I call myself a “primordial Detroiter”, but actually, I was born in Detroit and raised in Highand Park. I grew up on California street, on a beautiful block of giant Arts & Crafts and Mission Style homes.
I wrote original versions of the essays below for the Highland Park Grand Alumni Group, on Facebook, a great group of folks – black, white and more – who grew up in the city and share our memories, frustrations and hopes for our hometown.
Highland Park, all of about 3 square miles, was once known as a “suburb” of Detroit, and it is one of the two cities (Hamtramck is the other) that actually lie within the physical boundaries of Detroit – a “city within a city”. One of the premier municipalities of the mid-last century, Highland Park has long been regarded as the epicenter of the Detroit area’s economic decline.
That being said, I love Highland Park.
The City of Trees
There have been many conversations among present and former Highland Parkers expressing the contradiction of our wonderful memories of growing up in the city vs. the reality of the crime, poverty, decay and craziness that has afflicted our town in the decades since our childhoods. Some of us are deeply ambivalent about HP, and for good reason.
But you better know just who and what we are! We grew up in what was one of the most prosperous and successful cities in the United States. We are products of the best that could be granted to us in our lifetime. Because of the automotive industry and many of our parents’ relationship to it, tiny HP was a microcosm of mid-century Americana, and among first cities to reflect a proletarian affluence born of the auto industry, that later came to be called the modern “middle-class”. Is there any wonder that we can be in the far-flung corners of the world, and succeed?
We suffer sometimes, with the juxtaposition of our clear memories of the joys of our upbringing vs. the current status of HP. But let us not forget that we are the repositories of the best that public education of the last century could produce; we are the last generation that experienced a community built on the affluence of industrial society; we are the realized dreams of the people who came before us who had nothing but prayer and work ethic to bequeath to their seed.
We have always felt “different” than those born and raised in the city that surrounded us – Detroit – and many Highland Parkers are among the most literate, articulate, political, entrepreneurial, musical people born of life in the North. We are people who experienced, for a brief period, real integration, and, as a result, in our subsequent lives, we have been gifted with the ability to work with and get along people of all races.
We grew up in a lush, green city; rain could barely reach the sidewalks beneath the canopy of the Dutch Elm archways over the streets of our hometown. Although there were many plain, frame houses in the city, the houses, on many of the streets, were big, especially on the “state” streets (California, Rhode Island, Massachusetts etc. where I grew up), and on Highland Park’s North End streets, an enclave of heavenly Arts & Crafts bungalows). These homes are – even today – among the largest collections of Arts & Crafts homes in the US.
There is no small irony that some of these homes that our parents purchased, through much labor and sacrifice, rivaled the giant plantation houses of the South, in the shadows of which many of them once worked and lived.
Oak walls, room-sized mantles over huge fireplaces, stained glass, french doors, leaded glass, carved bannisters, beamed ceilings – some, if not all of these architectural elements were present, sometimes in even the most modest of Highland Park homes. We were often surprised when others referred to our houses as “historic”, for growing up in Mission Style elegance and Arts and Crafts beauty was simply the norm – in fact, most didn’t even know these names for the architectural works of art in which we lived.
Our parents, many of them from the segregated South, were the visionaries who foresaw the benefits of having their children grow up in a city that at the time had one of the best school systems in the country, and surely the best in the state. Many other adults in our midst were black professionals; highly educated creative people, who had seen many limitations to success in their pre-Highland Park lives.
Most whites, influenced by prejudice and fear, chose to leave upon our arrival. Some stayed for a time, indeed, some of the whites and other nationalities that came to live in Highland Park during the 50’s and 60’s moved to Highland Park because it was integrated. As adults, their children have been uniquely situated in the world, with different attitudes and experiences than others, because of growing up in a rainbow of children in Highland Park.
There are generations of Highland Parkers – whites who grew up in the 40’s and pre-50’s HP, for whom “our” coming was the signal for their family’s exodus. There are those who came after, in about the 70’s and later – blacks who did not have the benefit of the standard of living that we enjoyed, who came to HP after the collapse and/or flight of the industries that supported the city. In some respects, both of these groups have very different experiences in HP than did we – the middle, post-mid-century generation.
