Kenneth Hafeli, October 12th, 2015
JC: Today is Monday, October 12th, 2015. We are at Rocky’s Family Dining here in Westland, Michigan and I’m speaking with Kenneth Hafeli, Ken?
JC: Ken Hafeli, who lived in Detroit, grew up in Detroit in the 1960s.
JC: Thank you very much, Ken for sitting down with me today.
KH: You’re welcome. This will be fun.
JC: Okay [laughter]. I wanted to start out with a little bit of background information. If you could give me a little bit about where you grew up in Detroit, maybe where you lived in July of 1967. Do you remember your street address?
KH: [Unclear] I was born in Detroit, June 6, 1952 and I lived on the same street, Rolyat (R-O-L-Y-A-T) for the first 26 years. First at 8181 Rolyat, then when I was nine months old, we moved to 8055 Rolyat. Both houses were built by my grandfather, when he had a truck farm at Seven Mile and Outer Drive and Van Dyke and that became the Hafeli subdivision in about 1915. He built most of the houses on Rolyat and the street next to it, Sirron. He also sold property to the Archdiocese, well it was the Diocese of Detroit back then, and the church I grew up at was Our Lady Queen of Heaven, was four houses away from our house. He sold five acres to the Diocese to make the church. The church opened in 1929. That’s kind of — well, I went to grade school at Our Lady Queen of Heaven, High School at De La Salle in Detroit when it was still out by City Airport, and after that I went off to college. I moved out of Detroit in 1979 when I got married.
JC: What did your father do?
KH: My dad was a federal employee. He worked at the Detroit Tank Arsenal from 1952 to 1982. He also owned a gas station which was right on the corner of the street that I lived at. The gas station was razed in 1970 and replaced by a restaurant in 1972 where I worked as a dishwater and a short order cook for about two years.
JC: In ’72?
KH: Yes, actually not even that long, about a year.
JC: What do you remember, let’s backup, before we get to 1967. What do you remember about growing up in Detroit in the 1960s, the early-mid 1960s, as a young man, a teenager? Do you have any recollections of what that?
KH: It was a lot different. I mentioned going to church right down the street. There were 57 houses on Rolyat. I would guess 50 of them were Catholic and attended church at Queen of Heaven. We had six masses on Sunday, so our house was always blocked in every Sunday until about 2 o’clock when the 12:45 mass ended. Definitely a white neighborhood; the nearest black neighborhood would have been south of Six Mile, which is a mile and half away from us. Every day during the summer we went to Lipke Pool. There was four swimming periods, each about an hour and half long, with an hour break in-between so they could clean the pool, and we there probably from 9 o’clock in the morning until 7 o’clock at night. Our parents always knew where we were, because we were at the pool, or playing baseball.
JC: Or, playing baseball, I remember you telling that story.
KH: So, then we always had place on the corner, across Outer Drive and Conner, which we, my brothers and his friends, had dubbed “Eagle’s Nest” many, many years earlier and if we weren’t swimming at Lipke Pool, we were playing army and there would be six or seven of us out there. The place was pitted with foxholes and you couldn’t walk without danger of falling in something, some booby trap or some sort. That was right across from Holy Cross Hospital, which is no longer — the hospital is still there, but it’s not what it was when we were kids. The same thing for our street was about the same for the streets on either side of us. It was an area called “Polish Grosse Pointe.”
JC: Polish Grosse Pointe?
KH: Polish Grosse Pointe, because it was where all the affluent Polish lawyers and doctors all lived before they could afford to move to the real Grosse Pointe. It was part of the Van Dyke/Seven Mile area. I know you want me to tell the story of Northeast Detroit Polacks versus the Warren Hillbillies, we were a half-mile from Warren, so at Lipke Park there was softball games occasionally between groups from both sides of Eight Mile. The stigma of Eight Mile wasn’t the same in the 1960s as it was later.
