“Urban Renewal means Negro Removal, and the federal government is an accomplice to this fact.” James Baldwin
James Baldwin (1924-1987) was the foremost American essayist of the mid-twentieth century. In “Notes of a Native Son” (1955) he wrote about going to his preacher stepfather’s funeral during the 1943 Harlem riots and coming to grips with segregation while a soldier during World War II. A homosexual, Baldwin, spent much of his life as an expatriate in Paris. “The Fire Next Time” (1963) contains two essays, “My Dungeon Shook – Letter to My Nephew on the Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation” and Down At the Cross – Letter from a Region of My Mind.” The prescient title was from the Negro spiritual line, “God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no more water but fire next time.”
“Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story” by David Maraniss covers the 18 months between autumn of 1962 and spring of 1964. In chapter one, “Gone,” the author discusses the demolition of thriving black businesses along Hastings Street in Paradise Valley to make way for the Chrysler Freeway. A similar fate awaited the ten-story Gotham Hotel near Wayne State University, designed by architect Albert Kahn and purchased in 1943 by African-American John White. For two decades the Gotham was where black celebrities stayed: athletes such as Jesse Owens, Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson; public officials such as Judge Wade McCree, Reverend Adam Clayton Powell, and Congressman Charles Diggs, Jr.; entertainers such as the Ink Spots, Louis Armstrong, and Sammy Davis, Jr. Poet Langston Hughes called the Gotham a “miracle.” Reverend C.L. Franklin rented an office and often dined with daughters Erma, Carolyn, and Aretha at its famous Ebony Room. Permanent resident Maxine Powell taught posture, etiquette and social graces to the Supremes and other Motown groups. After a stay by Martin Luther King, Jr., John White ordered copies of the civil rights leader’s “Stride Toward Freedom” placed in every room, alongside the Bible.
The Gotham also was headquarters for high-stakes dice and card games and policy operations. Looking to make a name for himself and at the behest of the city’s economic elite, Detroit Police Commissioner George Edwards approved a late-afternoon raid by city police, state troopers, and IRS agents, who stormed the hotel with fire axes and sledgehammers. Chief Detective Art Sage gloated to Commissioner Edwards, “Boss, we got the whole schmozzle.” Earmarked for demolition to make way for a never-built hospital parking garage, the location is presently a vacant lot. Maraniss wrote: “Some part of Detroit was dying at the Gotham with every swing of the axe and blow of the sledgehammer.” He concluded:
In the name of progress, the city powers that be – politicians, planners, developers, construction magnates, and financiers – had overseen the demolition of large swaths of old black Detroit. The word on the street for what was going on was not urban renewal but “Negro removal.”
Similar racist schemes occurred in other big cities across the country, from New York to Seattle, Washington. In Chicago, for instance, urban removal between 1948 and 1973 displaced approximately 200,000 African Americans with the victims receiving little or no compensation. Arnold R. Hirsch, author of “Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago, 1940-1960” wrote: “The city tried to contain the expansion of African American living space, in part, by using densely packed, centrally located high-rise public housing.”
"Evel Knievel Ramp"
Urban renewal affected other low-income groups such as Japanese Americans in San Francisco’s Western Addition, Mexican Americans in Los Angeles’ Chavez Ravine, where Dodger Stadium was built, and Polish Americans residing in north Philadelphia’s Port Richmond enclave, including one of Toni’s aunts who lost basically all her neighbors to make way for a “ghost ramp” (later nicknamed the Evel Knievel ramp when a plan to connect the Roosevelt Expressway with the Betsy Ross Bridge was cancelled).
“Negro removal” shares some aspects in common with nineteenth-century Indian removal. In each case covetous whites desired land already uninhabited by relatively powerless people. Christopher Wetzel's “Gathering the Potawatomi Nation: Revitalization and identity” (2015) argues that government policies stripped Native Americans of land in part by pitting one tribal band against others. In the 1830s, for instance, when the Trial of Death forced the Potawatomi from Indiana, there were nine separate, fairly autonomous groups, a phenomenon similar to the Seminole and Creek nations to the south.
