life when they are at their working-class best. And throughout my five decades as a peace and justice activist, I’ve learned how critical is the building of effective coalition among trade unions, African-Americans and other minority groups, and all the movements for peace and justice. —Al Fishman (as told to Curt Guyette)

Meeting Malcolm

Floyd knocked on the door urgently, at the same time calling my name. “Man, hurry up, we don’t want to be late.” As usual, he had a bundle of newspapers under his arm, and was straightening his black bow tie as I opened the door and quickly slammed it behind me.

We jumped into my old Mercury and headed for Mosque No. 1 over on Linwood Boulevard. On this evening in 1959 — or was it 1960? — the guest speaker was Malcolm X, whom we had seen many times at the mosque, but not since Mike Wallace had interviewed him for his special “The Hate That Hate Produced.” The show had given Malcolm a national prominence, and now he was back in Motown where he had begun as a member of the Nation of Islam in 1952.

The new celebrity had not affected Malcolm at all as he deftly illustrated his lecture on the blackboard with circles and triangles.

When he finished he took questions and then stood at the back of the room to greet the audience one by one. With a smile a yard wide, he grabbed my hand, and I watched it disappear into his huge grip.

To this day I can’t remember what I said, though I’m sure it must have been nothing more than nervous, blathering praise for a man who remains my mentor. —Herb Boyd

Sea change

The election of 1961 was important because it marked a significant voter turnout of Detroit’s black population. What led to that was a couple murders in Detroit early in 1961. The police did a mass roundup of African-Americans and Mayor Louis Miriani backed them. This angered white liberals and the African-American community.

Bill Patrick was the lone African-American councilman at the time. That year, he introduced a proposal that was designed to give more authority over the community relations department to the people. Back then the mayor made all appointments to the department, which had wide investigative powers.

That proposal was defeated 5-4. Out of that defeat came a battle cry from the African-American community into Election Day and that battle cry was “five plus one.” The “five” was intended to keep the four who voted in favor of improving the community relations department and the fifth one was me. They picked me up as the new candidate. The “one” was for a new mayor, who was Jerry Cavanagh.

The big triumph, of course, was the ouster of Miriani and three of the five councilmembers who opposed the Patrick amendment. To my mind, that election marked the first significant outpouring of black political strength in Detroit. I would even say were I not among the five candidates, I probably would not have been elected. —Mel Ravitz (as told to Ann Mullen)

The great rebellion

It’s early afternoon, Sunday, July 23, 1967, and I’m on my way downtown to the movies. Standing at the bus stop at Prairie and Warren, across the street from the Bank of the Commonwealth, I saw a big, billowing black blob of smoke hovering somewhere above the Grand River and Oakman Sears Roebuck store. I paid it no mind. I went to the movies. What movie? I don’t remember. I do remember armored personnel carriers riding eastward down Warren, at Woodward. When I got home, my parents were all over me. “Where’ve you been? We’ve been worried sick about you. Don’t you know they’re burning down the town?” From our second-floor front porch on Prairie, just off Warren, we watched the stores in our neighborhood go up in smoke. We saw fire everywhere. We saw crowds of people running through the streets. We heard breaking glass, explosions, gunshots and sirens all night long. It was just like the TV reports from Vietnam. We saw Lyndon Johnson speak to the nation about our town. The father of a friend of mine was one of the 43 dead. The next morning, I found a friend and went walking down Warren, toward Livernois. The clothing store windows where I’d peer with envy at brightly colored fine knit shirts, the variety store over whose loudspeakers I first heard the Beatles, and the drug store with its soda fountain, were all charred, blackened hulks. A fat, helmeted, white policeman was crouched down behind his car, holding his shotgun, looking across the street at Mrs. Skinner’s Barber Shop, which was, as I remember, a one- or two-story structure. Mrs. Skinner was the nice black woman who cut my curly hair every two weeks. Her shop was untouched. The cop was, I guess, looking for snipers. My friend and I just stared at him. He turned to us and growled: “Go do your plotting somewhere else.” I was two-and-a-half weeks shy of my 14th birthday. —Geoffrey Jacques

A Tigers tale

The ’67 riots tore us apart. The ’68 Tigers helped us start to pull back together. Different heroes every night — Horton, Kaline, Brown, Freehan — the only race that mattered then was the race to the pennant. Ernie Harwell and Ray Lane’s broadcasts seemed to float from every open window. We even got to listen to some of the World Series at school. When they won it all, it was better than Christmas.

Years later, living in Florida, I planned my vacation with a Tigers schedule in front of me. That 1984 doubleheader against Kansas City would be heavenly, my chance to catch the mighty juggernaut. I flew 1,200 miles to see the Tigers drop both games. When Sparky Anderson published his diary of that season, he said that day marked the worst the Tigers had played all year. That’s what I get for deserting my hometown.

