By Judy Goddard
EDITOR'S NOTE: The author, Judy Goddard, nee Sabo, of Great Britain, was an English teacher for Mike and Dennis McCarty at George Ford School in Detroit. Reading Metro memories of the McCarty boys' home in Detroit prompted Judy to offer memories of her former Detroit home and a turbulent event.
What a surprise it was some time ago to find on the Net an advertisement:
“Open House. Saturday, March 15, 12 noon til 4 p.m.
Move in immediately with approved credit!
8430-8432 E Jefferson Ave Detroit, MI 48214
We are on East Jefferson, on the Detroit River side, ½ mile east of Belle Isle between Seyburn and Burns Road.
Everyone is moving downtown! So why wouldn’t you choose a residence that puts you on Detroit’s riverfront? The newly renovated River Plaza Apartments are drawing a crowd, but we are filling up fast! Residents enjoy a beautiful riverfront setting, walking distance to shopping and minutes from fine dining, major freeways and downtown. We offer more than most for this competitive price!”
It has been some 50 years since I lived at 8430 E. Jefferson in Detroit, Michigan, at River Plaza, which was then known as Riverside. In those days you wrote out a check for your rent. There was no such thing as moving in with approved credit. Since the so-called “riots of 1967,” the whole of the city of Detroit, not just Riverside Apartments, had become derelict and run-down. My old family home at 15354 Mark Twain on Detroit’s West Side was still standing, boarded up, iron bars on the windows. It is heart-breaking to remember my father installing the underground sprinkling system and second bathroom in the basement. The last time I was home my sister Elaine took me back to the old neighbourhood to once again see our family home. She got out of the taxi and walked to the back of the property, looking to see if the swing my father had made for us girls was still there — a dangerous thing to do in a neighbourhood where you needed to lock your car door!
It was odd to see that the old apartment building was still there for Elaine had arranged for us to be driven back in time.
Flooding back came memories of those five days in July 1967 – five tumultuous days that changed my home town, Detroit, my university, Wayne State University, as well as myself — forever.
People generally believed that the riots started when police raided a “blind pig” (i.e. after-hours bar) on 12th Street in the early hours of the morning. The night of the raid had begun as a celebration for two neighbourhood men who had returned home from Vietnam. As the eye-witnesses to the riot said, “You could feel the tension in the air. Like you knew there was a storm coming and it’s dead quiet. More people were standing around than usual on Dexter, like they were waiting for a signal. Suddenly some guy picked up a garbage can and threw it through the window of a furniture store, and it was as if someone had said, 'Let’s go.'"
That was to be the beginning of one of the most destructive civil uprisings in American history. When it finished there were 43 people dead, 1200 injured, 7200 arrested and 2000 buildings destroyed, with tens of millions in property damage. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and today factors like unequal access to schooling and opportunity, segregated communities and brutal policing are considered to have contributed.
During the riots I drove home to 8430 East Jefferson from the Michigan Theatre Building in Downtown Detroit where I was an English instructor on the 12th Floor at the Detroit Business Institute. The Director, Homer C Long, safe in his Grosse Pointe mansion, told us we had to come into work even though there was rioting in the streets below. Looking down I could see the flames from the rioting and looting across the wide boulevard that was East Jefferson. Irrationally I thought that if the water supply was cut off, I would at least have some water at Riverside if I filled my bath. I remember looking out of my studio apartment window and watching my neighbour, a member of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, who lived across the hall, carry his cello case in from the car park. His cello had been replaced with an automatic weapon.
I remember looking down from my classroom window in the Michigan Theatre Building on the tanks of Governor George Romney’s Michigan State Army National Guard in the streets below. Later I would learn that President Lyndon Baines Johnson sent in both the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions.
As for me I was nervous and scared for my personal safety. This was said to be a race riot, so to be safe I felt I needed to get to the suburbs — to Farmington Hills where my parents lived, and to do so I had to drive my Ford Focus down the expressway while people were shooting guns across it.
After all this time it has now been decided that the riots were really a rebellion against police authority. But whether riots or rebellion, on a personal level my life had changed. I handed in my notice to DBI, moved out of Riverside Apartments where I had my first taste of independence, and continued to live at my parents’. Before the riots I had been attending Wayne State University at night school where I had completed all my course work for an MA but had yet to finish my Dissertation on Night and Moonlight in Henry David Thoreau. I never did complete this.