Robert Garvin, December 10th, 2015
WW: Hello my name is William Winkel I’m with the Detroit Historical Society and this interview is for the Detroit 1967 Oral History Project and I’m here with Robert Garvin. Thank you for sitting down with me today.
RG: You’re welcome.
WW: Can you tell me first, where and when you were born?
RG: Yes, in Decatur, Illinois. May 8, 1926.
WW: When did you first move to the city of Detroit?
RG: Well I’m not sure of the date, but it would be around 1946. It may have even been 1947.
WW: Who came with you? Was it just your parents and you, or did you have siblings?
RG: No, I came alone. [coughing] I was transferred which brought me to Detroit and I knew nothing about Detroit. Absolutely nothing. I didn’t know it was supposed to be a bad place to live [laughter]. And it isn’t.
WW: What transfer brought you here?
RG: I was with Jacobson’s and they transferred me to Dearborn where I was the General Manager for the two stores there.
WW: And back in Decatur what did your parents do there, what was your childhood like growing up?
RG: My mother was a housewife, my father was a master painter. Now that’s a term that would be misused today. But he did commercial and residential, not house painting, interior. With the union in those days they had different terms, he was a master painter.
WW: Nice. When you first moved here in the late 1940s, what were you initial thoughts of the city?
RG: First of all, it was the largest city I’d ever lived in other than Milwaukee and I was just really impressed with the buildings that I saw in a very short length of time. I felt great about living in the city.
WW: What street did you live on when you moved to the city?
RG: On Edison between Woodward and Second just next to the Henry Ford Mansion
WW: Nice, nice. That’s a great first house! [Laughter] What were your initial thoughts about the community besides, the way the city looked? The community involvement? The community interaction?
RG: Well, I wasn’t here long enough before I think to have any opinion about that. I had no chance really for any interaction. I decided that while I’d be working in Dearborn I chose not to live there. So coming into Detroit, looking for an apartment, in those days you could not have a pet in any apartments in Detroit, and I would refuse to give up my dog, so I had to buy a house. It was the only choice I had since I wouldn’t live in Dearborn [laughter]. So that’s what happened, that house was available and it suited my needs and I’ve lived there ever since.
WW: Did you just want the big city feel, or did something about Dearborn strike you that you didn’t want to live there?
RG: When I had to leave Kalamazoo, where I was previously in Jackson. I went to Dearborn and I went to a real estate agent and said, "I’m interested in an apartment," and he said, "Well, the city has much wider list of what’s available so I recommend you go to City Hall and they will assist you in finding something." So I went to City Hall and found when they recognized that I was white they called a few realtors [laughter] and told them that I was available for looking for something. And I just chose not to live in a community like that. So since I couldn’t live there I had to come to Detroit.
WW: So you were living on Edison in 1967 as well? What were your initial thoughts about was happening and how did you first hear about the unrest?
RG: Well, I had moved into the house about two days before. It was on a Sunday. And someone had told me about Eastern Market and on Saturday I went to Eastern Market and I bought some flats of ivy to plant. So on Sunday afternoon I was on the west side of the house planting ivy. And I kept smelling smoke and I kept hearing sirens every place. So I said to whoever it was who lived next door, "There must be the damnedest fire that anyone has ever seen." [Laughter] After I had finished planting the ivy, then I went around to the front of the house and I looked down towards Woodward which was only less than a block away. I saw people milling around down there, going into the liquor store on the corner, running out with liquor, and running away. And I even saw people getting off the bus, go into the liquor store, come out, and then get on the next bus and head north. [Laughter] So I knew this wasn’t the normal thing that was happening. I got on the radio then and found out a lot more about it. My initial reaction was just kind of stunned.
WW: How would you interpret that week in July? Because there are people in Detroit that exclusively call it a riot, there are people who call it a rebellion. What are your personal thoughts on what it should be categorized as?
RG: Well, to me it was riots. I couldn’t think of it in any other fashion. Shortly thereafter I suppose like many people I got more information, and I was able to kind of reach a decision. While I don’t approve of riots, I also understood the reasons.
WW: Given your two days living in the neighborhood, how do you believe the neighborhood changed after that? Or did it change at all?
RG: Well, it did change. Because it was just – at that time it was just the start, the beginning of the exodus of white people from Detroit. And that really pushed it forward. So when I moved in I think there was on the entire block there was only one black family. But by three or four years later it was 80 percent black. The real estate values dropped drastically. A lot of people who couldn’t afford to live in an area like that previously were able too. But living in the city I find that people in most residential areas don’t associate much with their neighbors for various reasons.
WW: After that week in July did you think about packing up and leaving to or were you committed to your new home?
RG: No, I don’t frighten easily and I’m stubborn [laughter]. I liked the house, it was 15 minutes to any place being between the Lodge and the Chrysler. And I-94 was that close, and I really was 15 minutes to any place in Detroit. So, in particularly working in Dearborn, it took me 10 minutes going to work in the morning because everyone was coming into the city. In the evening, when I was coming home everyone was leaving the city and it took me 10 minutes to get home. So 20 minutes of driving a day for work is really not that bad. It was advantageous as far as I was concerned.
WW: You said in the initial five years, the street increased to 80 percent black families. How has the neighborhood changed or shifted over the last forty years?
RG: Over these last four years?
WW: Forty years.