I was smart enough to move back in 1987, and finagled seats for the playoffs. Perched in the left-field grandstands, my best buddy Buzz Hackett turned to me as benchwarmer Johnny Grubb stepped up to the plate. “’Bout time for a homer,” Buzz enthused. “Smack!” came the reply, as Grubb launched one into the seats just a couple sections away from us. It was the only game they won in the playoffs; how long will it be before they win another? —Vic Doucette

Dialed in

Detroit radio used to be exciting. I still cherish the memories of turning on WABX-FM 99.5 (“The station of your wildest dreams,” they called themselves) back in the late ’60s; my neighbor Skip Moss clued me in about it. What the hell was this stuff I’d stumbled into? Cream, Jimi Hendrix, the Doors, the Grateful Dead — no other station played them, no other station sounded like this either. Ad-libbed live commercials for the Just Looking Bootery (“Don’t forget to ask for your free slap in the face”); announcers including Dave Dixon and Jerry Lubin who sounded like real people making it up as they went along, not puking top-40 hacks; a sense of outrage against an immoral Asian war and injustice in our own neighborhoods; all framed by a seat-of-the-pants attitude and a healthy dose of “fuck the system.” There hadn’t been anything like it before, there’ll never be anything like it again, since Detroit’s commercial radio dial is now as pasteurized and processed as Velveeta — and just as bland. —Vic Doucette

Downtown Detroit Days

Saturdays with Mama. These were Downtown Detroit Days.

Woodward. Bustling on Saturday afternoon. No beauty supply stores back then. Hughes & Hatcher’s was clean and carried the fiercest suits on the block. Not a seersucker in sight. Mama bought simple stuff like stockings. And we’d get franks and popcorn once she finished.

The Adams Theatre showed karate movies, but they never fixed that hole in the screen. Floors were sticky. Stale butter thickened the air. And we loved it. Across Grand Circus, the David Whitney Building was a regular Taj Ma-hood. And Flaming Embers had a decent reputation then.

Mounted policemen were a friendly complement to the atmosphere, but STRESS was still a recent memory. And the huge Hudson’s building was so fresh, so clean. So tall. If Dad worked that day, Mom would trade him her Vega for his Eldorado. We’d hop in the El-dog and float down the Woodward strip. Just happy to be there, man. Just happy to be. —Khary Kimani Turner

Night Man’s 8-Track

Three of my most enduring memories about the days I drove a cab in Detroit are of the smells, the icicles and getting robbed. I worked for the Detroit, Checker and City Cab companies, driving all over the city and suburbs both day and night. Yes, I drove at night. I was young, foolish, and crack hadn’t come to town yet. Many cabbies remember their customers. I wanted to mind my own business and stay out of theirs, so the customers have melted into my memory and imagination. Besides, many of my fares originated in the Cass Corridor, and I always suspected that the day (or night) man let the hookers turn tricks on their shift. That’s why, I imagined, the cabs smelled like they did. A romantic might say they smelled like life, but that could only be true if you mean they didn’t smell like death.

The nature of winter started to change during the 1975-76 season. I noticed this driving down Clairmount one night, way past midnight, the first time it rained in December. The all-night DJ on WJR in those days — his name is lost to me now — had excellent taste, and would throw Oscar Peterson or the Modern Jazz Quartet between the Robert Goulet records. Great late-night driving music. One almost-rain, almost-snow night the branches turned to shimmering icicles, several yards long. They hung and glittered, illuminated by the street lamps. They were especially beautiful on that wonderfully tree-lined stretch of Clairmount between the Lodge and Woodward. Science fiction was never the same after that.

My last cab-driving memory started in front of Central High School. It was a sunny, clear day at high noon. I was heading south on Linwood. I stopped for a flagging customer. He opened the passenger-side rear door, and as I started to look toward him, I caught a glimpse of it through my side view mirror. Then I felt the meaning of the words “cold blue steel” just below my left ear. They let me go after they got my money and the night man’s 8-track. When I got back to the station the night man cussed me out. The straw boss snickered, but that always-present fat, unlit cigar never fell from his mouth. His favorite saying was, “I’m poor but I’m happy.” I knew I’d only be happy if I walked away and never looked back. So that’s what I did. —Geoffrey Jacques

Where the fun was

That address — 2329 E. Milwaukee — forever sticks in my head as “the place where all the fun happened.” At times, I can’t even recall the address of the place I lived in last or even the house in which I spent my early childhood years. And I only slightly remember the East Milwaukee house. Those memories might even be fabricated, made up from looking at old pictures of my uncle leaning against the frame of the white painted home, birthday parties, the crocheted rugs, the dogs (Pudgy One, Pudgy Two, Pudgy Three), my grandmother with a stern face and a protest sign. It was the house where my dad grew up and where his parents lived until 1981 when their house, along with more than 1,000 others — including 16 churches, 144 businesses, two schools and one hospital — were leveled and paved over. My dad grew up in Poletown, a neighborhood east of Woodward and north of I-94 at the Hamtramck border — where General Motors’ Poletown plant now sits. It’s where he learned to run the table in one turn from spending years as a spittoon cleaner at my grandfather’s pool hall, Hupp’s Billiards. It’s where he got his nickname, “Whop,” as the only student with an Italian last name at his mostly Polish school. Now, when he points out his childhood home, it’s somewhere between a factory and a few parked cars. For most of my life, Detroit has meant build, build, build, so people will come here. It’s too bad the people already here usually get screwed over in the process. But the second-hand memories are priceless. —Melissa Giannini

Road to democracy

Every fourth Saturday of the month, Reba Hawkins takes a bus from her west side home to the New Center area where she and a core group of folks faithfully study parliamentary procedure. They do this, she says, so they can teach others how to properly conduct community meetings that ensure everyone has a voice.

