While Detroit Crumbled, Gilchrist Street Hung On
The little house I used to live in.
Pops bought it for around $3,000 in 1957.

I left Detroit in 1971, but my parents stayed in the little house I used to live in for the next several years. I returned to Gilchrist Street frequently for visits until my parents moved 2 miles north, out of the city, into Oak Park.

Despite my parents having moved, I continued to return, year after year, decade after decade, from one millennia into the next. It seems almost a lifetime ago because it was. I rarely visited Motown without dropping in on the old neighbourhood. Gilchrist was my talisman. I was looking for truths that remained hidden, especially from me. So, I kept returning, reaching for something just beyond my vision; just past my memory. I was looking for something I never found.

This provides me with an overview to chart the devolution of a neighbourhood in a way that most can’t. I watched my old neighbourhood become infected with the disease that destroyed so much of Detroit, ‘Merka’s first throwaway city. It’s no accident I have been calling Detroit ‘Merka’s first throwaway city for almost 2 years. It was a case of “Out of sight, out of mind.” Until Detroit’s bankruptcy was announced — and an Emergency Manager appointed to oversee the democratically elected city government — most people had forgotten Detroit even existed.

Just one of hundreds of houses like this in my old neighbourhood

I can still recall my first memory of what would come to be called Urban Blight in later years. It was a large, mixed-use, yellow-bricked building on the surface/ service drive, viewed from the John C. Lodge Ditch. There would have once been apartments on the upper stories with storefronts at street level. I was 14 or 15 when it was boarded up. It remained boarded up for more than 30 years that I recall. Then the Lodge fell into disuse as the highway used to get in and out of downtown from the ‘burbs, so I don’t know what happened to it in the last 2 decades. For all I know it’s still there. Or, it may be gone by now, just another building missing from Motown’s landscape. But for me this building was far more iconic of Detroit’s road to ruin than the Michigan Central Station, which I had only seen in pictures.

White Flight, Urban blight, and Demolition by Neglect — in that order — are the major forces which have helped to destroy Detroit, the once proud Arsenal of Democracy. People tend to peg the fall and decline of Detroit with the 1967 Riot. However, they are shocked to discover it began almost immediately after Germany and Japan surrendered at the end of WWII.

Racial strife was so common in Detroit in the ’40s that propaganda
posters were made to warn people not to give comfort to the enemy.

There had already been several warnings. As I have written in The Detroit Riots, the 1863 Riot set the stage for most of what came after. That was a White Riot determined to eradicate Black folk from Detroit. In 1863 Detroit was such a new city, it didn’t have a police force yet. The rebellion had to be put down by the army. When the Detroit Police Department was formed soon after, it was tasked — IN THE INCORPORATING DOCUMENTS!!! — with keeping Blacks in line. And, Detroit Police took that oath seriously, right into the 1970s.

However, the warnings that should have been headed were those in the 1940s that indicated the races in Detroit were never going to get along. As Black and White soldiers were fighting Fascism overseas, those who remained on the home front fought each other. During the war Black and White southerners migrated to Detroit to take up jobs in the defense industry. Racial problems began almost immediately. As I wrote 2 years ago in The Detroit Riots:

When the Feds announced a housing projects [sic] for Detroit, on the edge of a traditional White neighbourhood, the local community assumed it was for their own kind. When it was named the Sojourner Truth housing project, Whites protested. The government reversed its decision and decided this would be for Whites and it would find another location for a Black housing project, even tho’ it would retain the Truth name. Then Detroit Mayor Edward Jeffries, Jr. got involved and the Feds reversed their decision again: This housing would be for the Black people of Detroit who desperately needed housing. On moving day Whites protested, turning away the first families. It was months before people would eventually move in.

That was just the appetizer. Less than a year later there was a wildcat strike at the Packard Motor Plant after the company promoted 3 Black men to work the line. According to the WikiWackyWoo:

In early June 1943, three weeks before the riot, Packard Motor Car Company promoted three blacks to work next to whites in the assembly lines. This promotion caused 25,000 whites to walk off the job, effectively slowing down the critical war production. It was clear that whites didn’t mind that blacks worked in the same plant but refused to work side-by-side with them. During the protest, a voice with a Southern accent shouted in the loudspeaker, “I’d rather see Hitler and Hirohito win than work next to a Nigger.”[7]

Then came the 1943 Detroit Riot. That was really the beginning of the end. White Flight began the minute it could. It started when peace was declared, increased as prosperity reigned, and became a wave when vast subdivisions were thrown up north of 8 Mile, outside the city limits. White Flight only became a tsunami after the 1967 Riot.

