My neighborhood had a certain Lord of the Flies quality in the months that preceded the 1967 Detroit riot. Many of us were the children of cops, firemen and Detroit factory workers. Like the boys in the William Golding novel, we were governing ourselves with disastrous results — including the death of one boy.
Looking back, my block, all-white Archdale Street on the northwest side of town, was a slice of society, a cauldron that previewed everything from the feminist movement to disrespect for authority during the Vietnam War and Watergate. The street, named for its pastoral setting and the canopy of trees that formed an arch over the road, turned out to be part of the larger drama playing out in the city, everything from petty crime to police brutality.
The trailer for the Kathryn Bigelow movie Detroit, which debuts on August 4, features pounding music and repetition of the phrase “Change is coming.” It’s the perfect mantra for what was going on, even from the vantage point of someone who was only 14 at the time. As blue-collar white kids, we were not victims of systemic racism or overt cop violence, but that movie catch-phrase sums up what was happening on my block and elsewhere in the city.
That summer and the previous summer, informal gangs of bored kids ruled the streets in my neighborhood at Grand River and the Southfield freeway, shoplifting from local party stores and gas stations, setting small fires in the local park, regularly getting into fistfights and breaking into unoccupied houses, sometimes just to watch TV or to have a quiet place to play spin-the-bottle and make out. These same kids were active annual participants in Devil’s Night, the night before Halloween, not committing major crimes, but soaping screens (more difficult to clean than windows) and throwing eggs at storefront windows. It was never spoken, but, as cops’ kids, we figured we could easily get out of trouble and avoid juvenile court.
The summer before the riot, Ricky Farwell, a skinny 18-year-old boy who lived across the street from me, was beaten to death on August 26 by other teens over an argument about two girls. Our mothers attended the funeral, but did not allow the teens and pre-teens to attend, a real mistake since it would have driven home to us just how violent and out of control things were getting. My mother came home and described to me how horrible he looked in his casket, with his fists still curled up in defense, apparently a detail that was not addressed by the undertaker.
There were some lame attempts to tame the unruly girls in the neighborhood, but they didn’t work. Some of the mothers scraped together money and signed us up for the Wendy Ward Charm School, held in an upstairs room at the Montgomery Ward department store on Grand River and Greenfield. The teacher told us we would learn to “conduct ourselves like ladies” and gave us a handbook with lots of advice, including “how to talk to boys.”
One section advised: “If you saw a movie and you liked a movie, say ‘I liked the movie, but I’m not sure I understand all they were trying to say.’ This gives him a chance to be very manly and explain things to you.”
I sat in the back with my friends, snickering at the tips on good posture and winning male approval. Most of the girls I knew in the class could easily beat up boys our age – and did. When the teacher wasn’t looking, we threw tiny red Atomic Fireball candies at each other, which skittered along the linoleum floor or onto the runway where we were supposed to be practicing our walk for the fashion show on graduation day.
Getting away with stuff in charm school or on the street was a badge of honor. I was the nerdiest member of the group, sometimes on the periphery of trouble but always a guilty bystander and an avid observer, a trait that would serve me well as a journalist in later years. I prided myself on such achievements as “fooling” the librarian at the Henry Chaney branch on Grand River by convincing her I was old enough to check out books, like Lord of the Flies, from the adult section well before I could do that officially. My nickname on the block was the Professor, and it wasn’t a compliment. I was laughed at or punched by angry girls for sitting on the front porch in the summer and sometimes reading when I wasn’t getting into trouble with the rest of them.
I never set a fire, but I was one of the brains behind stealing empty returnable pop bottles from the local Clark gas station. The cutest girl in our group would distract the attendant inside the station and the rest of us would toss the empties, which were loaded onto racks on the side of the station, into a field. Then we would collect them and cash them in at the same place. We used the proceeds to buy candy at Perks Party Store, when we weren’t shoplifting Twinkies from the place.
Our fathers in “Copper Canyon” — named for all the police who lived in the area — couldn’t control most of us. They were all shift workers whose schedules would change every few weeks as they cycled through a month of midnights, then afternoons and then days. Sleep deprivation was common. Mothers came up with creative ways of alerting neighbors that there was a sleeping cop inside the house. My mother would put a ceramic rooster in the kitchen window as a warning not to ring the doorbell because my dad was trying to sleep.
Our stay-at-home moms were bored and disengaged in what seemed to be an epidemic of maternal depression. None of them had cars and were trapped in tiny bungalows with large families. They didn’t care what we doing and generally had one rule: Be home when the streetlights go on.
