Jay Levinson, August 9th, 2015
He also relays several memories about race relations in Detroit following the unrest – some positive, others less so. He remains optimistic about Detroit’s current “renaissance,” and is happy to see the progress that’s been made in the past decade despite persistent problems.
NL: Today is August 9, 2015, this is the interview of Dr. Jay Levinson by Noah Levinson. We are in West Bloomfield, Michigan, and his interview is for the Detroit 1967 Oral History Project and the Detroit Historical Society.
Jay, can you tell me where and when were you born?
JL: I was born February 18, 1955 in Detroit, Michigan.
NL: I think I knew that [laughter].
JL: Women’s Hospital, which is now Hutzel Hospital.
NL: Okay. And what neighborhood do you first remember living in when you were growing up?
JL: Well I barely remember living in the Dexter-Davison Area on “Lesley.” But we moved from there when I was about four or five years old, so I have very vague memories of that. In 1959 or 60 we moved to Northwest Detroit on Wisconsin–sort of the Bagley School neighborhood near Wyoming and Curtis.
NL: Can you tell me a little bit more about that neighborhood?
JL: Yes, it was a lovely neighborhood. It was small, single-family homes, sidewalks, very mature trees, lot of kids our age–so lots of games, baseball games, hockey games against the step. There was an ally between the streets, so there was stuff to do in the alleys, there was stuff to do in the backyards. Lots of kids. It was a very fun place to grow up. Went to Bagley School, was able to walk to school because it was about four or five blocks away. Rode our bikes on the sidewalks in the neighborhood. I just remember it being a very safe, easy place to live.
We also had the unique circumstance that our next-door neighbor, shortly after we moved in, was elected mayor of the city of Detroit.
JL: And he continued to live there for the next couple of years, and so I was friends with his kids. So other than the fact that our next-door neighbor was the mayor of the City of Detroit, Jerome P. Cavanagh, it was sort of a standard, not very outstanding neighborhood.
NL: Do you remember anything specific about him and his family, other than being mayor of one of the biggest cities in the country?
JL: Oh I remember lots about his family. He had seven children. He was a young lawyer and he was just a young attorney, family man, father. Then all of the sudden, he ran for mayor, and then all of the sudden, he won election, but he was still my friend’s dad. There were seven kids, and his three oldest sons were sort of around my age and we played football together in the backyard, and hung out together. I remember going to their birthday parties and they at my birthday party. I remember specifically [laughter] one birthday party at a bowling alley, and Mark Cavanagh–who is the oldest who I think is a judge now–he accidentally threw his ball over the median between the two lanes and it rammed into the automatic pick-up device–
JL: – and broke it knocked it right off, and we were all so scared that he was going to be in big trouble, well then somebody said, “Well, his father’s the mayor,” so all of the sudden everything was going to be okay. [Laughter.]
JL: It was all very happy memories. They moved before we moved, they ended up moving to a larger home not that far away. This was before the Manoogian Mansion was officially enlisted as the mayoral home in the city of Detroit. I think that came under the next mayor, Roman Gribbs, I think that’s when the Manoogian Mansion was donated to become the mayoral home.
NL: Did you go to school with the Cavanagh kids?
JL: No. The Cavanagh kids went to private, Catholic school, they went to an elementary school called Gesu, which was associated with the U of D High, and the Gesu Parish, and it was really a very unique environment. I didn’t know much about it other than the fact that they and several of the other Catholic neighbors were there. It was a big Irish-Catholic enclave in the city of Detroit, and there were a lot of civic leaders who were a part of that: William [unintelligible] was a district attorney in Wayne County for many, many years, and there were a number of judges. Frank Kelley was the Attorney general for the state of Michigan, and these guys were all in the same sort of club: they all went to the University of Detroit, which was a Catholic University, and they all went to University of Detroit law school, and they all lived within the Gesu Parish, and went to church together and sent their kids to the school and U of D High School together, and most of the rest of the kids in the neighborhood went to the public schools. So we did not go to school together.
NL: Speaking of school, can you describe your elementary and middle school–your early education experience in Detroit Public?
