Detroit (Annapurna Pictures)

“DETROIT”: Cleaning up the mess white people made or adding to it?

Does the third movie in Kathryn Bigelow's war trilogy have a role in the creation of Detroit 2.0?


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Garlia Cornelia
July 28, 2017 7:00PM (UTC)

The Detroit “riots” are on everyone’s minds these days. On Tuesday, July 25th, two days following the 50th anniversary of the rebellion, “DETROIT,” a film about the Algier’s Hotel Murders in 1967, premiered at the historic FOX Theatre on Woodward Avenue. During my “Rebellion Week” of panel discussions, plays and art openings leading up to the 50th Anniversary of the events on July 23, 1967, “DETROIT,” directed by Kathryn Bigelow is never mentioned.

Social media’s lens introduces a young, Black-American, Black-British, White-British, White-American and non-Detroit cast to starstruck fans as they make their way around the city discussing “the strength of Detroiters” and working at a local food bank. The Charles Wright Museum of African American History hosts a VIP reception, where a week before, I sat among some of Detroit’s black and white elite: Sheila Cokrel, Rev. JoAnn Watson, Gene Cunningham and Rochelle Riley, to learn about and discuss S.T.R.E.S.S. (Stop The Robberies Enjoy Safe Streets), a policing strategy in the 1970s designed to intimidate black citizens of Detroit. The two events are like oil and water.

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This “third installment of a trilogy of war films” says Dr. Michael Eric Dyson during the opening remarks of Tuesday’s premiere is where some applaud and others turn away from the film.  My own biases got in the way for a moment prior to the film, but a war lens was absolutely needed to accurately portray the horrors surrounding the Detroit police brutality towards the city’s black citizens at that time.  A Detroiter himself, Dyson got right to the point, addressing the sceptics among the capacity crowd at the FOX.  “A white woman was needed for this film, to clean up the mess white people made.”  And so begins the careful line that will be walked with this film. 

The City of Detroit is accustomed to dealing with race openly so while I applaud Bigelow for her work, the lack of a Black producer on the stage before the film began was alarming. Symbolically, Dyson eased our minds for a moment, but even he should understand how important it is for a city like Detroit to play a role, in the telling of such an important story in American history.

Who is going to speak up for Detroit?

Detroit: A look into the past

He stood there — a young black 13-year-old in Detroit — 1938, on the massive Indiana limestone porch of a mansion on Arden Park Boulevard, where the butler, an older white gentleman greeted him. He was selling soap and magazines to pay for his voice lessons; seven bars for one dollar.

His life is filled with the historical markers I see while taking in the Detroit Historical Museum’s Detroit’67: Perspectives exhibition. His story overlaps with this film I watch in a room full of Detroiters.

On this particular day, my father, James Allen Jones, whose parents’ migrated from Georgia like many other blacks looking for work during The Great Migration north from the south, my father decided to get off the Russell street car and walk to 1951 Lawrence for his lesson, passing through the magic of Arden Park. There was something exceptional about the boulevard, where through the stone gates with a white tile “AP”, chauffeurs cleaned the cars and butlers, like the one he encountered answered stately front entrances.

He was able to get a good look inside, past the cool stone exterior and with that, came back the next week, was recognized and allowed to stand in the library of this particular house, with grape leaves molded into the ceiling, detail he had never seen before.

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The butler, with the funny accent as my father’s 13-year-old self described, hurried him along as the owner came down those grand stairs. He left, never to return with soap or magazines again.

Years later, after serving in World War II, beginning life as a teacher in Detroit Public Schools, working on higher education degrees, marrying and having two children, my father came in contact with the stately home from his childhood encounter once again.

In 1963, as he was driving by with his first wife, he saw it, but this time instead of a butler greeting him, a For Sale sign was staked on the front lawn.

Twenty-five thousand dollars later, they moved in just before their third child, was born in 1964. An election year, following Martin Luther King Junior’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and John F. Kennedy’s assassination. This was the year before Malcolm X was killed and a few years later, Detroit blazed during the 1967 Rebellion (or 1967 Riots, depending on who you ask). While America and Detroit changed during the explosive conclusion of the 1960s, my father planted deep roots in a home in a historic enclave of the city that would become the new hub of his established artistic life: “The American Festival in Britain,”“The Corunna Festival Chorale,” “Handel’s Messiah,” Julius Caesarand Othello were staples of my childhood. My father was teacher, conductor, Concert Tenor and actor from his dream house.

When the riots began on July 23, 1967, my father was overseas with a group of students, black and white from 18 states across the country as part of his “Restoration Arts Theatre.”

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By the 1980s, the city I knew had lost over half a million residents since 1950, and the black population was at 63% black and rising. My parents’ descriptions of their childhood neighborhoods included a the bustling downtown landscape. But where were all those people?

Why did they leave?

