The Kidnapped Children of Detroit

Marsha Music

From the author:
This essay was in my head for a couple of years, especially after I was reunited with several childhood friends in an alumni group on Facebook. I started writing this piece off and on when, in early 2014, writer/editor Anna Clark asked if I would contribute a piece to an anthology that she was pulling together.

The book, A Detroit Anthology, features the work of several Detroit writers, and was published in June, 2014. I am thankful for the opportunity to share my thoughts on the subject of “white flight” in this exciting collection of important Detroit writers.

It Happened Suddenly.

One day, we’d be outside with our friends, black, brown, and white, on the warm summer days before the start of the next school semester, playing jacks and hopscotch, riding bikes. The next day, our white friends would be gone. One of my friends might have said, “Hey, we’re moving,” in the middle of a game of kickball, but there were few real goodbyes, or promises to keep in touch, at least not of the type associated with the farewells of kids who had been together all or most of their lives.

In the jumbled mishmash of childhood memories during those transitional years, I recall worshippers leaving the neighborhood church after Sunday service, descending the dark oak staircase from the sanctuary. In their hurry to get on with their day, it looked, from my kid-level gaze, like a stampede, during those late summer days when our integrated neighborhood was disassembling before my eyes. I will forever associate the Sunday-dressed hemlines and dark-suited pants legs with their rushing, running to get away — from us — the worshippers with whom they had just fellowshipped before God.

White parents were grabbing their kids and escaping from Detroit — and from its enclave Highland Park, where I grew up, a then solidly middle-class enclave within Detroit’s borders, “a city within a city.” Often, it appeared as if they left in the dark of the night, the moves seemed so clandestine. This sense of them leaving virtually “overnight,” packing up and disappearing, was likely due to the white parents’ reluctance to speak to their black neighbors — whom they often treated with pronounced neighborliness — about their impending moves, knowing that their departures were largely because of the color of the neighbor’s skin.

I wonder if some worried that their daytime public neighborliness contrasted with their nighttime kitchen table planning, their plotting to get out of the neighborhood as soon as they could manage. Perhaps they forbade their children to speak to their darker friends about the frenetic packing going on inside. Certainly they didn’t want to speak of the reason for the moves with the reason for the moves — though everyone, of course, knew why. Or they talked to their black neighbors pretending “those new people moving in” didn’t include those with whom they commiserated. But one by one, the white families left their old homes, tree-lined streets — and us — behind.

I’m sure that some of my friends listened to their parents in their homes, as they spoke of us with words of racial hatred, while outside they smiled across backyard fences, making small talk about sod and azaleas. Perhaps black and white neighbors rarely communicated at all during this time, when our neighborhoods were soon to be re-segregated. For there was virulent racism and ill-disguised violence in areas throughout the city, and even in the late ’60s, blacks could not shop in many stores. Detroit was replete with episodes of unrest and even terror in the competition over housing: whites demanded that blacks be stopped from moving into an east side housing project, which precipitated a race riot in 1943. A generation before that, Ossian Sweet, a black medical doctor, was met with mobs as he moved into his home in a white neighborhood on the near east side. Clarence Darrow would defend Sweet’s right to defend his hearth, and establish, “A man’s home is his castle.”

My grandmother told me the tale of how, in the early ’50s, she had saved up the money she made as a domestic to buy a home on Clairmont and Woodward Avenue. On the eve of the closing, the realtor came to her with the news that the white block club did not want her in the neighborhood. Grandmother refused to change her plans and sent him packing, but the realtor returned — the block club offered to pay her back the money for her down payment, plus some. Well, Grandmother took the money and ran, to a neighborhood on the near east side.

She moved near Conant Gardens, a community developed on land that had been owned by an abolitionist named Shubael Conant, who refused to sell his land to developers who sold homes with the restrictive covenants that were common in Detroit. That community was one of the first strongholds of black middle class home ownership. My grandmother chuckled at the end of her story, at the irony that by the time of her telling, thirty years later, Clairmont and Woodward was all black — the block club had obviously been unable to buy its way against the changing times.

Some whites, I’m sure, were not influenced by race baiting, but left the city solely to experience the new suburban living, or to be closer to the jobs that had moved across 8 Mile — though they knew that they were going to communities where blacks were not allowed. Some of my friends’ parents were surely anguished about the decision to move, sometimes leaving behind equity and often their own parents who refused to go. Did my young white friends listen to their planning with conflicted feelings? Never mind; the torrent of change and fear that was driving white Detroiters could not be turned off.