JC: I’d like to come back to that too, later when we talk about—
KH: Sure, although when Coleman Young was elected in 1974 he did, that’s when the Eight Mile stigma really began. It was a very quiet neighborhood. Everybody had their windows open in the summertime, no one had air conditioning, you could walk from one end of the street to the other and never miss a pitch on the baseball game because all of the windows were open and Ernie Harwell’s voice was coming through every window down the street. And we were on our bikes all day long, if we weren’t swimming. When the streetlights came on, the neighborhood got really quiet because everybody went home. Detroit back then was so much different, people — when I went to De La Salle, I hitchhiked every day. I would walk from our house about a mile to my friend’s house and we would stand on the corner of Outer Drive and Seven Mile Road and hitchhike to get to De La Salle, which was like three miles down the road. Well Outer Drive turned into Conner and it was right across from the airport. We were fortunate that we got picked up by the same people all the time, so we never felt threatened by anybody and then on the way back we would have to walk about two blocks to where Outer Drive again turned into Conner. Conner went straight and Outer Drive came off from the right and there was a stop sign, because people would have to stop and it made it easier from them to pick us up.
[Noise from the restaurant staff]
JC: Okay, there we go
KH: A lot of the time the same people would pick us up.
JC: So you were hitchhiking to school every day?
KH: Yeah, one other hitchhiking story, this is right after I graduated from high school. We were going up to Metro Beach/Metro Park. I was going to meet my friends. I was standing on the corner of Eight Mile and Van Dyke with my thumb out when a Detroit police car pulled up. I’m thinking, “Oh, geez, what did I do here?” and he just said, he rolled down, this is when they had two to a car, maybe they still do, I don’t know, but the one on the passenger side said, “Where are you going?” I said, “I’m trying to get out to Metro Beach,” he said, “Get in, I can give you a ride to Groesbeck and Eight Mile,” which is like three miles up the road. It was sort of weird, in those days even the cops picked you up when you were hitchhiking and gave you rides.
JC: I was going to ask you about that, it also speaks to what I wanted to talk about. You described your neighborhood at the time as predominantly, or exclusively white —
KH: Exclusively. White Catholic
JC: White, Catholic, middle class, upper middle class. What was the relationship with police officers in the community? I mean, pick you up and give you a ride.
KH: Well, besides, the doctors and lawyers, we also had police officers. Three doors away from us was Mr. Griffin, who was known in the neighborhood as a policeman, who at one time was head of the Detroit Motorcycle Unit, or was heavily involved in it. I remember one day we heard the rumble of motorcycles and there must have been twenty of them coming down our street and parked in front of his house, so it was — my uncle was a Detroit police lieutenant, as nice as Mr. Griffin was, my uncle was not the kind of person a black person wanted to meet at any time of the day, so he would — so, that’s kind of what, I think the relations with the police department in our area were very good. “Redlining doesn’t exist” they say, but our area code was 48234, our zip code, and you — oh that’s one of the good ones — so that’s kind of how the neighborhood was. Baseball games back in the 1970s started at 8 o’clock. We were 14 - 15 years old would take the Van Dyke/Lafayette bus down to downtown Detroit where we had to transfer to another bus to get out to Tiger Stadium. It was just kids, 14 - 15, no adults, and we would come out, because the game started at 8:00, it didn’t end until 11 or 11:30 and you walk out of the stadium there would be so many people waiting to get on the Michigan bus to go back downtown, we would walk from Tiger Stadium back downtown to, I guess, right now it would be Campus Martius area, it was where the Gayety Theater, the Monroe block was where we stood for the bus. It was torn down in the mid, in the Seventies, and then ride the bus back. So we would get home at 12:30 and my mother would be waiting, reading a book in the living room, didn’t matter when we would get home, my mother would be up reading a really good book.
JC: This is a very good transition to what I wanted to get into, you’re 14 - 15 years old, you and your brothers, your friends, take the bus down to Tigers Stadium, to move into July 1967. You’ve just turned 15 years old, went to De La Salle High School, I guess you’re on summer break at this point. What are you doing that summer? Are you working? Other than going to Tiger baseball games?