But don’t get it twisted – it’s not because blacks moved into the city that it fell. Highland Park was Ground Zero for the collapse of the domination of the auto industry and the changes in industrial America. The fall of our community-and its tax base – was a reflection of that collapse. The penetration of heroin, then crack cocaine into the community, and the resultant social mayhem, was a horrific layer of social misery that spelled the end of a way of life.
Many of us have grieved, having grown up in middle class stability, yet watching the next generations struggle in the economics of decline. But be certain that as we in Highland Park have gone, so goeth others, and other suburban communities – black and white – are now experiencing the challenges – economic and social – for which our city was first in line.
I have been amazed at the online civility among we Highland Parkers of a certain age due, doubtless, to the common values we share and the desire to come together to affirm our special roots. I hope we maintain the civil, mannerable, positive tone of our conversations, always. I believe the Highland Park Grand Alumni Group (to which I belong) is a God given mechanism for a healing of our generation, a place for the affirmation of our memories and of our unique qualities.
Who knows, we might play some small part in the inevitable rebirth of the city, though I hesitate to say rebirth, for HP is not dead, it yet lives. There are still beautiful homes and dedicated homeowners and residents who await the day that the city’s decline will stop and its stable blocks will be returned to their full former beauty. I believe that day will come, for at least the sections of the city that are still intact, for that is the cyclical nature of things.
Like people in Harlem, now a rich, gentrified community, one day we will look back – not with shame and consternation at its wretched condition, but with pride and the joy in the living evidence of the beautiful community in which we grew up – Highland Park, the City of Trees.
The “Overnight” Change
I’ve had many thoughts rolling around my head on this subject of white flight from HP, that I’ve wanted to write for my blog/and or the book on which I’m working.
Contrary to popular narrative, the movement of Whites out of Highland Park and Detroit did not begin with the ’67 Riots, but was a process that began in the post-war 1940’s – long before Blacks became a majority. Due to the amazing housing stock of Highland Park and its vastly superior school system, I believe that many Whites held on in that city longer than those in Detroit, giving Highland Park an experience of integration, in certain neighborhoods, for longer than its surrounding city. I have no stats to bear this out, this is just my empirical sense of things.
The Highland Park in which I grew up, in the late fifties and early sixties, was a United Nations of children, with parents from many lands. Many of our Black parents, originally from the segregated south, were quietly so proud that they had acquired for their children, through untold challenges, the living embodiment of the American Dream, the dream of Dr. King. My first experience welcoming a new neighbor came before kindergarten, when I walked three doors down and met tiny Ms. Yushiko Hoagland from Japan, who introduced me to her two, bi-racial children (black/white) and we are life-long friends, to this day (over fifty years later).
The kids in my old Barber middle school were from families from Lebanon, Syria, China, Japan, Armenia, and numbers of white children whose parents had not yet moved away. We played together, often unawares that the racial maelstrom in the South – that swirled around our young minds on the TV news – was real in Highland Park, too, even if not as obvious.
For sure, the white parents of my young friends had many reasons for moving, other than race. Many of the new suburbs outside of the 8 Mile street boundary of Detroit (about 2 miles from Highland Park) transformed from virtual farmland to bright new communities seemingly overnight, as civic promoters and real estate interests promoted the joys of suburbia.
The powerful lure of new, modern homes with modern amenities being built by the thousands was an attractive incentive for families facing the prospect of long years ahead in the big, old homes of Highland Park, most of which had been built around the 1900s-1920s and, of course, by the ’50s and 60’s, needing serious structural repairs – roofs, furnaces – the big stuff.
Government loans were extended to subsidize new home ownership (and of course, the new homes were in the suburbs). The new freeway system (the Davison freeway was the first in the US) allowed for far-flung commutes to and from the city, and chopped up stable, old communities into divided, destabilized neighborhoods.
