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This text is by Alex B. Hill in his capacity and does not, necessarily, reflect the views of different infinite mile contributors, infinite mile co-founders, the authors' employers and/or other affiliations.  

Detroit skips generations, but white privilege is a legacy

Alex B. Hill

There were mentions of my relatives making homemade candy to sell at the auto factories during the Great Depression and I have vague memories of my Grandpa talking about the big ferries along the Detroit riverfront, but somehow I never made the connection. My Grandpa grew up on Detroit's Westside in the 1920s & 30s, attended the now demolished art deco beauty that was MacKenzie High School, and his father worked for a tire company located near where the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center now stands. I should have assumed that my ancestors lived and worked in Detroit in its days as an economic powerhouse.

Growing up in a privileged, white flight suburb of Flint, news and issues of Detroit were far removed. I had no idea that my family had roots in the city, but I also can't imagine why it would have been important then. Detroit's 636 murders in 1985 pegged it with the highest murder rate among the country's largest cities. By 1986, that rate had continued to increase. Robocop released in the year 1987, the year I was born, tells the story of a lawless and violent Detroit. News stories from 1987 report people being mugged and carjacked while sitting at traffic lights. It's no wonder that my family rarely mentioned or visited Detroit. As a child, I distinctly recall riding down I-75 and passing the tall, spired, red brick churches on either side of the expressway on our way to free baseball games for Cub Scouts. My dog-loving family visited the Cobo Hall dog show a few times. That was it, Detroit was nothing else to me but I-75, Tigers Stadium, and Cobo Hall. We never drove anywhere else in Detroit.

The 1940 Census shows my Grandpa at age 20 and his family living on Detroit's Westside. My great-grandfather is listed as working in real estate. My immediate thought was of redlining housing segregation in 1939 and how my family was possibly contributing and definitely benefiting from a racially divided Detroit. The high school that my Grandpa attended, MacKenzie, was one of the largest and most prominent in citywide sports competitions. Detroit schools were so big that they chose not to compete at the State level. Black students were not allowed to attend MacKenzie, nor could they get there even if they wanted. The 1940s represented a critical turning point for Detroit as black residents gained job opportunities, faced walkouts by white workers, and attempted to move into better housing. My Grandpa became an active duty member of the U.S. Navy in 1941. The angry white mobs surrounding the Sojourner Truth Housing Projects in 1942 were just the tip of the iceberg for the 1943 race riots that saw innocent black residents pulled from streetcars and mercilessly beaten. I wish I could ask my Grandpa about those events. I wish I could know how he felt about the racial changes happening in Detroit then.

In 2009, I landed a job in Detroit and moved into the University District. I lived with a few other recent college graduates in the area near the University of Detroit Mercy and began wondering how my privilege fit into a changing Detroit and if I was contributing to gentrification. I also still held many of the fears and misperceptions about Detroit that came from the news, parental concerns, and my own lack of knowledge. I was nervous to talk to people in my neighborhood and unsure about venturing beyond my driveway or the developing bastion of “Midtown.” Walking downtown in my first week of living in Detroit, I asked two elderly black women for directions. They were very helpful and understanding and it was then that I began wondering why I had held onto false fears. The fears that media and others had projected onto me had become engrained. I made it a point to always greet my neighbors as well as strangers on the street. I’ve found that no one just says “hello” in Detroit, but rather, "how are you?"

The University District is a neighborhood with a strong identity, a dedicated community watch, and a history where residents sought to keep black people out. The area is now a majority black neighborhood, but in the 1940s & 50s homes could not be sold to anyone who was not white. Detroit was a city of suburbs in that sense. The core city where downtown business occurred and factories were located was separated from the outlying neighborhoods that were built as suburban-style, single family homes. The core city was home to the slums, the blight, and Detroit's trapped black population. Every other neighborhood in the city was unwelcome territory for black people and there were no other legal housing options beyond the slums.

The long trajectory of white privilege in Detroit benefited both my Grandpa growing up in pre-war Detroit's burgeoning Westside and continues to benefit me in the "redeveloping" Midtown. My Grandpa's family had to struggle through the Great Depression as well as wartime, but my family has had the benefit of being white while black families fleeing the South were relegated to second class status: last hired, first fired. My Grandpa grew up with two Detroits; the white, suburban Westside and the black slums of the inner city. Desirable and undesirable areas are now almost completely geographically flipped. Today, I live in a city with two Detroits; the safe investment zones where white people prefer to live and the outer edges where majority black neighborhoods have largely seen decades of disinvestment.

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link - issue 16: April 2015