The Riots” was the explanation I’d get for all the burned out and abandoned buildings visible from the backseat of our minivan. “I graduated high school as a Negro and a month later, I became Black”, my mother’s famous anecdote concerning her experience following the rebellion. Her high school was predominantly white in the city. My high school was predominantly white in the suburbs. For me this meant that Detroit had a specific stigma. I felt it the first time I left my historic enclave and drove 25 minutes North for school. Bloomfield Hills was beautiful and green. Our house equal to any home in the suburbs in size or stature, yet I drove past the type of urban decay often exploited when we think about Detroit. So, when the other girls realized I lived in the city, being specific about where I lived in Detroit was, at the time, a way for me to say, I don’t live in as dangerous or rundown of a neighborhood as you might think. I navigated those lines of class and race as often as I could. I can’t say everyone was concerned, but Detroit felt a sensitive subject. There was always a slight pause, from the suburbanites, an unspoken loss that I did not understand. Their childhoods’ paralleled my parents’: memories of a city gone forever. Something had been left behind . . . deliberately abandoned.

Coming Home Again.

In the 10 years since I moved to New York, Detroit has gone through a bankruptcy and is once again undergoing a massive “urban renewal” specifically downtown and midtown areas. “Urban Renewal” has historically been code for “Negro Removal” or gentrification as we know it today. 

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Detroit was always divided. The suburbs were considered white and most were “Sundown Towns”. A touchscreen at The Detroit Historical Museum’s exhibit “Detroit67:Perspectives” names Dearborn, Birmingham and the five Grosses Pointes as “Sundown Towns” that were pretty segregated by design.  No African American would want to be caught out north before or even after the ’67 Rebellion. My ballet lessons were in Birmingham in the 90s, now a posh suburb north of Detroit, accessible via Woodward Avenue. According to the 2010 Census, Birmingham was 92% white. Downtown Birmingham boasts designer shops one might find in New York’s SoHo, for example. I lived this life between two places for years. Straddling the two when I could, I over-generalized that Detroit was dangerous and the suburbs were safe. Detroit was for blacks and the suburbs for whites. My parents’ generation might have laughed at this, but the city I knew had an increasing black population and by my graduation year in 2001, was under one million residents. There were few exceptions of course, but these stigmas engrained in my mind as we drove up and down Woodward Avenue, or crossed 8 Mile into our historic enclave. Racial lines were in the blood around here and it took my being away all these years to feel the distinction in a way I hadn’t before.

Saying Goodbye

The last time I was in my childhood home was with my children for a three day trip to celebrate my Dad’s 90th Birthday. It was my first time back to Detroit since 2011. My parents insistence that we visit had a deeper meaning later — I didn't know it would be the last time. It was during this final visit that I stood in the house and felt its age. Our home felt tired, and waiting to be filled with a life my parents had already experienced. My parents were equally tired, dealing with a home of that size, they often spoke of an “easier life.”

From my bedroom, just over the grand staircase, I breathed in the view. The bannister, the stained glass above the window seat on the landing, the hallway to the "pink bathroom," the door to the rosary room where my father said his prayers thrice daily for years. At one time, our living room contained a concert grand piano and a baby grand. We sang “Carol of Beauty,” a madrigal my father’s choir performed before dinner in our Wainscot paneled dining room.A portrait of my grandfather hung above the table in the main entrance before the grand staircase where my father had stood as a young teen with his soap and magazines. On the wall going into the library that he peeked into before the butler shooshed him away in 1938, were portraits of him as Othello. He performed that role over 400 times as part of his Restoration Arts Theatre, American Festival in Britain. 

A little over a month later, on Father's Day in 2015 — my Father, as he does, made an announcement . . .
"We sold the house . . . "

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This was not the first time they had discussed it, so I did not take him seriously . . . who else would live there ? . . .

I tried not to let the panic take over, but I was a flood of questions, that no one would answer. I had only just seen the house . . . Was that really the last time?

In recent years, the neighborhood experienced more drastic changes than I had ever recalled in my lifetime. The new neighbors almost always had something in common — they were white.

See Detroit Like We Do

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Ironically, my parents moved to the suburbs. I didn’t visit for two years. I was fighting my own move to suburban New York and couldn’t deal with being thrust out of two cities. But this year, I visit with my two children — and we just stay. Each time our flight comes up, something happens. Detroit is calling us back. I am here to take Detroit in, always taking the long way back to the suburbs, finding excuses to drive through my old neighborhood — to pass by the old house. Maybe I take Woodward to the Lodge, so I’ll have the perfect view as I turn left onto Chicago Blvd, or maybe I want to exit I-75, pass Hamtramck and drive through Highland Park. To not stop feels normal now . . .  life goes on — I hold my memories close. Something’s different: the block feels quieter. The stately homes sit back taking it in. Another renewal is taking shape. But for who? A disproportionate feeling settles in during my drives around the city.