The mothers coped with their onerous lives in different ways. One morbidly obese mother spent much of her afternoon “training” her beagle with marshmallows. The dog was so big that his belly dragged on the sidewalk. Another mother was often drunk and passed out on her bed when she wasn’t standing on her porch, chain-smoking and scanning the sky for severe weather. She was our unwitting source for cigarettes and matches. Some parents were having affairs and a few were in the process of getting divorces. My fierce and judgmental mother would throw my dad’s divorced golf buddies, members of the police department’s vice bureau, off our front porch in a bid to protect him from their bad behavior.
The dads tended to leave discipline up to the moms, and, as a result, there was little direction or punishment for true offenses. There was anger on 12th and Clairmount, the epicenter of the riot, and there was anger on Archdale, too. One of the dads, a policeman, regularly came home from work and beat his dog in a kennel behind his garage with a 2×4 piece of lumber. Everybody knew about it and nobody stopped him. It was our own sickening version of police brutality.
There rarely was any talk about serious subjects and, for children caught in the crosshairs of history during the summer of 1967, there was never any explanation after the riot of what went wrong or the reason for the animosity between blacks and whites. My school, the all-white St. Mary of Redford, appeared to be an oasis of civility and calm, but the Immaculate Heart of Mary nuns who ran the school never discussed civil rights and had no problem with students appearing in black face for a Valentine’s Day talent show in a parody of black Motown musicians — after the riot. I later found out that one of the founders of the IHM order was a black woman.
One of the towering figures of my childhood was our black doctor, Theodore White, M.D., who delivered all of the kids in my family and was a great friend of my grandmother Rose Krzemienski, who ran a small bar on Michigan Avenue in Detroit. At the time, Dr. White’s office was just down the street from the bar, up a narrow staircase and above a storefront. We went to him for every problem. So revered was Dr. White that I brought my fiancé to his office when I was 24 so that he could approve of my choice. But I never had the courage to ask him about race relations or how it happened that our families were so close.
If I saw any prejudice at my grandma’s bar, it was against gypsies, who were banned from the premises but would sometimes wander in and ask my grandmother if she wanted her fortune told for a quarter. She would retort: “Cross my palm with silver and I’ll tell your fortune.” I thought the gypsies, with their oversized hoop earrings and orange satin blouses, were romantic and wonderful figures and could not figure out why they were despised. Only white customers, mostly Poles and the occasional Italian, were served at the bar, and women often were segregated and asked by my grandmother to sit at tables instead of at the bar itself. I never asked why she was behind the bar in a position of authority. Confusion was a constant state for those of us who did even the most superficial reflection.
Layers and layers of racism, some more benign than others, defined my childhood. There were no black kids at my school or in my neighborhood, but I was familiar with prejudice. There was a clear class structure at my school with Irish kids at the top. They were the ones given the honor of crowning the statue of Mary in the churchyard during the annual May event. Irish girls were the only ones allowed in the convent to help the nuns with baking and other tasks. Polish kids like me were at the bottom of the pecking order. Kids who lived in upscale Rosedale Park, a neighborhood of doctors and lawyers, were favored over those who lived on blue-collar streets like Archdale, Rutland and Mettetal in the Grandmont area. We all knew our place.
There was animosity between the Catholic school kids and the public school kids, which became apparent in early elementary school. We were marked because the Catholic kids wore uniforms to school and that made us instant targets. It got worse at Halloween, when the nuns forbade their students from dressing in traditional costumes, such as ghosts or pirates. Instead, we had to dress up according to the saint we were named after or one chosen for us by the sisters. We celebrated All Saints’ Day on November 1, not Halloween.
The outlandish, medieval-looking apparel — lots of robes and veils — triggered taunts and brawls as we walked to school in our costumes. There was no way to avoid Edison Elementary School on my route to St. Mary. Carpools were unheard of and few mothers could drive. This forced Catholic kids to run an unforgiving gauntlet when passing the public school. I can remember the crown of plastic red roses I wore on my head as St. Therese of Lisieux, my “assigned saint” in the second grade, being ground into the dirt by an angry girl from Edison who called me a “Catlick.” Ironically, the Catholic and Protestant kids would come together to form the loosely knit girl gangs during the summers of 1966 and 1967.
Shortly after the riot, the first black student entered St. Mary. She was a celebrity. The nuns lavished attention on her, giving her a coveted spot on the cheerleading squad. We all wanted to eat lunch with her and befriend her. But most of us were aware that it was a token effort and that our gang would be scattered as families left the city for the suburbs.
Photos: St. Mary of Redford Senior High School yearbooks. Riot photo by Irene Pyzik.