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Watching a city fail

I moved to the city of Detroit as a bride following World War II. It was a booming, bustling city in those days, center of the automobile industry in the U.S., with fine shops in a vibrant downtown where everyone shopped. Jobs were plentiful, luring hundreds of people from other parts of the country, especially the South.

When our tiny first house grew too small for a growing family, we moved to suburban Grosse Pointe, but still we continued to frequent the city. That’s where the Tigers played baseball. It’s where Santa arrived with the Thanksgiving Day parade, and the eight-story J.L. Hudson Company, which occupied an entire block, had an entire floor filled with fabulous toys. It’s where fireworks were set off every Fourth of July from floats in the Detroit River. That’s where we watched the boat races each summer, where the ferry boat waited to carry us to Bob-Lo Island’s amusement park. It was our city and we were proud of it.

The changes came about gradually, starting, perhaps, when Hudson’s chose to anchor a large suburban mall on the east side of town and mall shopping became fashionable, springing up in suburban areas, luring people away from the city. Many of us had acquired automobiles and no longer depended on public transportation. Gradually, the city lost its luster. For a long time we were too busy to notice.

Our awakening came on July 23, 1967. On that Sunday morning we awakened to the news that a riot had erupted on the city’s Near West Side when Detroit police raided an unlicensed after-hours bar. The riot would continue for five days, one of the deadliest and most destructive riots in United States history.

The governor ordered the Michigan National Guard into Detroit to help an overwhelmed police force. Violence and looting continued to spread resulting in more than 400 fires and 1,800 arrests. On the third day President Johnson authorized use of federal troops and some 8,000 National Guardsmen were deployed to quell the disorder. Army tanks rumbled along tree-lined boulevards and remained there for several months.

In households throughout the city and suburbs families remained close to their TV sets, children were kept home from school. Looting and arson were widespread. When the violence finally dissipated, the final count listed 43 dead, 1,189 injured, more than 7,200 arrests and more than 2,000 buildings destroyed.

A semblance of order was restored but the damage was done. White flight from the city, which had already begun, now accelerated at an alarming rate. Religious and civic-minded groups in the outlying suburbs came together with high-minded plans to bring about a better relationship with Detroit’s black population. I began taking my youngest son to an integrated pre-school class which met three days during the week at an inner city Presbyterian Church.

In the fall of 1967 Don and I were part of a church group that brought Martin Luther King, Jr. to speak in Grosse Pointe. The following April, King was assassinated in Memphis.

Intolerance, police brutality, white flight, greedy unions, incompetent politicians ... There is much finger-pointing in today’s news, so many causes given for Detroit’s failure to survive. It’s heart breaking for those of us who remember the glory days of long ago.

Audrey McConachie-Byers is a member of the Lake Oswego Adult Community Center.




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