Born in 1949, author David Maraniss lived in Detroit the first six years of his life. I lived in the Detroit suburb of Beverly Hills during the mid-1950s when Penn Salt Manufacturing Company, transferred my dad there for 18 months. Like Maraniss, I recall the Christmas display Ford Rotunda (which burned down the same week as the Gotham Hotel raid) and baseball games at Briggs Stadium featuring Tiger greats Al Kaline, Harvey Kuenn, Charlie “Paw Paw” Maxwell, and “Yankee Killer” Frank Lary. Red Wings stars Gordy Howe and Alex Delvecchio turned me on the ice hockey when the NHL had only six teams. I threw a memorable tantrum with guests in the house when Vic and Midge forbade me to attend a Sunday evening contest at the Detroit Olympia with a friend’s family. Entering Barnum Junior High, it was a somewhat difficult adjustment, but I met a lifelong friend, Paul Turk, and I believe the move made easier my freshman transition at Bucknell five years later. The Gotham Hotel bust occurred on the same day as the iconic Ford rotunda burned down and the Motown Record Company’s Motortown revue was touring the segregated South.
In 1962 the Detroit downtown ruins depicted by photographer Camilo José Vergara four decades later would have seemed inconceivable. Maraniss wrote:
Cars were selling at a record pace. Motown was rocking. Labor was strong. People were marching for freedom. The President was calling Detroit a “herald of hope.” It was a time of uncommon possibility and freedom when Detroit created wondrous and lasting things. But life can be luminescent when it is most vulnerable. There was a precarious balance during those crucial months between composition and decomposition, what the world gained and what a great city lost. Even then, some part of Detroit was dying.
Detroit in 1991; photo by Camilo Vergara
Like in Gary, business disinvestment and white flight to the suburbs hastened by urban renewal projects such as the Chrysler Expressway intensified following the 1967 Detroit Riots, sparked by yet another foolhardy police raid, this time against an unlicensed drinking club in Detroit’s Near West Side ghetto. Scores of black patrons were celebrating the return of two soldiers from Vietnam when the racist decision came down from on high to take all 82 people inside to jail. While the police were arranging for paddy wagons to cart off their prey, a hostile crowd gathered. Some outraged residents threw rocks and bottles at retreating police cars and began looting nearby stores. Before the violence ended five days later, 43 people were dead; half of the 33 fatalities were blacks shot by white police officers.
Our bridge group dined at Latitudes, off Route 12 near Ogden Dunes, before playing seven rounds at Hagelbergs. I finished first, ahead of Toni thanks to a 1,950 round with Brian Barnes. After Brian and I made a game, Dick threw in a sacrifice bid to prevent us from winning the rubber. He went down three but bragged to his partner that he’d saved them 200 points. He tried it again on the next hand, and this time it backfired; I doubled, and he went down five, costing him 900 points. Then, for good measure we won the rubber on the fourth hand.
For Steve McShane’s class Alex Cerajewski interviewed Gary and Terry Gault, who as teenagers cruised Broadway near the Gary-Merrillville border.
In 1953, when he was six months old, Gary Gault’s family moved from Wisconsin to Gary in hopes of finding better economic opportunities. Gary told me, “One brother came then the another brother came then a third brother came. We were one of the first people to live in Aetna.” Gary attended Aetna Elementary and then Wirt, graduating in 1971.
Gary recalled, “Dad was always working on his truck and would make me work on it, too. Kids in the neighborhood all thought it was great seeing great big semi coming down the street.” He played Little League, rode a bike everywhere, and walked the railroad tracks to downtown Gary to go to the shows. In 1971 Gary’s dad moved to Florida. Gary said, “I ain’t goin’ down there. I just got out of school, I got a girlfriend, and just got a job at a car and truck wash where 12 and 20 came together in Aetna.” Gary worked there about five years before hiring in at U.S. Steel.
Gary met Terry in 1988 at Fuzzy Ducks, a bar located on Route 6, now named the Road House. Terry asked him for a dance. She was seven years younger and lived in Porter. At the time Gary was in the process of getting divorce and working at American Bridge. Terry didn’t hear from Gary until three weeks later. He was in a softball tournament but told her he’d been thinking about her all the time. She was a waitress at Round the Clock and he’d often come in to be with her.
Terry married Gary, had a son Erick, moved to Porter in 1990, and had daughter Chrissie in 1992. Both she and Gary recalled cruising Broadway as teenagers and observing drag racing on a quarter-mile track behind Sammy’s Drive-In on Route 20. Gary added: “The police knew about it, too, but were cool about it.”
Terry recalled: “When I was living with my mom I wasn’t allowed to have a car so when I moved out at 17 I got a 1973 Pontiac Grand Prix, followed by a 1978 baby blue Buick Riviera: I loved to drive up and down Broadway just scoping out the guys. The one thing I never did was get in a car with anyone else. You always stayed in your own car because people thought of Gary as being dangerous. My Riviera I bought on credit. I paid two hundred a month for four years. Even though I took good care of it, I still blew two engines on it.”