JL: So Detroit Public, I was there from kindergarten through fourth grade. At that point we moved to Southfield. It was, I would say, predominately white, and a good proportion Jewish, and most of my friends happened to be Jewish, but there were some that weren’t. Most of my friends at school, obviously the Cavanagh boys were Catholic. And then there was the African-American population sort of started to grow a little bit, but even by the time we moved out, I would say it was probably 30% African-American, 70% Caucasian at that point in time at Bagley, maybe 60/40.
NL: Do you remember there being any kind of noticeable racial tensions between white and Black families in the neighborhood?
JL: Zero. I don’t remember any racial tensions whatsoever. I remember playing with African-American kids, and I don’t remember any name-calling on the playground. There was a couple of African-American teachers; I had one as my second grade teacher. I don’t remember any, any racial issues whatsoever when I lived in that neighborhood. Nothing.
NL: How would you describe the socioeconomic class of that neighborhood?
JL: It was probably middle-class. Most likely at this point, I would say it was probably anywhere from lower middle class to upper middle class, there were no really wealthy people, there were a few people that seemed to have a few more dollars. There were no really poor people, everyone kept their homes up really nice. Everybody had cars that were running, there was certainly no urban blight. It was a very prosperous, vibrant neighborhood. There were block parties once or twice a year, it was a really good place. Even with the integration of African-American families, I didn’t feel or hear any racial tensions whatsoever at that point in time.
NL: Do you remember, or do you think even looking back now, was that neighborhood representative of the different neighborhoods around Detroit?
JL: I have no idea, that was the only neighborhood that I really knew. Obviously, being older and more knowledgeable now, I recognize that there was white flight going on, and that we moved from the Dexter-Davison area to further away Northwest Detroit and then in late-1964 we moved to Southfield and part of that was the whole migration of white Detroit and white Jewish Detroit to the Northwest, and part of that I’m sure was motivated by racial differences.
JL: But at the time I didn’t know that, I was never told that by my parents.
NL: So you were living in Southfield in 1967?
JL: Yes, we moved to Southfield in December ’64. We had a family business in Oak Park. Moved from Dexter-Davison area probably around 1960 or the late 50s to Oak Park. I was involved to some extent from age eight or nine going to the store, helping out a little bit. I do remember making the drive to Oak Park, and then Southfield was just a few miles to the west of where the store was.
From a racial standpoint, I remember driving through Royal Oak Township, which was sort of part of Oak Park, where there were these horrendous slums that looked like they were probably old World War II barracks, where there was very poor, all-Black, neighborhoods. I just remember as a kid really being amazed, almost traumatized just looking at those homes and the level of poverty that seemed to be there. That was the first exposure that I had to seeing really poor, Black living conditions. Interestingly, that was in suburban Detroit, it wasn’t in Detroit, it was just north of Eight Mile.
NL: Mmhmm. And that’s in what’s now Oak Pak?
JL: Oak Park is an incorporated city within the township of Royal Oak Township and Royal Oak is another city within there, so this was part of the unincorporated township–Ferndale’s in there, and I think Hazel Park–I just think that this was a part that was not incorporated, so it was referred to as Royal Oak Township, but I believe there are still parts of that area that are still considered Royal Oak Township that has its own police force separate from the municipalities.
I remember that those were torn down at some point, and some government-subsidized housing was put up that was much nicer, was much more livable. I do remember feeling good about seeing that happening, because it was deplorable to see what the people were living in in those dilapidated structures.
NL: Can you tell me more about your parents’ business and your role that you had when you were working there?
JL: Well it was a men’s clothing store, but also tailoring, alterations, they took in dry cleaning, they rented tuxedoes. It was sort of a neighborhood kind of shop, mostly Jewish clientele, but not strictly. My role started off picking up pins off the floor with a magnet when I was eight years old, and it sort of expanded to selling suits when I was a teenager. To the point where when I was 16 and my brother was 19, our parents left for a month to go to Israel, and my brother–who you know is your father–
JL: –ran the business for a month and made payroll. One of us was there for opening and closing every single day. We’d have to sometimes come in in the middle of the night if the alarm went off, and the police would call us and say “the burglar alarm is going off,” I remember driving over there and being scared as hell in the middle of the night to see if something had happened. So we had full responsibility by the time we were fairly young. That was quite educational. Our clientele was sort of a mixed clientele, but mostly people in a similar socioeconomic bracket that I was in. Interestingly enough, over the course of the years, when I went to medical school, became a doctor, and started practicing medicine, a number of those old customers at our store became my patients [laughter].