The first mall in the United States – called Northland, in Southfield MI, just north of the Detroit border – was the begining of a new, exciting shopping experience exclusive to the new suburban lifestyle. Suburban interests aggressively recruited city-dwellers to cross 8 Mile.
But, undoubtedly, race also played a great and obvious role exacerbating all the other elements of what came to be known as white flight. Despite statements as to why the city changed “overnight” without open racial conflict, there was racial tension in Highland Park, but we were children, and mostly, children get along – the adults are the problems.
I do recall that in the early 60’s, when Highland Park was still majority white, that there was a bunch of mean, older White kids who made it clear that my little friends and I were not welcome, especially at the ice skating rink on the north end of Highland Park (behind where the “new” highschool – now closed – is today). The great pop song by Lou Christie, “Lighting Strikes Me Again”, that was playing, will forever be linked with my memories of circling the ice, trying to avoid the snarling bullies who loomed like white monsters over us.
I remember my brother and I being called the N word by white neighbor children on California Street during a routine kids’ squabble over backyard fences; we were stunned. We had been friends all of our young lives. I was maybe 10 or so, but we had the feeling that it was the adults in their household who were behind the kids’ changing attitudes; soon they moved away.
Certainly, by the 70’s, drugs and crime were paramount factors in whites moving out. I recall Mrs. Naomi Oden, a gentle but fierce Rosa Parksian pillar of Cortland street, before her family moved several blocks north to an Arts & Crafts masterpiece on Puritan. She was a spiritual woman of the B’hai faith, who was prophetic in her zealous exhortations on the coming of the scourge of drugs, and what they would do to our community. As a kid, I would merely blink at her dire warnings, having no idea of the coming devastation of which she spoke; but later, I understood why she spend the last years of her life in the real war on drugs.
I had no idea, as a 9th grader in 1968, that her passionate, agonized warnings spoke much about what was to come, though later it was clear that she was right, as criminality began to overcome the town that was not prepared to hold its barricades against the deadly, drug fueled, destructive forces within. “Mama Oden” and her husband, John Oden Sr. both now deceased, were prophetic trailblazers who went on to found the drug treatment center Elmhurst Home (in Detroit), and are memorable for their tireless work against the decimation and criminality of the drug culture that began to permeate Highland Park.
However, the most important element in the change of the racial dynamics of Highland Park was the abrupt decline in the economic infrastructure. There was an extraordinary amount of industry and jobs for such a tiny city (Ford’s first assembly plant was located there, as well as Chrysler’s World Headquarters, Excello Corporation, and more), and in the early days, many of the employees of the companies lived in Highland Park – in fact, the beautiful homes in Highland Park were built for Henry Ford’s managerial class.
When the Ford plant no longer operated and, years later, when Chrysler headquarters and subsidiary industries (like Excello) closed, the (mostly white) employees who lived in Highland Park also moved. This economic element alone was significant in its contribution to so-called “white flight” and the catastrophic end to the taxes that these companies had provided to subsidize the “good life” in what had been a prosperous, verdant city. Over time, as unemployment and layoffs from the “Big Three” began to be the rule and not the cyclical exception, the income that had helped to support the city and maintain the homes and neighborhoods was gone as well.
There is a very specific set of memories and experiences of those of us who lived in the City of Trees, and a need for affirmation that we probably didn’t even know that we had, before we came together via social media. In our adult years we have lived our lives – some in the metropolitan area of Detroit, some on the coasts of this country and cities in between, some in the far reaches of the earth, and some still, in Highland Park – feeling that we are “different”.
I described our upbringing to an interviewer once as a sort of Black Mayberry RFD (the TV show of a fictional small-town, that starred Andy Griffith). Our identitiy was clearly separate from Detroit. But it was really much more than that; for I cannot emphasize enough the unique and powerful economic and social convergence that was Highland Park. I daresay our community was one of those that actually defined the middle class; we might well have been the very origins of the middle class, as we know it today.
Because Highland Park became majority Black, after a time, this reality became obscured and/or ignored. The tainted view of the city that paints its past with the brush of its current condition, robs both the black and white former residents of the city of an accurate view of the former grandeur of the town that we all remember.
