This paper proceeds from the perspective that the city of Detroit’s industrial past should no longer be considered the most defining aspect of its history. To do so obscures the part of Detroit’s past that has had the most enduring, pervasive, and disastrous consequences on the city today—the fact that a past generation and population of whites were simply not cool enough with themselves to have a black family as neighbors. The all-to-familiar history of the auto companies’ shameful indifference to the fate of the city in general, and specifically, to those who were trapped and confined in the city as whites fled and the city hemorrhaged jobs and its tax base, by all means factors into today’s social, economic, and spatial realities, but it is not the most defining cause of the center/periphery divide that plagues the city now. As investment and an influx of complacent newcomers continue to transform the city’s center into a mall-like space of shiny, new, privately owned stuff rigidly monitored through the ubiquity of one billionaire’s cameras and security force, the city’s poor and working population are increasingly locked out. The center/periphery divide of today is a glaring manifestation of some of the worst systemic racism outside of the Jim Crow South, perhaps indelibly inscribed into Detroit’s very landscape.
Despite job opportunities and some respite from the racial terrorism occurring in the South, blacks experienced a deeply entrenched systemic racism at both the de jure and de facto levels in Detroit, and this paper seeks through the trialectic of space, materiality, and memory to make visible this history, which is not only being ignored, but is in fact being aggressively obscured and erased. Through the materiality of three seemingly random sites—a house, a wall, and a patch of grass—this paper aspires to make clear aspects of Detroit’s history that counter the carefully and relentlessly engineered fiction that all of the billionaires, entrepreneurs, urban adventurers, suburban bicycle enthusiasts, artists, young professionals, hipsters, and restaurateurs currently infesting the carcass of the city of Detroit, are doing so innocently, and that they are innocuously filling in a “tabula rasa”—one which is treated as if it evolved organically, as it were, and as the result of the social and economic attrition inadvertently caused by forces of capital. As if this process is free of the intentionality of human agency, as if all of this is not at anyone else’s expense, and as if today exists in some kind of a convenient historical vacuum.
In the chapter, “Ghosts in the City,” Michel de Certeau provides an invaluable picture of the convergence of space, materiality, and memory in the modern urban landscape that will guide this paper. In the modern city, de Certeau writes, there are “things that spell it out [and] impose themselves” (135) as material witnesses and actors, of a sort, and he considers these things, structures, and spaces to be ghosts that inhabit urban spaces and “are for us the equivalent of what the gods of antiquity were, the ‘spirits’ of the place” (135). The aforementioned house, wall, and patch of grass through which this paper will try to illuminate Detroit’s “bad history,” by “eluding the law of the present, these inanimate objects acquire a certain autonomy,” de Certeau explains, “[t]hey are witnesses to a history that, unlike that of museums or books, no longer has a language. Actually, they function as history, which consists in opening a certain depth within the present” (135)—a depth which there is currently an effort to fill in and flatten.
The house on which this paper will focus, will tell a story of the de facto level of systemic racism blacks faced in Detroit, the wall will share the de jure level of systemic racism that dictated the nature of metropolitan Detroit’s racial geography, and the patch of grass will tell the convoluted story of the outright hateful and violent consequences of white racism which blurs the line between de jure and de facto.
In 1925, through the windows of the house that he and his family had just moved into at 2905 Garland Road—an all-white neighborhood just south of the Edsel Ford Freeway—Dr. Ossian Sweet and his family looked out at a white mob that would eventually swell to several hundred, and who would attack the house with rocks, bricks, and bottles. Dr. Sweet and his sons successfully defended the house with rifles, killing one white, for which Dr. Sweet would be successfully defended by Clarence Darrow. The Ossian Sweet house still stands at 2905 Garland Road today, and tells a story of the organized racial terrorism that pervaded the city at the de facto level, and which was best exemplified by the city’s many white “protective associations,” “improvement associations,” and “homeowners associations” (Sugrue 211).
Running approximately a half-mile through the neighborhood occupying the southwest corner of Eight Mile and Wyoming runs a one-foot thick, six-foot tall, cinder-block wall. The wall was built in 1940 as a compromise between a neighborhood developer and the Federal Housing Authority (FHA), so that the developer could get FHA funding for new construction. The purpose of the wall was to separate the new white subdivision from the black enclave that was already there. The Eight Mile and Wyoming Wall tells the story about how not only was the Detroit area home to some of the most pervasive and rigid real estate covenants and redlining in the country, but also how at the de jure level, the federal government had a heavy hand in dictating the racial geography perhaps indelibly inscribed into Detroit’s landscape as well.
Where Virginia Park ends at Woodward Avenue once stood the Algiers Motel—now there’s grass. During the Detroit Rebellion of 1967, three black teenagers—under circumstances that were as muddled and foggy then as they are today—were brutally murdered by white police at the Algiers Motel. The violence done to these young men was of such a barbaric nature, that at one point officers were under investigation for the disembowelment of Auburey Pollard, which was allegedly the result of shotgun blasts of extremely close proximity. Neither the motel nor its annex is at the end of Virginia Park any longer, but the patch of grass that makes up the site will tell the story of a kind of systemic and deep-rooted white racism that blurs the line between de jure and de facto. The grass patch is what Brian Ladd, in The Ghosts of Berlin, might call a “significant void” (115)—a place that is important “for what is no longer there” (115).
Ironies and paradoxes abound in periods of a city’s transformation from one era to the next. In the same issue of The Detroit News (October 2, 2014) that ran an editorial by Dale Hansen condemning the expurgation of honest but inconvenient historical truths from school curricula, entitled “Sanitizing History in the Name of Patriotism,” editorialist Laura Berman extolled the virtues of billionaire Dan Gilbert’s seemingly obsessive campaign of blight removal in Detroit, as an invaluable way to finally “erase…the worst of [Detroit’s] past.” Obscuring and erasing these elements of the city’s memory is crucial if—for instance—Metropolitan Detroit’s suburban white population is to maintain that all of the crime and poverty in Detroit’s peripheral neighborhoods is some kind of inherence of the black population in general, which would be a consistent outlook of a white population that represented one of George C. Wallace’s strongholds during his “segregation now, segregation forever” campaigns back in 1968 and 1972—a consistent outlook of a population that does not believe one needs to look further back than 1967 and the mayoralty of Coleman A. Young to understand Detroit’s problems. Through the trialectic of space, materiality, and memory this paper seeks to illuminate what needs to be considered the most defining aspect of Detroit’s history if one is to deal genuinely and effectively with the social, economic, political, and spatial realities in the city today.