JL: So I took care of them as a young kid waiting on them at a store, and I took care of them–there’s probably still a few that take care of as patients all these years later.
NL: I don’t think I’ve heard that story before about you guys being in charge of it. So they were visiting Sandy and Dani in Israel?
JL: It was actually Sandy’s wedding. Marty and I did not go to the wedding, our brother Sandy got married, and we couldn’t all leave, and so we missed the wedding, and we stayed back and we ran the business.
NL: Hhmm. Was this during the summer, then? Since you guys weren’t in school?
JL: It was during the summer. As a matter of fact, they just had their anniversary this past week, so it was August 3, and that was 1971. It was a few years after the riots.
NL: Yeah. So, speaking of that…
NL: Since you got on the topic. Can you tell me about how you first heard about or noticed the violence and the rioting that was happening in July of 1967?
JL: Well my best friend, Paul Zeman, had his bar mitzvah, and the bar mitzvah party was Saturday night in the backyard of his house, which was right behind my house. So we celebrated all night, and that was the night the riots started, sometime in the middle of the night when the blind pig was raided at 12th Street and Clairmount, but we weren’t aware of it. You know the social media wasn’t there, the next day was a Sunday, maybe we weren’t watching the news.
I remember then not hearing anything about it over the course of the day, and then we had out of town company, a relative from Kenosha, Wisconsin, relatives who came in. We went out, Sunday was the day off from the store, so that was always our day off, and Sunday night we always went out to dinner. So we went to one of our favorite eating spots that happened to be in Detroit at the corner of Wyoming and Seven Mile, called Darby’s, which was a Jewish-style eatery, popular restaurant. Went there at dinner time, we were all at the table eating, and then people were kind of coming in and out and there were whispers and hushes and all of the sudden somebody came up to us and said, “Well didn’t year hear there are race riots that are going on?” I thought that was kind of a funny term, “race riots.” Then we heard there was looting going on a mile away–Seven and Livernois was a big commercial area, lots of stores, and apparently the rioting had spread from that inner city 12th Street and Clairmount area out to Seven and Livernois, and at that point I guess stores were being looted, so they rushed us out of the restaurant and said “You should all leave now.” So we left before we finished dinner. And my father was in a wheelchair, so getting him into the van in a wheelchair we had to get him up the ramp and we kind of rushed to do that. And I remember the proprietors at Darby’s restaurant locking the doors, not only locking them, but they had screwdrivers and they were screwing in some sort of security devices so they made sure nobody could break in through the doors. So they were quite concerned that their place was going to get nailed. We left in a big hurry, and I think I can remember smelling some smoke in the air, so there were fires that were close enough that it was real, it was palpable, it was smell-able. We hightailed it back to Southfield to safety. Then started watching the news and hearing about what was going on.
The next big thing about the rioting was that there was concerns–Eight Mile was sort of the impregnable border, the northern border of Detroit–and our store was on Nine Mile, Coolidge and Nine Mile, which was Schaefer and Nine Mile, so it was only a mile away from the border of the city. I know that was before the National Guard was called in. The Oak Park Police set up barricades at all the major intersections at Eight Mile, probably had armed people there ready to start shooting anybody who wanted to come north of Eight Mile and try to loot the businesses. My parents were concerned that the store would get looted, so decided to take on the project of emptying all the expensive merchandise–like the suits and the tuxedoes and the sport coats–and bring them to our house which was a few miles west of there in Southfield near Nine Mile and Evergreen which we felt would be a safer location, people weren’t going to be coming in houses, they were going into stores mostly. We actually enlisted a bunch of kids who were friends of ours from the neighborhood in Southfield, it was summertime so nobody was in school, and the kids weren’t working. So we set up caravans and I remember going to the store in a van and other vehicles and just loading up as many suits as we could into the van, and driving back home, and then just piling up on the floor of our living room. I think it took the good part of the day, and we got all the expensive merchandise out of there to safety.