“The road to democracy is paved with parliamentary procedure,” she says.

It is also paved by those, like Hawkins, who take part in their community, trying to make it better for everyone.

Since I began writing for the Metro Times five or so years ago, I have been amazed and inspired by the intense commitment people have to our city. Hawkins is one of those people. The 74-year-old woman, who came here from Nashville in 1949, also belongs to the Warren Avenue Community Organization, which keeps the neighborhood intact and raises money for two local churches.

She attends City Council meetings, where I ran into her last month. She had just come from a meeting about how the Wayne County Commission districts may be redrawn.

Like dozens of Detroit residents, Hawkins participated in the Community Reinvestment Strategy that Mayor Dennis Archer devised during his first term. Folks spent countless hours assessing the needs of their neighborhoods for Archer, who was to find ways to implement their ideas. Nothing much came of this. Hawkins was disappointed, but not discouraged. Like many others, this was not the first time high hopes for Detroit were dashed. And it would not be the last.

Some may express their frustration with the city by painting polka dots on dilapidated buildings or organizing a recall. Others find respite in poring over the rules of democracy and passing on their knowledge. Rarely have I met anyone who has given up on Detroit for good. —Ann Mullen

Come together

Hands-down, the most important musical export from Detroit over the past 20 years is techno. Not to slight the other talented techno/electronic artists in our city, but we’re lucky to have the likes of Juan Atkins, Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson, Carl Craig and Underground Resistance (Jeff Mills and Mike Banks). You couldn’t help to think about the whole scene during the surprise but not-so-surprising success of this year’s DEMF — nasty politics and weather aside. I remember getting rained on, watching the sun come out and then being one of the few people to notice a delicate rainbow extending behind the Renaissance Center. It was one of the few times I’ve understood what it means to be a part of something. —Aaron Warshaw

Underdog Town

My very first story for the Metro Times when I came here six years ago was about Fox Creek on Detroit’s east side, and how the city of Grosse Pointe Park would discharge sewage into the waterway during heavy storms, causing everything from human feces to used condoms and tampons to flood into the backyards of Detroit residents. For me, that still symbolizes what remains a stark reality about this city. I see it every day driving to work down Jefferson from St. Clair Shores, passing by mile after mile of multimillon-dollar mansions, the incredible wealth they represent never ceasing to amaze me. Then, in the instant I cross over into the city the profound poverty is immediately evident, building after abandoned building looking as if they’ve been bombed out. You would think after all this time, I’d have grown used to the disparity and the sense of division, not just between black and white, but between rich and poor, between privilege and deprivation. But instead of growing inured, every day serves as a fresh reminder of how far Detroit has to go before it lives up to the “it’s a great time to be here” PR campaigns. This is an underdog city if there ever was one, and you have to love it — not for what it once was, or for what it hopes to be, but for the incredible struggle to overcome that is now. —Curt Guyette

Making it up

Antoine Laumet. I love this guy. Pretty soon, they’ll be unveiling his statue in Hart Plaza, making sanctimonious speeches, thanking him for discovering Detroit in 1701, which — depending on who you ask — maybe wasn’t lost in the first place. But that’s another story. Laumet was an ugly character, long-nosed, quick to pick fights, mean with a sword. And a complete phony. Antoine de la Mothe, Sieur de Cadillac: that’s the name he made up for himself when he landed in the New World. “De la Mothe,” he plucked out of thin air; as to the “Sieur de Cadillac,” Laumet was sire of nothing, except a lot of nerve, and a fake claim to noble lineage. A guy with plenty of guts and big ideas. I wish he were running for mayor. I’d vote for him. —Jerry Herron

Detroit 300 credits

Jerry Herron is a regular Metro Times contributor and the author of AfterCulture: Detroit and the Humiliation of History (Wayne State University Press). Curt Guyette is the MT news editor. Herb Boyd is an MT contributing editor and author of Autobiography of a People: Three Centuries of African American History Told by Those Who Lived It (Doubleday). Geoffrey Jacques teaches at Hunter College in New York and is the author of Free Within Ourselves: The Harlem Renaissance (African-American Experience) (Franklin Watts). Vic Doucette is the MT copy editor. Khary Kimani Turner is a frequent MT contributor and author of Outa You: Early Selfloveactivism (Boneylife Press). Melissa Giannini is the MT music writer. Aaron Warshaw (aka DJ Warshaw) is the MT listings editor. Ann Mullen is an MT staff writer.

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Since 1980, Metro Times has been Detroit’s premier alternative source for news, arts, culture, music, film, food, fashion and more from a liberal point of view.
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