Today, our neighborhoods are marked by decay and dissolution, but during my growing up, the neighborhood buzzed with lawnmowers and hedgecutters; our homes were in a constant cycle of sprucing up and repair – kids tried unsuccessfully to escape their parent’s perpetual lists of chores and clean-up demands. Our across-the street-neighbors, the Davises, were relentless in keeping up their home, and their kids’ weekend’s were spent planting, weeding and painting trim.
I was glad, back then, that my parents didn’t demand as much outdoor diligence as we witnessed across the street – though the result of their discipline versus our lack theref was always evident. Such pride in home ownership was common, though there are those who believe that we have always lived in a state of disarray and disrepair. Even today, despite all, there remain beautiful homesteads in Highland Park.
With the rise of the prosperity of the middle class (industrial workers, service workers and professionals), so rose the lives of those of us who lived among the green lawns and oaken homes of Highland Park. Since the roots of the American industrial economy were nurtured on our verdant soil, Highland Park was, in a defacto sense, a beacon of “the good life” to many other municipalities.
Ironically the concentration of capital was so pronounced, that a radical labor organization, the nemesis of segregated practices in the auto industry and in the UAW – the League of Revolutionary Black Workers – was headquartered in Highland Park, too; on Cortland Street, a place for much post-60’s activism and a center for radical intellectuals like the late Kenneth Cockrel Sr. and the late General Baker – who remained a Highland Park resident until his death, in 2014. His widow, Marian Kramer remains in the community, an activist in the struggle over water rights.
For though much of Highland Park living could be described as idyllic, the pangs of racial prejudice and inequities were still felt, and 60’s protests became as much a part of the fabric of the city as in Detroit during those times. The Wheelers, Earl and Naomi, were den parents to our youthful protests against less than equal treatment in the schools, and today remain active elders.
As the underpinnings of the city’s economic foundation began to collapse, tragically, so did life as we knew it. Conversely, even inevitably, as Highland Park goes, so go others in their downward municipal spirals. I recall how Highland Park was held up by the media for public ridicule and scorn in the first years of its economic reversals. Yet today, talk about reduced and shared police and fire-fighters, shrinking school districts and lack of services – and even Emergency Financial Managers – has become common to many communities in the state.
I recall the days when Highland Park – our City Within A City – was unequivocally spoken of as a “suburb” of Detroit, with the higher social positioning that the term implied. Our community had always been linked – as a sister city, of sorts – with the prosperous, middle-class Highland Park, Illinois, though now, it is in an ironic effort to define the profound differences in the cities. It is clear that the divergence lies in the death of the economic infrastructure and the resultant social collapse, in Michigan’s Highland Park.
Many Highland Parkers grew up with unusually large, beautiful homes on lush green streets, and even those who did not were beneficiaries of an exemplary primary and secondary public education. We had quintessential American childhoods, racially integrated for a time (I was one of less than a handful of black children in Mrs. Dorothy Ashford-Dash’s first grade). We had middle school swimming pools at a time when this was uncommon, access to the YWCA and YMCA, unmatched musical education that nurtured innumerable talented musicians and a national award-winning marching band; intra-mural sports, ice skating, clubs, scouts and a plethora of cultural and athletic activities that would rival any private school system – then or today.
We had white teachers, some of them delighted to have classrooms of white and black children; others treated black children – and their parents – with ill disguised prejudice and distain; but we were able to learn around them, anyway. There were black teachers, some of whom had come from the segregated systems of the south and were dedicated to excellence in education and deportment, as well. I have another story on this blog about the amazing Mrs. Elizabeth Banton, teacher of Latin and the Classics, a paragon of erudition.
Additionally there was a memorable shopping district on Woodward Ave., anchored by Sears, that made it unnessary to shop anywhere else, and relegated downtown Detroit’s merchants’ row to a rare treat, instead of a necesssity. We had the magnificent, bronze-doored McGregor Library on Woodward Ave. (with the giant globe and amazing “stereoscopic” viewers) that nurtured the minds of countless young residents.