I do remember driving down Nile Mile Road, in that stretch of Nine Mile between Southfield and Greenfield, there was a lot of empty land besides Northland Shopping Center, so you could sort of see the horizon pretty well once you got into Oak Park east of Greenfield, there was a lot of homes that blocked the view. You sort of had a long horizon view to the south, and I could just see the entire sky filled with smoke. It happened to be in 1967 when one of the big songs on the radio, and I heard it a couple times when we were driving, was “Come on baby, light my fire” by The Doors–
NL: Oh! [Laughter.]
JL: –And it just seemed really appropriate that “Light My Fire” was sort of the theme song, in my mind, of the riots.
I believe the Oak Park police prevented anybody, and then the National Guard, prevented anybody from penetrating out into suburbia, so the riots never spread there. And then eventually when things quieted down, we moved everything back to the store.
I remember watching the news and Mayor Cavanagh, who was our old friend/neighbor, was embattled and under a lot of criticism by the news media and Lou Gordon who was sort of one of his nemesis who was a local news commentator that was always saying nasty things about Cavanagh. I remember getting really angry hearing that, because he was my friend or whatever I thought, I was always trying to stick up for him. He seemed to try to be doing the right thing at the time, but it was difficult.
I can’t remember exactly how much later, but it was certainly within a week or two, my mother deciding that maybe we should go take a tour of the riot area. And the National Guard was still in town. As a matter of fact, I’m not sure if it was just the National Guard, it might have even been US Army troops called in. There was definitely a lot of armored vehicles. So we took a tour down into the inner city to where things started and it was just mind-boggling. I was 12 years old and just seeing city blocks that were still smoldering, and just leveled, nothing left. The devastation of certain areas in town. This was sort of the neighborhood where my parents first moved into when they first came to the country after World World II, when they were refugees from the Holocaust in the late ’40s. So those neighborhoods that they had lived in then, not far from the Dexter-Davison neighborhood and 12th Street, which is where it started, those were the most severely damaged. I remember an entire city block on 12th Street between Philadelphia and Pingree, I just remember looking at those street signs, completely being gone. It was crazy. So that was quite a significant, traumatic memory. I was appreciative that my mother had the courage to take us down there and drive around. It was probably shortly after they had opened up the roads to traffic. And as I said there were still a lot of armored vehicles, and fully-uniformed, helmeted soldiers with their arms in hand patrolling the area. So that was pretty crazy.
NL: Did you at age 12, then, have an inkling as to the motivations and the reasons behind why this caused–beyond the raiding of bling pig, what allowed it to get big?
JL: Look, I was old enough to understand that there were racial tensions throughout the country, that there was rioting in maybe Cleveland and Watts the year before.
NL: Yeah. Newark.
JL: Newark. I was aware of Martin Luther King and the marches on Selma in the years before that. I was not unaware of the Civil Rights Movement and racial tensions. I didn’t feel any of them, like I said myself. Of course once we were in Southfield, there were very few African-Americans living there at the time. By the time I graduated high school, it was just a handful at Southfield High, although it quickly changed after that. Regardless, I certainly had plenty of exposure and just never felt any tension, but obviously there was a lot of tension in places that I didn’t really feel or understand. But I witnessed the abject poverty that the people in Royal Oak Township were living under, and I could see how people would be angry and jealous and spiteful and that would trigger emotions.
I was aware of some of what was going on with the Detroit Police back then, and I think it’s similar to what’s happening with the police nowadays. I think some of those things haven’t changed. I know that the Detroit Police Force at that time was fairly white, now it’s mostly Black, and that there was a lot of racism that was brought on from the police department. So I did understand what was going on and why people were angry, but it was still very illustrated to me, to actually see some of these things–the smoke, the fire, the glow of the fire above the city, the aftermath of the devastation, physical devastation of these buildings that were completely destroyed. But it was quite an eye-opening and enlightening experience.