RG: Oh forty years. Well it’s changed drastically because when I first moved in, there was a very large home on Edison and Woodward, that had, roughly, I think 25 men living in that house. I don’t know if it was a public situation or a private situation, I don’t know. And then in another house on the block, a woman had rented about eight rooms to men. So that has vanished in the last forty years. First of all since it became a historic area, that’s not allowed. And that just can’t happen, because of that. Also, I think because of the convenience a number of people in the entire Boston-Edison area are professional or semi-professional people. In the last ten years there have been a lot of white people moving to the Boston-Edison area.
WW: Shifting back to Dearborn, you worked in Dearborn your entire career while you were here?
RG: Oh yes, until I retired.
WW: Going back to what we were talking about earlier about how you did not want to live in that type of city. How has Dearborn changed since your initial "bad taste"?
RG: [Laughter] Well, when I moved there if you were different in any way and that means ethnically, or Jewish, you weren't welcome in Dearborn. Now they’d take the money if you chose to shop there [laughter] but that was the way it was. After Orville Hubbard died, there was a trickle of black people moving into the area, there wasn’t much available, and then the Arabic population, I have no idea how that happened, it just boomed. So that was major, major change. As far as city management is concerned I think that the principles that Hubbard had have continued; they have marvelous services in Dearborn as far as snow removal and keeping the streets clean and it’s just—it’s excellent service.
WW: What do you think of the current state of the city of Detroit? What are your thoughts? Do you think it’s coming back? What is your opinion on the state of the city?
RG: Well, I think that state of the city is very exciting. If I were five years younger and if I didn’t own my home I would move downtown in an instant. I would love to. I find the whole city kind of interesting. I find the pockets of poverty are interesting. Because I’m out and about constantly. I love living here and I go every place, so, I maybe see changes happening more rapidly than a lot of people who don’t travel around the city as much as I have. I think it’s just terribly, terribly encouraging. Now, long range, I think that the present administration in Detroit is a thousand-fold improvement over what it has been as long as I have lived here. It was absolutely deplorable and unfortunately those people managed to get voted back in constantly, and I don’t understand it myself but I think it’s very I remarkable improvement and I just pray it continues.
WW: Very nice, is there any other thoughts you’d like to add?
RG: Let me just glance at this to make sure I didn’t miss anything. Well yeah, sure I think so. During that time, a few days after the riots, just adjacent from where we live there is Voigt Park and it’s about a two block square park right in the center. It’s a walking park; that’s all it’s ever been. So I don’t know how quickly but within about a week that park was filled with tanks and military personnel. We heard shots pretty frequently. I chose to keep my house dark at night I didn’t even keep the lights on because frankly that was kind of frightening. I bought a police radio because I wanted to find out what was happening and I stayed up all night listening to see if there was anything I should be concerned about.
It was just kind of an interesting thing because you couldn’t really go out and purchase anything. My neighbors across the street asked me if I had any gin. They were out and they were martini drinkers. I said, "Yes, I have gin but I’ll trade it for your beer if you have some." and that’s what we did. [Laughter] It worked out well.
Then driving to work on the Lodge, the first at least week was very interesting because there were shots crossing the Lodge, near the area where Henry Ford Hospital is across the other way. That was a little unnerving, until I got on my way to Dearborn.
One night, my dog was carrying on and I got up and peaked out and there were some soldiers — or at least people in uniforms — that were pushing bayonets into the bushes in front of my house. [Laughter]
I became acquainted with, after things had quite down quite a lot, with a black doctor who lived in Boston-Edison but far down at the other end, closer to Fourteenth, I think. He went out at the end of the height of the rioting that first day. He was concerned for himself even though the rioting was black people so he strapped his camera around his waist and wore a rain coat. So he had a film of what he saw during that period of time. Not many people saw that and it was a good reason not too but it was fascinating to see that.
Also, I had no idea until it was all over that the burning of buildings was not just in the area where I live but also on the east side and I think perhaps that might be Oakland but a lot of buildings were burned going over about five or six blocks on the east side of Woodward.
The people who lived next door to me, was a black couple there, charming people, owned the Alhambra Market on Woodward just at the end of Edison next to the old Alhambra Theater. They were extremely frightened, and both he and she spent every night in their grocery store with guns. They had a "Soul" sign in the window and they didn’t have to use it but I thought that was interesting.
And I don’t think of anything else in particular unless you have some more questions.
WW: I have some questions based on what you just said, yeah [laughter]. How long did the military—was it the National Guard or the Army?
RG: I think it was the National Guard.
WW: And how long did they stay in the park?
RG: I’m going to guess about ten days.
WW: Then did you hear anything peculiar on the police radio?
RG: Oh yes, I sure did. But nothing that concerned me for my own personal welfare.
WW: And, the soldier stabbing your bushes. Was that an every night thing? To clear —
RG: No, it wasn’t every night. That was a one-time thing but that was certainly unnerving. I never saw anyone run out. I don’t know whether it was a false lead for them or what.
WW: That’s insane. [Laughter]
RG: But one time when the shots were really loud I hit the floor.
WW: And who was living with you at the time? Was it just you?
RG: The gentleman I bought the house from had rented a room to someone. So I inherited the tenant. I don’t know his last name, his first name was Walter, and he was a real night-Detroit person. So after this started and I saw Walter, I said, "I would urge you to use some caution as far as keeping your lights on," because the room he had was on Edison. He said, "Oh, there’s nothing to it, nothing is going to happen," about that time two shots rang out, he hit the floor like that [clap] and in two weeks he moved out [laughter].
WW: [Laughter] Wow.
RG: Some things are funny. [Laughter]
WW: Yup [laughter], “and in two weeks he moved out”.
Alright that is all the questions I have for you.
WW: Alright, thank you very much for sitting down with me and coming in.
RG: You are very welcome.**