Our community has rarely been heralded or discussed in terms other than negative. It is as if only Whites had solid, productive, middle-class lives in 20th century metro-Detroit. Our Alumni group is making it clear that in Highland Park, a community that, after a while, was made of mainly solid, Black, working and professional folk, – we did.
It is as if White people were incapable of having growing up experiences with Black people that produced memorable, happy childhoods. As our Alumni group has shown, with our White members who were grateful to reconnect with us and their child memories – they did. Despite the later collapse of the city as we knew it, it is clear that we have a need to reaffirm the realities of our upbringing that are never acknowledged in the media.
It is not insignificant that during my teen years, Highland Park’s mayor was Bob Blackwell, as light-skinned as a white man – and a Republican; the first Black mayor in the US and the only Black republican mayor. Since many Highland Park elders of the time still held a certain allegiance with the party of Lincoln to begin with – my own father included – this made for a populace with perhaps a broader view of politics than others.
Election day in Highland Park was a Rockwell-esque affirmation of enfranchisement. As it was, millions of dollars in federal funds, funneled into the city via the mayor’s amiable connections with President Nixon (whom, btw my father loved) and contributed to the relative affluence of the city, as well.
I remember proudly walking to the polls on election days with my pretty Mama, and talking to the neighbor ladies who, on these special days, were the all-important poll workers. These were folks whose relatives in the South risked being shot down in the street or lynched in the dark for even attempting to vote. Election Day, for us, was serious, indeed.
Our neighbor, Mrs. Jean Green, the first black City Clerk of Highland Park, was a smart, no-nonsense, long-time beauty-shop owner and business woman who arose from Highland Park’s “North-End” – that had been majority black long before the rest of the city. She was a exemplar of electoral prowess and mentor of many Black students and professionals.
Despite the political upheavals, rivalries and chicanery in the small-town politics of Highland Park over the years (that I have no interest in getting into here) empowerment was a reality in that town long before that word became popular.
We have existed knowing all of this only within ourselves, in our several homes; but the Facebook alumni group began to collectivize our experiences and recollections into a reality that cannot be denied. On the other hand, many of us have also internalized the ceaseless trumpeting of negativity – and even shame – as regards our city and it’s current reputation. It has become clear to me however, as we share our collective memories of our place in America – that Highland Parkers, we are America.
A Highland Park Resurrection
First of all, let’s be clear – the old days of Highland Park – with the standard of living that we experienced – is over. Done. Finished. Game Over. That way of life was the result of economic forces that no longer exist in the city, and a culture that emerged from our parents’ upbringings – mostly in the South or other varied countries of origin.
But I believe because of the unique attributes of the city – it’s location, near freeways, and at the core of Detroit; it’s remaining housing stock, still quite magnificent in sections; it’s commercial strips; it’s water plant, etc. – this is not a city that will just ‘ride off into the sunset’ into non-existence.
Other cities have shown us something – Harlem was a bombed looking wasteland in some areas, with a section of lovely townhouses that remained. Today, it is a gentrified enclave with astronomical real estate prices, where a former president (Clinton) has his offices. Sections of San Francisco that were once the areas for poor Blacks and Asians, are now redeveloped urban valleys and upscale shopping districts. During the last years of decline of these two places, most would not have predicted that they would rise from their identification as “ghettos” in less than a generation.
Now, these situations are not exactly the same as those faced by Highland Park, for black Harlem and the formerly poor, minority communities of SFO were only sections of wealthy, majority white cities – and Highland Park and Detroit are both majority black municipalities. But lessons do apply.
HP/Detroit will become more like other major cities in the US – that is, with the downtown and central city as the desirable places to live, and less exclusive places in the outlying (suburban) areas. Detroit did not develop that way, in part, due to the fact that the predominant employment was in automotive factories which moved outward for the massive tracts of land outside of Detroit (both New York and SFO are land locked).