I do want to share one other story from a year later. Despite the fact that there were these riots and despite the fact that it seemed like Detroit was a pretty risky place to go, a year later the Detroit Tigers were in the midst of their 1968 pennant-winning, World Series-winning season. The city rallied behind them, and I think that was a rallying point, it united a lot of people. And incidentally I spent a fair amount of time at Tiger’s Stadium over the course of those years before and after the riot and being exposed to whites and Blacks and everybody rooting for the same team, which was always fun. Detroit always had Black players, they did from the time that I can remember. So that was kind of a uniting experience. Denny McLain was in the process of having a remarkable Cy Young-winning year that year. In early September I believe he was slated to pitch a game that he could win his 30th game, which he did, and incidentally no one’s won 30 games since that time.
JL: And my friend Paul Zeman–the one whose bar mitzvah we were talking about, occurred the night that the riots started–he and I decided we’d go to the Tiger game, and his mother dropped us off at Northland Shopping Center in Southfield, because we were 14 and 13 at the time, and we got on the DSR bus, and we took the bus down to Tiger Stadium–I think it was a Dexter bus. There was one bus to get us to Tiger Stadium, I don’t remember if we had tickets or if we bought tickets, got general admission tickets, but we probably just ended up buying general admission tickets for like two bucks or whatever, and we witnessed Denny McLain’s victory, 30th victory. And then we left, and there were no cell phones, and the plan was just to get back to Northland and his mom was going to pick us up at the bus stop. We started asking where the bus stop is, and we were assisted by some people who told us to get on the bus, and the bus driver from the first bus took us from Tiger Stadium and dropped us off, and said you have to transfer buses here, so he dropped us off on a corner, and it was summertime, it was still light out, it was a day game. We got off, here we are, these two little 14 and 13 year old kids standing on the corner and I look up at the street signs and we were at the corner of 12th Street and Clairmount, which is right where the riots started.
JL: A mere 14 months earlier. I said, “Paul, look at the street signs, do you realize where we are?” [Laughter.] It was somewhat intimidating, we looked around, and here are these two little white Jewish kids from the suburb surrounded by African-American faces only, but I remember some older African-American gentleman coming over to us–I don’t remember how old he was, but I thought he was older but he was probably in his 40s or 50s–and he just said, “Are you guys okay?” And we just said, “Yeah, we’re just waiting for the bus, we were told this is a bus stop,” and he said, “Yeah, this is the bus stop.” And he actually stood there and waited with us until the bus came to protect us just in case–
JL: –because he could see we were nervous, just in case anybody was going to come hassle us, which nobody did, but it was still somewhat intimidating. I just always remember the goodness of the heart of that stranger that shepherded us onto that bus and then we were able to travel back to up Northland and somehow meet his mother and got back home. I do remember being scared just because we were right there. I wasn’t horribly scared, and this guy certainly made us feel more comfortable. That’s another little story that sticks in my memory that’s related to the riot a year later, in the aftermath.
At that time, everybody was excited about the Tigers and about Denny McLain winning the 30th game and we were all together on that.
JL: It’s amazing how sports brought the city together more quickly than it would’ve had that season not happened.
NL: Do you remember having conversations with the man who waited with you, or he just hung around with you?
JL: It was superficial conversation. It was just clear that he was asking us what we were doing there, and we explained to him we went to the game and we were going home and we that were told to wait on the bus stop and he just took it upon himself to be responsible and he just sort of talked to us. I don’t remember the nature of the conversation specially, but he was very calming, reassuring, and I felt good having somebody looking out for us who was not going to let anybody who might have some nefarious ideas of what to do with a couple of young white kids from the suburbs do anything. I don’t remember any specifics of our conversation.
NL: What do you remember at the bus stop, when you were waiting there? Compared to when you went on the drive with your family just a week after, how did things look or sounds or feel compared to that a little more than a year before?
JL: That’s an interesting question. I think it looked more normal. I think there had been some rebuilding. There was still a lot of empty spaces, there were spaces that were never rebuilt, they may have never been rebuilt to this day if you drive around down there, I’m not sure.
NL: Yeah. It’s still pretty empty around there.
