“When people come to Detroit, they’re always mystified by the peculiar apartheid that is way above board here,” said Desiree Cooper, a former columnist for the Detroit Free Press and owner of a Detroit-based clothing company called Detroit Snob. She moved to Detroit from Virginia in 1982.
“In other towns it might be a subtext, it might be a subtlety, or it might be more masked by economics. But in Detroit, it’s just right out there that the city is black, the suburbs are white for the most part, and never the two shall meet. There is a hostility and whose side you’re on is very much determined by your neighborhood and a lot of people are really stunned by that.”
At no point was the antipathy between the city and suburbs higher than during Young’s 20-year tenure. Often at odds with suburban leaders and residents, the angry rhetoric from both sides often fueled the “us versus them” mentality and created an atmosphere where paranoia of the suburbs wresting control of the city took hold.
“I didn’t know of any other city in the nation where there’s such a pre-occupation in the suburbs for control,” Young once told the Detroit Free Press. “The same people who left the city for racial reasons still want to control what they left.”
That narrative still holds true amongst some Detroit residents and even some current members of city government. Accusations are known to fly during political campaigns in Detroit that one candidate is going to “give the city away” to suburbanites.
“I feel that the riots were instrumental in cementing that mentality and we have yet to outgrow it,” Cooper said. “It was there before the riots. But (the riots) are where it came above board, and people realized that Detroit was going to be left to the black people.”
Detroit’s fate after the riots differs greatly from other cities that dealt with similar disturbances. Los Angeles, which dealt with the 1965 Watts riots, did not suffer the same economic and societal fate that Detroit did.
“I think in Detroit, more than any other city that I’ve seen, the white establishment picked up their toys and left,” Cooper said. “In Watts, for example, the city didn’t suffer because the white political structure didn’t leave Los Angeles. They just divested in Watts.
“In other ‘black’ cities, the white power structure never picked up and left. That is truly the difference. It wasn’t just the neighborhood, or the 12th Street area that suffered, Detroit in total paid the price.”
In recent years, the city has seen another freefall. What was a recession for many places around the country was a depression for Detroit. Younger Detroit residents – those who grew up in the city during the 1980s and 90s – have seen 1967 used as a political crutch for years and have started to grow tired of excuses.
Tameria Warren, 32, grew up on the city’s east side and currently works for the Army in South Carolina. Warren is apart of a growing number of Detroit natives and residents who have grown tired of the riots being used as an excuse for the city’s current state.
“The destruction during the riot itself, the loss of vital businesses, and the economic disinvestment had a snowball effect and we’re just now starting to address it,” Warren said. “The current state of Detroit has been a collective effort of resistance, resentment, bias, pride, racism – the whole nine yards. It’s going to take a mix of people who truly love the city, no matter who they are, to restore it.”
Phil Cavanaugh, who was just 6 years old in 1967, is dealing with changes in the district he represents. He currently represents the 17th district, which includes Redford Township, a small suburb north of Detroit. He is running for a seat in the newly formed 10th district, which now includes parts of Detroit.
“We do need Detroit,” Cavanaugh said. “The new district is Redford and northwest Detroit. I’ve never represented Detroit, and I’m starting to knock on doors … and I say ‘my dad was Mayor of Detroit’ and people say ‘Wow, really?’ I’m not saying that everybody loved him but people do remember better times.”
Some current and older Detroiters resent the recent influx of residents and business into the city’s Midtown section, which includes Wayne State University. Part of the reason for the anger is that most of the new arrivals are young white suburban residents. The black residents feel they are trying to “swoop in and take the city away from them.”
“We’re all kind of on our knees right now and suddenly on an economic level Detroit is an option that many wouldn’t have considered it before,” Cooper said. “So now, we’re having an unusual integration. I always say that Detroit’s the only city that could be gentrified by people that have no money.
“When you look at the question of ‘Is Detroit ready for a white mayor?,’ if you talk to average people on the streets, they’ll say ‘Whoever can turn on my lights, have at it.’ We are desperate for leadership and we welcome anyone who can help us out. I’d rather have five white neighbors than have five empty houses.”
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