• • •

And so, I say, my friends were kidnapped; snatched away from their homes, often under cover of night or in rushed moves that split friends apart for a lifetime. I watched Mary Martin fly as Peter Pan on TV, and it seemed my friends too had been lured to a Neverland. Did they cry when they were taken, missing their old friends? Did they think of what they’d left behind when they woke in homes with no deep porches or rich oaken banisters? On streets with no lush, ancient trees? Where it took a car — or two — to get anywhere, with lawns so new that grass had yet to grow? But my friends settled into their new neighborhoods, like children do, adapting and making friends, happy for the new. Glad to be in the modern houses on spread-out blocks, out of the brick behemoths, two-family flats, or frame houses of the old, dense Detroit streets they’d left behind.

One of my friends remembers the overwhelming fear that consumed his family’s 7 Mile and Wyoming household — a relatively new community even then — as they prepared to leave for Southfield. He confirms that, in so many homes, there was a sense of panic, as his family prepared not just to move, but to escape, as if from some impending debacle. He recalls how, in the innocence of youth, he wondered about the reason for the terror; for it appeared to him that the black folks moving into his neighborhood were at the very least, in his child’s eye view of social classes, the most non-scary folks in the world: doctors, teachers, professionals. To him, they seemed to be of a clearly higher social standing than most of the folks who were desperately moving out.

• • •

It happened rapidly. An elder of my church remembers that he started school in his west-side neighborhood as only one of two black children in his kindergarten class; the rest were white, mostly Jewish. By the time he left elementary school, only two white children remained. The Jewish exodus (so to speak) was an integral engine of the movement of blacks across the west side, for they were willing to break the “restrictive covenants” in deeds that had prohibited homeowners from selling to blacks, and often Jews too. Block by block, as whites moved out, Jewish homeowners replaced them and then blacks followed, with synagogues transformed into black churches.

After the 1967 riots (also known as The Rebellion, in which my own father’s record business was destroyed), the post-conflagration trauma was so great, and the consciousness of Detroit-ers so altered by the eruption of turmoil and destruction, that it came to be said that “all the white people left after ’67,” a false narrative that persists even today. In reality, the exit from the city began after World War II. By 1952, construction of Northland Mall in suburban Southfield had begun, to accommodate the mounting loss of population from Detroit; it became the first and largest suburban mall in the country. Whites bought new houses in the newly built suburbs, when the schools in the city were still quite good; and really, there was no reason to go except for a change of scenery and a good use of the G.I. Bill. But blacks were straining against the “James Crow” segregation of the North, and out of the packed neighborhoods in which they had been confined. Millions of whites were worked into moving van frenzy by word-of-mouth from one home to the other, and in rabble-rousing community meetings. Importantly, real estate interests and developers — often individually, and surely cumulatively, stood to profit greatly in that rapid turnover of properties.

Some real estate companies grew rich from this race-based trading in hope and fear. Some actually identified neighborhoods and instigated the whole cycle in order to profit from the terror-driven turnover of properties. One of my friends remembers when her white neighborhood was inundated with flyers, exhorting Whites to get away from the coming dark hordes. Neighborhoods had brief, uneasy periods of “integration,” marked by racial tension and police brutality, before the last of the whites would move out.

This practice is called “block-busting,” creating a crazy, predictable cycle — whites move out, lured by real estate interests to leave for white communities; blacks move in and fear is escalated; whites become panicked and, egged on by the realtors and block associations, sell at ever lower prices in order to hurry and “get out.” This also happened when blacks moved into communities paying higher rents or land-contract prices than the whites before them. The more whites that moved out, “dumping” houses onto the market, the more blacks were able to move in; many of them were on a lower economic rung than those who preceded them, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The result — a neighborhood that had solidly “middle class” or even affluent blacks and whites, had, in a few short years, a preponderance of poorer families. These were families who were often less able to maintain the lifestyle in that neighborhood, and brought with them the problems that their children often had in rough projects or poorer communities. Many of my black friends from harsher backgrounds had a difficult time adjusting to the quiet, tree-lined life on their new blocks. In each neighborhood, they used the drugs that were flooding into the communities to deal with their anxieties of being planted in these short-lived “mixed” communities, where they were often not wanted by blacks or whites. This accelerated the neighborhood’s crime and disruption — the final death-knell for many communities.