JL: Yeah. But it didn’t look as desolate. Certainly, there wasn’t the presence of armies or soldiers or National Guardsmen. There wasn’t the smell of smoke still hanging around in the air, it just seemed like a normal place but definitely inner city, urban, and potentially dangerous, and I wouldn’t have wanted to be there after dark.
NL: Overall, how did your experiences of living through that time when there was rioting in the city, how did that change your overall perception of the city of Detroit, if at all?
JL: Well, it did open my eyes to the fact that Detroit had its problems. Before that, I always viewed downtown as being a place to go that was kind of fun and exciting, then it became a place that was a little bit more dangerous, and something to be careful about.
My high school experience and after that was all white suburbia, but then I went to Wayne State undergrad and med school and I ended up driving downtown to the Wayne State campus every day, and spending my college years there, so that once again I developed a comfort probably more than a lot of other suburban kids, because most of my friends ended up going to the University of Michigan or Michigan State and didn’t have that experience. Then I actually moved into Detroit when I went to medical school and lived in Palmer Park, and lived in a very mixed area.
I can share one racial experience that I had when I lived in Palmer Park [laughter]. I played a lot of basketball in high school and in college, and even into med school–it was one of my outlets. There was an outdoor, full-court basketball court in Palmer Park right on the northern edge of the Park, about a block from my apartment. That basketball court, at that point I was probably the only white person that played on it. I was a decent player I wasn’t a great player, but I was okay, I was big, six-foot-two, so I had some height. These were full-court games, the nets were made out of fence–like metal, they weren’t nets. It was fun, and there was a group of guys, and I didn’t really get to know them personally, but I knew them basketball-wise from these pick-up games, and they knew me, and they used to call me “Hondo,” because that was John Havlicek’s nickname, and he was one of the only good players in the League at that time–
JL: So I was Hondo in that game. I did that for most of one summer season, and then my second year of med school, the springtime came and I went to play basketball in the spring when the weather was starting to break, and I was all excited to get outside and play ball. And there was a different group of people around–some of the same people, some different ones–and I was the only white guy there. There were two guys that kind of started getting into a little melee, and they just kept jawing at each other, and pretty soon it came to blows, and then all of the sudden when it came to blows everybody who was standing around and playing had a weapon in their hand. [Laughter.] There were no guns, in this day and age there would have been guns–but there was knives, and somehow these guys had the wherewithal to find a board or something they could use as a weapon, and I’m looking like “What the hell am I doing here?” So I just backed away quietly, and as soon as I got safe enough distance, ran to my apartment and called the police–
JL: –then drove by about 15-20 minutes later. It was all broken up, I don’t think anything horrible happened, but it just brought to mind the fact that there was a different mindset that some individuals who were there, different cultural background, and the idea of getting into a fight when playing a pickup basketball game just would never cross my mind other than maybe shoving somebody for fouling you or something like that. The idea of pulling out a knife just wouldn’t have crossed my mind as being that important.
JL: So that was somewhat of a traumatic and illustrative experience, and made me realize that I didn’t want to be doing that anymore, so I stopped playing there. I was used to playing with African-Americans because I went to Wayne State and I played at the Matthaei building gym all the time, and oftentimes was the only white guy in the game. And I continued to do that I believe, after that, but it was clearly at a municipal park where anybody could show up where I realized there were dangerous elements to that lifestyle there as well.
NL: Was that apartment in Palmer Park, is that the last time you lived in Detroit?
JL: Yes. Then I got married at the end of medical school and rented an apartment in Southfield and then bought a house in Southfield and then bought a house in Farmington Hills. So yeah, that was the last time I actually resided in Detroit.
But, again, I’ve tried to maintain my support of the city of Detroit and its current renaissance. My most recent traumatic experience, you’re probably aware of, in February of this year at my sixtieth birthday weekend we went down to eat at Gold Cash Gold in Corktown, and parked on Michigan Avenue right on the street. I was all excited to go to our friend Eli Boyer’s restaurant and he fed us with a great meal, and then I came out and my car was gone. [Laughter.]