The primary reason that our area developed the way it did, of course, is segregation. When Blacks began to predominate in the downtown/central city, Whites fled to the newly developed suburbs, rather than to co-exist in the city. In other major cities there was not the same industrial development demanding outstretched suburban land (for modern, all-on one-floor production), nor a massive influx of Blacks into automotive plants, with the economic potential to become as prosperously middle-class as their white co-working brethren – a source of fierce, proletarian internecine rivalry.
In other cities, the downtown and central cities remained in the affluent core, and the less well-to-do live in the outlying “bedroom” communities. In other areas, working class folks commute from the suburbs to the wealthy downtown and central cities, the opposite of the way we have lived here.
This metropolis will eventually shift to a model that is more like other major cities. Property values and quality of life is dropping ever lower for blacks in Detroit/HP and we flee to the suburbs to escape. That is part of the plan (not a conspiracy mind you, but a plan born of natural economic cycles of land capital).
Quietly, steadily, whites and “creative class” folks are moving into Detroit – and into Highland Park and Hamtramck. The transition has long begun. While blacks are being ever driven across 8 mile to escape crime and seek neighborhood stability, younger whites, who do not have their parents’ fear of Detroit, are moving in the city’s direction. There are young people all over the world who look to Detroit as the most exciting place in the world to live.
We, Highland Parkers of a certain age, are the first generation to experience the realization of the American Dream that began with our parents in the South, in Black Bottom, in the Old Country. Since the economic affliction began in Highland Park, we are the last generation to experience the type of urban middle class life that we had, the last of life afforded to the highest paid working class in history – in one small concentrated town. If we are both the first and the last, we are therefore, the only ones to have experienced life quite the way that we did in Highland Park – and that’s why we feel so “different”.
A new Highland Park could develop in a few short years, and soon – depending of the needs of developers/mass transit, etc. Or we may not see in our lifetimes. But it will happen. But in a new Highland Park of the future, those who held on and stayed and carved out a life there despite all, may be the only ones of “us” who will be able to afford to live there.
For in most reborn communities, housing prices become a premium and monied folks become the only ones able to afford the gentrified areas. One day, generations that follow us may look back on Highland Park and say “I remember when “we” used to live there”. Think about the photos of the teeming blacks on the streets of the Harlem renaissance in the 20’s versus the, rich, gentrified, multi-cultural streets of today.
Yes, incredibly, Woodward Ave. or even Hamilton Ave. may yet be a place of shops and galleries. Yes, our Art and Crafts and Mission Style and Stone homes may yet become darlings of the architectural world; yes, there may be new commercial areas. That is the nature of the cycle of real estate and cities. Unfortunately, we may not be the beneficiaries of such a future, for many of us have lives that led us away from Highland Park, and the next generations of Blacks will llikely not be – economically or otherwise – in a position to avail themselves of ownership in a rejuvenated city.
Our descendents will not, in the main, be the inheritors of the lives that we had there; others – who know little about how we lived in Highland Park – will reap the benefits of generations of care. This means that working class black people, and the way we lived back in the day, may become only a memory in Highland Park. A time and place that existed for a moment and, like a vapor, disappeared into the ether.
This makes the recounting of our history in Highland Park that much more important – so that it will never be said that we did not exist, that our way of life was but a dream. Highland Park – at least those remaining sections of it that are intact and retain their bucolic loveliness – may be born again. For the needs of future developers may eventually encompass the City of Trees, and, most importantly, the fervent prayers of the righteous who once dwelled there – and those who still do – availeth much. Long Live the City of Trees.
[Note I: two years after I posted this piece, Robert Elmes, the owner of a major, international, luxury performing arts center called Galagapos, in Brooklyn New York, purchased the old Highland Park Highschool and Community College Campus. He announced that he was shutting down his space and re-locating it to his newly purchased property in Highland Park. I believe it is a game-changer for the city; Highland Park is on the cusp of experiencing the change of which I speak, above
[Note II: another essay, on the “White Flight,” that we experienced, emerged from this piece – I call it The Kidnapped Children of Detroit, on this website, see the menu.]