Another factor I remember that prompted moves to the suburbs was violence, whether threatened or carried out, against white kids, who were often tormented by black kids in outbursts of retaliation for wrongs real or imagined. Later, there was the bussing of children to schools as a tactic to address the re-segregation of the community, with the rise of agitators who whipped up a frenzy of racial fear and hatred, driving whites further across 8 Mile. A group of us stared down Klan sympathizers on the east side, singing “We Shall Overcome” in the streets during chilling episodes of anti-bussing turmoil.

As people left, so did businesses; the suburbs, an appealing, all-white commercial for modern living, were a vacuum sucking life and enterprise across 8 Mile. Many of the largest industrial enterprises had gone first, finding in the undeveloped suburbs the acres of land needed for the modern, stretched-out production facilities that could not be built in the property-dense city. Companies left behind the tight neighborhoods where residents could and did join organizing efforts of all kinds, and by the 1960s, there was a freeway system to move out workers and supplies. Detroit’s infrastructure, dependent upon on the former booming tax base and not the new, shrinking one, was less able to maintain services. With joblessness that became epidemic, and the ruination of great sections of the social fabric via the scourge of crime and drugs, the urban community spiraled ever downward.

This circular, self-fulfilling, nasty game of musical chairs perpetuated itself in the Detroit area, as in other “changing” communities nationwide. As whites departed en masse, the problems they most feared came to pass. In many areas, blacks moved into a level of community that they were suddenly allowed to afford, yet unable, in the long run, to maintain. Or, blacks with means moved into communities with aged housing stock, making the next years of liv- ing a fait accompli of devastation. Later, the mortgage crisis sealed the deal of destruction in many neighborhoods.

Even so, after white flight, there were still many communities full of dedicated residents who were paragons of home ownership, with houses and lawns maintained in consummate displays of steadfast residential pride, despite the challenges of living in the midst of flight and escalating blight. Detroit still has exquisite blocks in affluent neighborhoods, and handsome, solid homes on working-class blocks — maintained by those who remained. My own neighborhood, Lafayette Park, was built in 1960 to staunch the flow of white Detroiters outward. It is still a model of diverse urban living, with those who live there committed to the city.

During the departures in the late ’60s, my next-door neighbors were among the last whites to leave our block; we had lived next door to them all of our lives. He was president of a bank on Woodward Avenue, and on the verge of retirement, but I guess the changing times had become too much; whites were now moving at the sound of the drum beat of the Black Power era. The banker’s wife, a white-haired lady who had known me since I was a babe, literally burst into tears across the backyard fence at the sight of my brand new sixties Afro, and asked me tearfully why I had to wear my hair “like that.” Shortly after, it was time for them to go. Some waited too long and moved into white communities in which they were branded by the stigma of having come from neighborhoods that had long ago turned black, never to be viewed as really equal to the whites in their new towns.

But they were all transfigured into new souls called suburbanites, though many maintained an undying love-hate relationship with the neighborhoods they were forced by fear to leave behind, often viewing the city and its current residents with a mixture of contempt, dismay, and nostalgia. They pined for the old glory days of the city, following the stories of its streets and politics as if they lived within its boundaries; following the news of its decline like a lover both grieving and gloating over the travails of a lost love. In the late sixties, many of my black friends began to leave too, as the city declined, for segregation had finally lifted its weight from the close-lying suburbs. So they too moved across 8 Mile.

• • •

Over the years I’ve known many whites that work in downtown Detroit, and savor the scary, sexy power of being comfortable in the city — at least during work hours. They’re proud of their ability to move around the urban landscape and to have at least daytime friends of other colors. Most whites in the Detroit area stay away, especially from anywhere outside of downtown, fearful of the community. But some former Detroiters are pulled back to their old neighborhoods — some intact, some bedraggled, some where the old home is completely gone: the decay and destruction an affirmation of their parents’ obviously right decision to leave, so long ago.

I wonder if, sometimes, they suspect that somehow, that decision itself, multiplied across Detroit, was at least part of the cause of all the mess here now. That maybe the mass flight, the leaving of property all over town, the years of being egged on by whispers and realtors to cross 8 Mile, was all part of a nasty, self-destructive Monopoly game — with real properties and real lives. I wonder what might have happened in Detroit if there had never been this flight — if whites had held on and resisted the racial manipulation, if blacks had been able to push back the plague of unemployment, drugs and crime, if we had been able to live in Detroit, all at one time.