JL: And Risa says, “I’m sure you probably forgot where you parked it.” And I’m pushing the thing that sets the horn to go off, there’s no car there. I knew exactly where I parked, it was right on Michigan Avenue. It was stolen, and that was another traumatic experience in 2015.
I had the exposure to the Detroit Police, and they came by, and it was really kind of traumatic because they really didn’t want to send anybody out. When I called, they said they won’t send a squad car out for an episode like that. They said you have to go to the station. I said, “Well how am I going to get to the station? I don’t have a car.” [Laughter.]
JL: I said, “Where is the station?” And they said, “You’ll have to figure it out.” They wouldn’t even tell me where the station was. It was really bad. But Eli, who owned the restaurant, he had the cell phone number of a police officer who was sort of a liaison, called him, and then they ended up sending out a squad car, and the guy came and took my report. But it turns out that after he took my report, he was going to give me the police file number afterwards, he called me on his cell phone. Fifteen minutes later when I was halfway up the Lodge freeway he called and said “You gotta come back because you have to come to the precinct.” I ended up going to the first precinct down on Atwater, and having to fill out a paper report on a third generation Xerox copy.
JL: I realized that the Detroit Police Department was in some serious trouble. They didn’t have enough staffing to be able to send squad cars out for car thefts, and they had this paperwork that was just unbelievably antiquated, and their resources were limited, and the city was still a place that harbored dangerous events that can happen to you. Fortunately, nobody accosted me with a gun and threatened me, it was all just a piece a property that was missing, and they found my car six blocks away the next night. Basically all they did was take the wheels, left everything else in place, and the car was repaired and it was not that big a deal in the end but it was still traumatic and it made me realize that even though the city of Detroit is undergoing a very nice renaissance, there’s a lot of young people that are moving in, and there’s some gentrification, that there’s still criminal activity that makes it a somewhat dangerous place to spend a lot of time in and you’re taking certain chances there that you wouldn’t take in the suburbs.
In fact, another point that it hit home was that when I was sitting in the precinct waiting for them to finish up my report, one of the officers was just sitting there eating a doughnut–which is kind of like something out of–
NL: A little cliché.
JL: Yeah, very cliché. And then I realized that I’d left my registration and an extra set of house keys in the console of my car, so that whoever stole my car was going to have my address–because I had my registration in there–and my house key. [Laughter.] So I said, “Holy shit, they can come to my house and rob my house!” so I immediately called the West Bloomfield Police Department from there, and explained the situation, and they said “Don’t worry, Dr. Levinson, we will send a patrol car around several times tonight just to make sure your house is secure.” And this police officer eating a doughnut was witnessing this conversation, and he goes, “They’re going to do that? I can’t believe there going to do that.” [Laughter.] “That would never happen here.” I said, “Well, I guess that’s the difference between living with a suburban police force and your police force. Unfortunately you guys don’t have the resources to be that helpful and that reassuring.” Another point hammered home.
NL: Yeah. So I’m guessing your answer to this next questions might be different now, but before this whole incident from earlier this year, in the last 30-some-odd-years that you’ve been living in different towns of Oakland County, had you ever considered or looked into moving back into the city of Detroit somewhere in that span?
JL: No. I don’t think I ever considered living in Detroit. I’ve never feared going into Detroit for entertainment, to go to restaurants, to go to shows. I’m a supporter of the city of Detroit. I am a bike rider over the last 10 years, and over the last two or three years really ride very avidly and have done numerous rides from the suburbs into Detroit, down into Belle Isle, around Belle Isle, through the areas of urban blight, through Highland Park, on a mountain bike, on a road bike, had flat tires there that I’ve had to fix, never by myself but usually in a group of at least a number of people. I’ve never felt fearful.
Actually riding a bike through the city of Detroit now is great because the people who live in the areas that see you riding through, are very supportive, very, very happy to have you there, they wave to you, they say “Hi,” they give you a thumbs up. You just really feel welcomed as a cyclist in the city of Detroit by the population that lives there as opposed to some of the places I ride my bicycle out in the suburbs and even country areas out in outer Oakland County and Livingston County where people say, “Fuck you, get off the road.”
JL: And worse than that.