Downtown Detroit is now thriving in comparison to the downtown I had access to in my youth and teen years. No longer just for baseball or hockey games, Greektown or the Casino. There are New York-type glass-faced apartments and lofts reminding me of the city I have called home for nearly a decade: New York City, specifically Harlem.  We know the story of its gentrification. We know the erasure of its neighborhoods and as appealing as it might be to have two Starbucks and a Shake Shack in the heart of Downtown Detroit’s Campus Martius, where an ice skating rink sits next to a restaurant with lights reminding me of Central Park’s Tavern on the Green, I observe history repeating itself.

Dan Gilbert’s: Detroit has formed along Woodward Avenue in Downtown Detroit and Monday, after removing the above pictured advertising campaign that had begun to roll out the Friday before, the debate was rich. Who cares how "we see Detroit"?! , wrote Gilbert on the company’s Facebook page as part of his version of an apology. Well, quite frankly: a lot of people. It is this particular sense of privilege that distracts from real progress. To list the progress one has made among employing Detroiters, but allow a campaign to go live and be ok with even one poster containing zero people of color in a city that is now 83 percent Black raises several flags, all red.

I often pass the exit to the old Northland Shopping center on my drives back to my parents’ home. Opening in 1954 just outside of the city, it was far enough for whites to flee from the black neighbors buying property in their pristine Detroit neighborhoods. Downtown Detroit was already beginning to dwindle. Northland was another reason not to have to stay in the city. “Prejudice was perfectly acceptable back then.”, said William Pattison, an auditor at Detroit Bank and Trust in downtown Detroit during the events of 1967 in an interview archived with the Detroit 1967 Perspectives Exhibit. “To say I wasn’t prejudiced would not be true because we were brought up to be prejudiced.that’s just the way it was. Why would a black person want to live in a white person’s neighborhood and ruin their neighborhood? We just couldn’t understand it . . . . Why would they want to live with us? Because we don’t want them to live with us.”

Until then, shopping had been downtown. My parents and oldest siblings have memories of visiting Hudson’s and Crowley’s dressed in their Sunday best. I catch a visual of their stories in the Detroit Free Press Documentary 12th and Clairmount at the Senate Theater on Thursday, before the 50th Anniversary of the rebellion. A young white photographer asks to snap a photo of my sister and I for the venue’s website as we approach the front door. Upon realizing we are among a handful of blacks in the audience, we silently questions his motives. Removing race from the equation, it really is about opportunities and access. Those with the most opportunities “just so happen” to almost always be white, which is why black proprietors hold on to what they have as much as possible. Detroit’s history is built upon the removal of property from minorities and the poor. “Black Bottom” where my grandparents lived on my mother’s side was completely demolished by the early 1960s. Once housing is gone, blacks seek housing in neighborhoods where they were actually not welcome. So by the time we reach July 23, 1967, “the tension” that my sister, who was six years old at the time feels is suffocating on that hot summer night.

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Making Detroit work for all

The Detroit I have gotten to know over the last month does not look like that poster for Bedrock, that was removed for featuring a white trumpet player from “Detroit Party Marching Band” amidst a sea of other white people. “See Detroit like we do”, the advertisement boasted with the Bedrock logo at the bottom. Metro-Detroit has the largest population of Chaldeans outside of Iraq, Hamtramck, where I went to elementary school was always seen as a polish city, but my classmates K-8 were Alabian, Yugoslavian, Indian, Mexican and Black. The city now has an area called “Bangla-town” after its Bangladeshi residents. On a Sunday night, Motor City Wine on Michigan Avenue is filled with a cross section of patrons in Detroit. White hipsters, black hipsters, hip hop heads, middle-aged black couples and anyone who wants to dance the night away to DJ Norm Talley, a legend to many of the people enjoying the scene. My friends, a cross section of artists from New York, Canada and Detroit converge on this place. We do not look like the poster that Bedrock eventually removed, realizing how exactly Detroit was not seen.

Tuesday’s premiere was full of Detroiters, many artists with the ability to write a decent story at least. Organizations like KNIGHT Foundation are giving artists the opportunities to champion their own work and one of the plays I attended, “After/Life” at a Community Center on 12th Street was a recipient of such funding. The opportunities exist, but the storytellers in Detroit could use more. We need lovers of Detroit in every aspect of life in the city. 

During my weeks back home, Detroit has shown me more of its full self than I could have imagined. It is a complex relationship. Detroit has been stripped of so much. A city of nearly two million people in 1950, there are currently around 672,000 residents. While the redevelopment downtown is exciting, the larger question asks who it will it support?

Things are moving and the young are coming here, but they need good jobs, education and affordable housing in order for the past to remain the past.  The heart of the city I see wants those things. Kathryn Bigelow and the three white producers she brought on stage during Tuesday’s opening of “DETROIT”mean well, but they can’t speak for a city that is 83 percent black. My father made his dreams come true here, but will opportunities like his continue be be available for everyone in this new Detroit?


Garlia Cornelia

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