Two houses on Biltmore Street a few doors down from The Millers

Today Detroit’s population of 700,000 is a fraction of its 1950 peak of 1.8 million. Entrepreneurs are buying up whole swaths of Detroit for wholesale gentrification. Tens of thousands (!) of abandoned structures are slated for demolition by new blight removal programs. Urban farms are being planted where houses, parks and schools once stood. Detroit is being transformed and what it will become is anybody’s guess at the moment

Returning frequently, I watched the urban blight grow over the decades. It was as pernicious as the mold and mildew that attacks houses in the south. It kept nibbling around the edges, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, decade after decade, until it reached my old neighbourhood just on the northern edge of Detroit, immediately south of the famed 8 Mile Road. Then I watched as it infected block after block of the square mile I lived in bounded by 8 Mile and 7 Mile Roads, with Greenfield and Southfield to the east and west. Now, in that square mile are hundreds of homes boarded up, burned up, or missing entirely.

Danny Harris. of the Gilchrist Block Club, cutting the grass

As the years took its toll on Detroit, something unexpected happened to Gilchrist, the street I grew up on: NOTHING!!!

While every surrounding block had anywhere from 3-10 destroyed homes per block, Gilchrist — from Pembroke Avenue to 8 Mile Road — still appeared to be in pristine condition. While I watched blight strike everywhere else in my old neighbourhood, somehow this half mile stretch of Gilchrist was spared.

FULL DISCLOSURE: Obviously I didn’t drive up and down every street in Detroit on my 2nd Annual Sunrise to Canton Road Trip for Research, but I must have driven some
20-30 miles just up and down the streets in my old neighbourhood. I saw no other half mile stretch that appeared to be untouched
by blight except this 1/2 mile stretch of Gilchrist. There were small stretches of nice, but not a full half
mile of it.

TO BE FAIR: On closer inspection there are a few boarded up houses along Gilchrist, but because the lawns are kept neat and tidy, they don’t jump out at you the way they do on the other blocks. And, there are far fewer of them on Gilchrist.

While taking pictures of my old house I ran into Danny Harris two doors down. Mr. Harris is a member of the registered non-profit Gilchrist Block Club, a kind of “Keep Gilchrist Beautiful” community group in operation since 1984. Harris was cutting the grass of the house at the corner of Hessel. While he lived closer to Pembroke, Mr. Harris walked his lawnmower 3 blocks to take care of this patch of grass. Perhaps this community volunteerism is what spared Gilchrist from the same fate that’s affected all the other surrounding blocks.

Retired Detroit police officer Robert Miller on Biltmore Street

Biltmore, one street to the east, has no block club. Just around the corner from where Harris cut the grass live Robert and Kim Miller. The Millers bought their home 28 years ago and watched the block slowly crumble around them. The two houses pictured above are just a few doors down from the Millers, whose front yard is a testament to how a little landscaping and care can make all the difference.

Robert is a retired Detroit Police officer who paid for his home about what Pops got for his when he moved to the suburbs. At the time the neighbourhood was solidly middle class, but changing demographics rapidly as the first blocks in this neighbourhood were “busted” in the mid-to-late ’70s. That’s when White Flight would have begun in the area, accelerating over the years.

Now, on paper, Robert Miller’s house on Biltmore is worth the same $30,000 that he paid for it. However, he can’t even get offers on a house in a neighbourhood where hundreds of homes are abandoned and crumbling. He and his wife have their eye on a gated-condo complex in Novi, Michigan, with amenities, where they will be moving within the next 6 months. They’ll leave the house to their daughter, hoping that eventually the neighbourhood will stage a comeback. It can hardly get worse.

However, no comeback for Gilchrist Street because Gilchrist never left. I’ve watched this street for the past 40 years. It hasn’t changed. It hasn’t become blighted. It hasn’t suffered the same fate as miles and miles of Motown housing tracts. Gilchrist may offer clues to Detroit’s revival, provided the city’s not gentrified beyond recognition.

Yet visiting my old neighbourhood never fails to make me cry. This time it was my Junior High School that got to me and began the waterworks. Last year Coffey Junior High School was still in operation. Now it’s one of many schools closed as Detroit’s population, and tax base, can no longer support so many schools. However, the scrappers have already started to strip it of anything and everything of value.

This is why, for me, Detroit represents the total failure of ‘Merkins to live up to the lofty words about equality inscribed in the founding documents. Everything that subsequently happened to Detroit happened because of systemic Racism and White Flight. Your mileage may vary, but I contend that if people learned to live together decades ago, Detroit would not have become ”Merka’s first throwaway city.


About Headly Westerfield

Calling himself “A liberally progressive, sarcastically cynical, iconoclastic polymath,” Headly Westerfield has been a professional writer all his adult life.