The movie "Detroit" opened in August to underwhelming audience numbers despite generally good-reviews. But that did not keep native Detroiters in Boston from rushing to see it. The film takes us back to the summer of 1967 to the riots in Detroit or what others pointedly describe as “a rebellion.” Parts of the movie were shot here in Boston. But that is not the only connection between Boston and Detroit.
There’s never been a show of hands, but there are hundreds of native Detroiters living in the Boston area — folks like Ken Reeves, the former mayor of Cambridge and Carole Copeland Thomas, a global diversity trainer. Actor Lloyd Shelden Johnson, economist Barry Bluestone and African studies expert Jemadari Kamara have chosen to make their homes here.
I grew up in working-class black neighborhoods on Detroit’s east and west sides. One home was a red brick house that sat yards from where the violence of 1967 was ignited by a police raid on an after-hours speak-easy or “blind pig” where returning black Vietnam veterans were being celebrated.
Many Detroiters in Boston hurried to see the movie, including Marilyn Anderson Chase of Roxbury. "There were about seven of us who ended up seeing the movie together," she said. "There were a number of other people who have seen it independently."
Anderson Chase — an African American who came to Boston in 1970 — was the assistant secretary for Health and Human Services under Governor Devall Patrick. In 1967, Anderson Chase was counseling poor black teenage girls in a deeply racially segregated city brimming with tension. She said director Kathryn Bigelow’s film transported her right back to the city of her birth and its smoldering streets that summer.
“About 15 minutes into the movie my stomach started hurting and it didn't stop until the movie was over," she said. "It was powerful. It was sad. It was a very violent movie that reflected the time."
That time, that summer, is seared into the memories of Chase and other Detroiters — both blacks and whites. And many recall moments of both fear and surprising levity.
This summer during the week of the anniversary I returned to Detroit and stood on the corners of 12th and Clairmount where the unrest began. Dorothy Johnson, a retired IRS official, was 15 in the summer of 1967 and lived just up the street.
“The cleaners that we normally use had been broken into,” she recalled. “My mom had bought us some school skirts. And they were in the cleaners, and we didn't like them. And we were hoping very much that the looters had taken a liking to them. Well, unfortunately for us, when my mom decided to venture around there with her ticket in hand and came home with the skirts, our skirts were so ugly they didn't even take them in the riot. The looters didn’t even want them.”
Greg Forbes, a white truck driver in Detroit, was 11 when the unrest raged.
“They had the National Guard in tents, and they gave us money to go to the store and buy them chips and stuff because they couldn't leave [their posts]. So, we'd go to the store, grab chips, pop, everything, and ride our bicycles back over there and they just let us keep the change.”
Willey Lockheart was 16 in 1967.
“And my parents forbid me to walk down here to 12th street. I did like children do when parents asked me not to do, you know. So, I walked down here towards 12th Street. I was close enough to see the commotion and to see flames.”
Today, on this same spot at 12th and Clairmount, where fire engulfed an entire block, tour buses and curiosity seekers stop and take photos. Thomas Quinkurt, a white Detroiter from a neighborhood far away, is surprised by what he’s learned in the many years after 1967.
“When I was a boy, and I remember reading the newspaper, it was not mentioned that this was a celebration from young men coming home from Vietnam," he said. "It was all about the illegal operations of the pub, and the Detroit Police had to go in and stop this. And it was a den of criminal activity. No mention of that.”
A lot has changed here since 1967. Near this corner, a mural depicts Detroit’s halting renaissance and a billboard lays out architectural plans for 12th Street, now renamed Rosa Parks Blvd. Pat Jackson, a counselor, was sitting on a stoop on Atkinson Street, petting his dog and taking to a friend. I walked over and shook hands.
“You know, you’re the first person that came over you know since the park was redone,” said Jackson, pointing to a new refurbished field just across the street.
He said a lot of tourists pass through here “but no one comes over to say hi." When Jackson, a father of four moved into this house 10 years ago, he said it was abandoned. He cut the grass, pulled the weeds, and cleaned up broken bottles and other debris. Many houses here were incorporated into a land bank, including the one in which I came of age. And now, said Jackson, he’s seeing lots of newcomers.
“I love it, but it is, you know, it's different," he said. "It went from me not seeing a white person over here. You know, you see a white person, you know it’s like “uh uh” the police. Now it’s normal, it’s perfectly normal. You know, they [walk] up the street, ride their bikes. It has changed tremendously.”
And as if on cue, two young white men on bicycles whisked pass the park.
Soon after that, Emily Evans, a woman in her late 20s walked by with her partner, holding a dog on a leash. Evans, an historic preservationist had just moved here from Washington, D.C.
“This is our first house,” she explained. “This is where we decided to purchase. It's a very friendly neighborhood, and it's been really lovely to be welcomed here knowing that, you know, we're not from here. We've only lived here a few months, and we don't presume to know anything. We're just here to listen and learn and be good homeowners and love Detroit.”
Much has been made of Detroit as a beacon of new possibilities for artistic, adventurous, young people across the country. But my old neighborhood — heavy with often abandoned but sturdy brick houses — also came to the attention of speculators from around the world, buying up structures for several thousand dollars a pop. Many went bust. Now investors are trying to get their money back. The house where I grew up years ago was purchased unseen by a foreign investor.
Walking up on the porch where I sat many summer nights, I introduced myself to the current owner, a fellow in his 70s named Larry who said he purchased this house from a 92-year-old man living overseas.
“I bought this from a private owner, this man in Australia,” he said. Larry laughs a deep guttural guffaw at the very thought. “He was in Australia, and he told me to give him like $3,500 down and pay him $700 a month and for $24,000, I get the house.”
In Boston, while the sounds of big and small construction reverberate across the city, in most Detroit neighborhoods those noises are faint or non-existent. There are no cranes scraping the sky, and in some corners, there are far more empty fields than houses. But here on my old block, in what is known as the Boston—Edison area, plans are underway to build a museum, retail stores and two high-rise condos.
Lockhart welcomes change. The impact of 1967 combined with discriminatory banking policies, political corruption and neglect born of racism, have left many parts of the area in dire straits, he said.
“We haven't recovered. There's a park, but there are no businesses along this stretch," he added. "It's like it's a bombed-out area. And so many generations have been born since then and we are still suffering from the same situation. You know, I have children. And of course not living in Detroit. But when they come here, they look here and there's nothing."
But many Detroiters, those who never left the neighborhood, those new to the city and those who’ve moved away to places like Boston, continue to express hope for this gritty metropolis. The city that was once smothered in smoke and rage in the summer of 1967 now teeters on the edge of great expectations.