JL: Those are mostly white people who drive pick-up trucks and who are nasty and angry and anti-cyclist, and the people in the city of Detroit are just delighted that you’re riding a bicycle through their neighborhood. That’s the impression I get.
NL: Do you have any inkling why there’s that extreme difference in mindset?
JL: This is probably a separate issue, it’s a cyclist issue, cyclists versus motorist issue, and there’s a lot of anger between motorists and cyclists and the cyclists will get angry at motorists, sharing the road. I think that for whatever reason the population that drives pick-up trucks and goes hunting who live out there, they don’t like guys wearing lycra and spandex on their little bicycles hogging up the roadways and keep preventing them from driving as fast as they want to drive and have to wait and skirt around you and be careful. Whereas in the city of Detroit most people you’re seeing are on foot, although the motorists in the city of Detroit have always been very nice too. I’ve never run into an angry motorist in the city of Detroit, angry at a cyclist. Maybe they’re not is as much a hurry to get where they’re going.
JL: Interesting question though.
NL: Yeah. Do you have any other thoughts or memories of 1967 you want to share or the lasting effects of that time that you’ve taken with you and the rest of your life?
JL: I think I’ve pretty much shared all the stories that I can remember that pertain, and even then some. I really don’t have anything else that I can think of.
It certainly was a very seminal event in my development, the Detroit riots. It’s just one of the those things that you think of the John F. Kennedy assassination, and then the Detroit riots as being two of the very traumatic events that shaped–the milestones of your lifetime and that you’ll never forget where you were, what you did, how it affected you. I’m sure that’s the case with many people.
In many ways we’ve taken a lot of strides forward, and in many cases there’s still a lot of crime that’s going on in those areas, and there’s still a lot of racism that permeates. I find it sad that Detroit is as racially polarized a city in my mind as any city in the United States, partly developed by Coleman Young when he sort of drew the stripe in the sand and said that Eight Mile is the dividing border, you guys stay north of Eight Mile and we’ll stay south of Eight Mile. In many ways, I think his years of being in charge of the city of Detroit was very important for the development of African-Americans feeling empowered, that they’re taking over the leadership of the city of Detroit, and that was just part of the growing pains, and I understand that. Somehow, that has polarized the city to a great extent and I think we’re starting to finally see some thawing of the racial polarization that was brought about then with this new renaissance, with Duggan becoming mayor, and with acceptance of racial differences maybe being a little bit more prevalent now than it was 10 years ago, 20 years ago.
It’s sad. Sad that Detroit has that history because it’s probably unnecessary, but at the same time, it’s part of the reality of life.
NL: With that in mind, my last question today is what are your hopes and your predictions of what the city of Detroit might experience in the coming decades?
JL: I think that the movement we’re seeing now is real. I think there’s been enough of a push where what we’re seeing in terms of the redevelopment of some of the areas of downtown, I think that it will continue to take on that life. I think there’s enough young people who are really enthusiastic about making it a real city, and living their lives in a real city-like experience. In order for the city to really flourish like New York City or Chicago or other big cities where there’s been gentrification and sort of renewal and people come around and come back together, live in areas that were once all-Black and now can become mixed and can prosper from an economic standpoint will require more work and more courage from a lot of people to say, “Okay, well, we’re going to move back here, we’re going to do something about the crime problem, we’re going to do something about the schools.” The infrastructure has to improve, the school system has to improve.
I believe everything in life is cyclical, and I think Detroit just was undergoing a very prolonged cycle. I think the economy in the city is a little bit more diversified that it was once upon a time and not just relying on the automobile industry, and those are all things that will help improve things. At my workplaces that I’ve experienced–the hospitals–racial relations are perfectly great and fine, and I don’t think that is as much of an issue. I think once people live close by each other and work together, and they recognize each other as on the same side, then those issues become very, very minor. I think that eventually there is hope, but there’s just so many things that still have to be overcome for Detroit to really get to where some of these other cities are.
NL: Well hopefully we all get there, get to see that through.
JL: Yeah. I’d like to see it in my lifetime. I’m happy to see what’s happened in the last 10 years though. I didn’t think I’d see even this much so far.
NL: Well thank you so much for sharing your stories and memories with us.