It is hard for many black Detroiters to comprehend the sense of belonging, or even entitlement, that many whites feel toward Detroit, even decades and states removed from living within city boundaries. There are those — black and white — that have never lived in Detroit proper, or even in Michigan, who gaze (through Google Maps) at old family homesteads, and vicariously traverse old family blocks from afar. They regard Detroit as their city. And I believe that the sense of being part of Detroit proper — despite living well outside of its borders for generations — is rooted in that mass evacuation. Like the movement of blacks across the city after the destruction of Black Bottom, this was an unprecedented transfer of community; and suburban parents did their best, as they understood it, to build better lives. But fear of a black city made my friends Detroiters in Exile.

Folks ask the question, Will Detroit come back? Well, Detroit never left — but three generations did. Today, regardless of the city’s efforts at redevelopment, most know that they will never again live in the city of their affection. Most of the old neighborhoods are much too far from livability for them, and the city’s core and urban lifestyle holds no appeal for those accustomed to suburban sprawl. But more and more of the children and grandchildren of the Kidnapped Children are finding their way home. But despite ghost-town metaphors, blank-slate pronouncements, and prairie-land descriptions of Detroit, they find the city already occupied, and these strangers in a strange yet familiar land must learn to share it with those who held on.

As the quality of life in the outer ring of the city declined, forcing more blacks to look outward to escape crime and to seek neighborhood stability, property values fell in the near suburbs — because of the age of those cities and their housing stock, because of the mortgage crisis, because of blockbusting that is still alive and well (though sometimes with more subtle practices than before). As many of the suburbs become less “exclusive” and downtown living grows, owners who held onto core city properties during the crash of their values watch their fortunes rise, after contributing to the city’s vistas of decay and destruction. For decades, they held onto ravaged, abandoned structures as they waited for a time of profitability, contributing to much of the urban devastation for which black city dwellers have been reviled.

Younger generations of whites from the suburbs, who don’t have their forebears’ fear of the city, are moving in the opposite direction, proudly proclaiming their Detroit provenance and reveling in their new urban life. Some of them recreate suburban segregation in the heart of the city; they want life in Detroit — without Detroiters. But many more look to the city as the most exciting place in the world to live in diversity. They are led by the artists’ community, the creative seraphim of redevelopment; they are the coal-mine canaries of our scorched and burned land. This community of artists has been waiting and creating for such a time as this, for Detroit has always been a city of artists. Our extreme maker impulse in Detroit is now unfettered, no longer consumed by the past that propelled, yet devoured, so much of the city’s creative energy. They are side by side with those who’ve held on for decades, trying to make “a way out of no way.”

As in South Africa, there is a need for atonement in Detroit and its suburbs. We need a restorative movement to heal what has happened here, as the working people of this town competed against themselves over the right to the good life. We have to share stories about the experiences of the past era. As we move forward in Detroit, there must be a mending of the human fabric that was rent into municipal pieces with the divisions of city and suburbs. Small, continual acts of reconciliation are called for here, as sections of the city rise again.

As the children and grandchildren of the Kidnapped Children make their way to the city, I believe that it is the responsibility of the rest of us — those who, like me, never left — to welcome them; to tell our new residents the real city narratives, to share the truths of what happened here from all sides. There are deep schisms that never should have been, that were orchestrated by self-serving interests; we must work to mend these wherever possible. Our new residents have a contagious earnestness, energy, and hopefulness, reminiscent of the movements of our past, and there’s a difference between their sincere efforts for change and the machinations of those who would manipulate the urban crisis to their own benefit, casting us aside like flotsam in the name of progress.

Yet it is likewise the charge of our new Detroit-ers to acknowledge and respect those already here — to actually see longtime residents, for we are not invisible. Our new residents must learn from our history and experience; they must work alongside our earlier residents and their children in Detroit’s renewal, for they are the bedrock of the redeveloped city and the nexus of its future. Let us figure out — this time — how to live together, so that more children and grandchildren of the Kidnapped Children can come home to live in the city, so that more of our children and grandchildren might also be part of a truly new Detroit. Young people come to be freed from their lives of suburban isolation and the crippling divisions of this region; they want to be a part of a new urban reality. It is true that some say that they have come to save Detroit, but I say, they come to Detroit to BE saved.