If I had a nickel for every time I drove on (or walked on, or crossed) Woodward Avenue, I used to say, I would be a wealthy woman. That’s because I was born mere blocks from Detroit’s main drag, and lived my first forty years within a couple of miles away, at the farthest, from it. When I was closest, between 1979 and 1987, I was only about six houses away from it--right off of Woodward, across the street from Palmer Park. Back in the day, I could run around Palmer Park (a circumference of about 2.5 miles) in approximately 25 minutes. Only adequate then for a young, fit, woman—but what I wouldn’t give for that sort of time now!
Or if I had a nickel for every time I rode downtown on a bus along Woodward Avenue; those trips would add up, too. The first time I did that, I was about fourteen, and I took a bus from downtown Royal Oak, where I lived, to meet my Finnish exchange student boyfriend, who was living in Dearborn Heights. Meeting in downtown Detroit—which we did, right at the foot of Woodward, long before there was a Hart Plaza—was the most convenient place for us to rendezvous. Certainly a unique and memorable trip. But for several years after that, in much more mundane fashion, I would hop on the SEMTA bus at the southwestern corner of Woodward and McNichols and ride an express bus downtown to work. That was one of the tricks we could use, living so close to Highland Park: SEMTA (the suburban bus line) wouldn’t make any rider pick-ups in Detroit, but it would in any suburb. Conversely, outbound buses would pick up in downtown Detroit, but they wouldn’t do any drop-offs within the city. Waiting on the bus in the dark in front of one of the “GIRLS, GIRLS, GIRLS!” peepshows that populated that stretch of Woodward wasn’t pleasant, but there was always a crowd, and the overall convenience was worth it. Anyone else here remember the old Sun Press, a lefty, union print shop near the northeast corner of Woodward and Six Mile? Great, albeit sometimes cranky personnel who did good work for many an event I needed to publicize, back in the day.
Being the main drag, Woodward Avenue has been the site for many a protest (as well as the Hudson's, now the Macy's, Thanksgiving Day Parade). I think most readers will be aware of the Walk to Freedom that took place here in June of 1963, led by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and many Detroit luminaries (including the Rev. Albert Cleage, the Rev. C. L. Franklin, and UAW President Walter Reuther). That was the march that was followed by the early version of King's "I Have a Dream" speech, delivered in its more famous and definitive version in Washington DC later that summer.
But non-Detroiters or non-union activists might not be aware of the long tradition of Labor Day parades held here every year. One such rally for workers is represented here, by office workers marching on behalf of their rights, in 1964 at the dawning of the Great Society:
Woodward Avenue serves another major function. It divides East from West in Detroit (that is, until John R takes over at Six Mile/McNichols). East and West siders in Detroit and their respective suburbs might as well live in different cities altogether. My mother’s family were all east-siders, except for us; my father’s family were too, except for my grandparents and us. Apart from visiting those relatives, however, I spent no time at all on the east side when I was a kid, and when I grew up my circles remained west-side-dominant. There are naturally many insults traded by each side, but at this point at least I’ll refrain from mentioning any details. Well, except this one factoid: In the suburbs, east side money is old money. Think Grosse Pointe, all the Pointes (except for Eastpointe, which is an entirely different sort of suburb formerly called East Detroit), along the lakeshore, which were populated early on by lots of wealthy auto execs. West side suburbs, the ones circling the lovely small lakes of Oakland County, are new money. The latter area does have better restaurants, generally speaking. I can’t say why.
Nor can I truly explain why I have introduced this diary with a nostalgic riff on Woodward Avenue when my diary names Eight Mile Road. I suppose it’s because Woodward travels through so many different areas, from the waterfront and business district downtown; through Midtown, from Orchestra Hall up to Wayne State and the Detroit Institute of Arts; through Highland Park, once an auto manufacturing powerhouse, including the site of Ford’s Crystal Palace, but now totally destitute since all manufacturing has left; on past Palmer Park and Palmer Woods, the legacy of one of Detroit’s greatest benefactors, the 19th c. senator Thomas W. Palmer; out past the old Michigan Fairgrounds, now the site of a Meijer (MI-based mega grocery store); past Ferndale, Pleasant Ridge, Huntington Woods, Royal Oak, Birmingham and Bloomfield Hills, all relatively comfortable, relatively white, suburbs, on out to Pontiac. Pontiac, however, is neither comfortable nor mostly white, and is another city plagued by deep unemployment and structural racism. In other words, the cityscape of Woodward Avenue varies from skyscraper to tenement, from luxury to destitution. One could do worse in an effort to grasp the circumstances of metro Detroit than to proceed along Woodward Avenue from one end to the other. That’s an instructive and cautionary tale in its own right, to be sure.
Please follow me below the jump for more, including the ultimate point of this diary.
Why Eight Mile Road?
But I chose to stress Eight Mile Road in the end because it is both a device and symbol for division. Originally, the road was relatively benign, serving as the “base line” for surveyors in Michigan. As such, it provided the demarcation between Wayne County (where Detroit is) and Oakland and Macomb Counties, both on the north side of Eight Mile. And in that role, it remains relatively neutral, at least as neutral as a mapping tool can be. But over time, and with the increasing racial segregation, red-lining, discrimination, and economic disparities (all closely-linked phenomena) that were encouraged by politicians, policy makers, and ordinary citizens during most of the 20th century, Eight Mile Road and the distinction it marked between poorer, black Detroit and its affluent white suburbs hardened into a virtual barrier, one much harder to breach.
Metro Detroiters know this, even if they may know it only from one side of Eight Mile or the other. Although nowadays, it’s not as obvious who’s from the suburbs and who’s from the city on the basis of skin color; the segregation index for the core Detroit Metropolitan Statistical Area (Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb Counties) has actually improved in the last decade, from an value of about 85 to about 75. [If you follow the link, then click on the "Black-White Segregation Indices for Metro Areas."]
The Detroit MSA is still a highly-segregated area, however, continuing to be among the five worst in the U.S. for several decades running. It was the worst as of the 1990 census. When I was a white girl growing up in Royal Oak, the black population of the city was well under 1%. It’s taken a long time to get even a little bit better.
And most metro Detroiters also know this, I think, in their heart of hearts, even if they don’t always want to admit it: “It’s not about race, because it’s never about race.” That’s the pronouncement that the inimitable Charlie Pierce, political commentator for Esquire Magazine, makes whenever that peculiarly American elephant makes its appearance in the room. Over and over and over again, the root problem for Detroit that few people want to acknowledge is race. Listen to the rhetoric used by those who would defend the implementation of the Emergency Manager program in predominantly black communities across Michigan about the incompetence of the voters and/or the administrators, placing this front and center above and beyond any other factor, and tell me that it’s not about race.
Time for a New Series
We (speaking very broadly here) have a special event coming up in Detroit this July: Netroots Nation. This convention is a gathering of progressive bloggers, social networking gurus, politicians, staffers, union folks and other activists who are interested in moving our causes forward. It’s a big deal to have this event in Detroit this year, as beset as the city is by this horrendous bankruptcy and the related takeover of the city by Gov. Rick “the Nerd” Snyder and his so-called Emergency Manager, Kevyn Orr. There is plenty of opportunity, perhaps, for convention attendees to come to understand Detroit as something other than an object of pity or dismay, a cautionary tale, or a self-congratulatory one for those not (yet) in a similar plight. The city is not well represented by ruin pr0n, though there is a surfeit of examples of it, or by the gentrification and high-budget development projects of Dan Gilbert and Mike Ilitch, who seem to be buying up prime downtown real estate hand over fist (that is, in Ilitch’s case, when he’s not angling to have the city's Downtown Development Authority help pay for a new hockey arena. Yes, the Ilitch who is the billionaire founder and owner of Little Caesar's Pizza, who owns the NHL Detroit Red Wings who would be playing in said arena). Neither one of these extremes is a fair picture. Neither one of them begins to touch the realities of neighborhood Detroit, outside downtown and Midtown, which are the areas and communities which have been languishing for years without adequate remedy.
I can’t say that I can give you a completely fair picture either. Although I do have extensive lived experience on both sides of the dividing line, and although I have considerable professional experience having read many general and specific histories about Detroit in connection with my doctoral research about the Merrill-Palmer School, a key institution for child and family development founded in the city, I am still only one person, with my own idiosyncracies, biases, and limitations. Those limitations extend to networks and associations; while I was in the city, especially, I tried to live as an ally to all Detroiters regardless of race or class. But that effort can get only so far at bridging gaps in advantages and expectations, in a whole host of circumstances. At my poorest, I was still a middle-class white woman from the suburbs with enormous cultural capital and abundant white privilege to boot.
But in spite of my many limitations in this arena I can offer a public service on this blog by promoting some ongoing dialogue about what is currently happening in the city, passing on information about how you can get involved (no matter where you live), and offering resources through which you can seek to expand your own knowledge base. Along the way, I will also post some significant references in terms of the city’s history, which might also help deepen your familiarity with the city’s past, which is so very much not over. I can introduce you to some of the current activists who remain deeply committed to the resurgence of a truly revitalized Detroit—for the 99%. In many ways, I hope that my posts can comprise a virtual portal through which you can access much of the city’s rich history and resilience even as you educate yourself about the long-lasting and persistent barriers to justice and equality that have confounded Detroiters for generations. I welcome ideas for topics you'd like to see me (or someone else) cover in this series. I have some plans to start, but there is more than enough to keep us all busy for the next six months.
The tone of my preceding paragraph would suggest that I intend this series for a non-Detroit readership. That’s not precisely true. I do expect that non-Detroiters of any kind reading this diary will outnumber metro Detroiters, from the city or the burbs, but I would be happy to have other metro Detroiters step forward with their news and views. Please let me know via Kosmail whether you’d be interested, and I’ll work on creating a new group if there’s sufficient enthusiasm.
Upcoming Protest—This Weekend!
UAW members hoping to get the attention of international media covering the Auto Show before it opens to the press are holding a demonstration to highlight the real sources of the economic crises that Detroit now faces. It will take place this coming Sunday, January 12, 2014, from 1:00-2:30 in front of Cobo Center. Assessment post-event will take place at the Anchor Bar nearby. Parking in the Cobo Center lot, or on the street, will be available (though not in the lots for free).