KH: Right after, I was a freshman that year, I had just finished my freshman year and right after that we went to, I was in French Club because one of the requirements at De La Salle was foreign language and I took French. The French Club went to Montreal for Expo ’67. So part of June I was, for maybe a week, ten days, we were gone. We took the Brooks Line Bus. Brooks Line was based at a terminal at Harper and St. Cyril, which was actually where my great-grandfather had a house at St. Cyril and Hafeli Street, for that matter, just north of Harper. We went to Montreal for a week and went to Expo ’67 and a few other places, Quebec City and St. Anne-de-Beaupre, because after all it was a Catholic trip, we had to go up there too, which was a pretty cool place anyway. We had 35-40 kids on the bus, every one of us had $20-30 worth of firecrackers stuffed in the bus — which were illegal in Michigan —we came back, we had great fear of what’s going to happen when they search the bus and we’re all going to be busted. Since we had a Christian Brother sitting right up at the front seat of the bus, the customs guy come on and said, “You got anybody on the bus you didn’t have when you left?” and he said, “Nope” and he said, “Okay, you’re free to go.” Totally different experience than you would have fifty years later. About a week after that, I went up to Port Austin for a week with my cousin. After that, not much going on during the summer, we were still hitting the pool, but when you’re 15, you’re almost too cool to do that kind of stuff, because there are so many little kids in the pool. We didn’t have cars yet. Too old to play army, so I don’t know what exactly we did, probably just hanging out. I can’t really recall what exactly we did during the weekday. I do remember Fourth of July we shot off all those fireworks. We had shot a cherry bomb with a slingshot straight up in the air and you could see it sparkling, and my friend is walking, this is right next to Queen of Heaven Church, it would be a vacant area that was part of the church landscape. You could see that sparkling come down right over my friend, and we yelled to get out of the way and the thing blew up about ten feet above him.
JC: Despite being illegal, there was no—
KH: You didn’t see the police around, nobody was complaining, we were only shooting off firecrackers, these days, everybody is shooting off $300 worth of rockets.
[Restaurant background noise]
JC: So, when did you first learn about the riots, the unrest?
KH: It was a Sunday night, as I recall, that things really started turning for the worst. We had a little black and white TV, our only TV was a little portable one in the kitchen, and I’m sure we’re watching Channel 2 News back then. I can’t remember what they called it, but basically it was a minor disturbance when it first started.
JC: This is not long after the Blind Pig?
KH: The Blind Pig, right, which I believe was on a Saturday night. Then by Sunday afternoon, things really started picking up and my brother was at, my other brother, I was talking to him about this yesterday, about what I was going to be doing today, and he said he was at the ball game that day, and you could just look out beyond the stadium and see the smoke all over the place, but that was just the first Sunday. It was later, the next few days, as it escalated, that I was more aware and more involved in one way or another.
JC: Let’s talk about it. In what ways were you involved? What do you recall about—
KH: Well, I can’t remember what day it was when President Johnson called in federal troops to help the National Guard, but they would fly into Selfridge, back then it was still an Air Force base, and then would helicopter to the State Fair Grounds, which was their staging area. Because of where we were at, just south of Eight Mile Road, they basically followed a route that ran south down I-94 to Eight Mile Road, then west, because we would see a dozen or so Hueys flying. It was nighttime, but you could definitely hear them and you could see the lights flashing out as they were heading to the Fair Grounds to get everybody together there. The other thing we would notice during the day, since my dad worked at the tank arsenal, I would be up there every day with my mom, just about, to go pick him up. We used to pick him up on the Van Dyke side of the plant. Although he was an electrical engineer, an electrical engineering technician, he wasn’t involved in the manufacture, per se, rather than the design end of it, mostly reading blue prints and things. On the east side of property was a tank test ground. We used to watch them, while we were waiting to get over to the Van Dyke side, we would just watch those tanks running around the course, going up ramps and things, so I was very familiar with the sound of an M-60 tank and an armored personnel carrier, for that matter. I can remember one day, all of the sudden, we hear this rumble of tanks and armored personnel carriers.
JC: While you’re at home?
KH: Yeah, at home. This is the part that kind of embarrasses me now. All of us kids, and most adults, all race down to the corner of Rolyat and Van Dyke to watch the convoy racing down and of course, we were cheering, and saying some rather nasty things, that, “Go get ‘em” and all that kind of stuff and so —
[Restaurant background noise]
KH: So, “Go get ‘em,” “Go get those guys,” well we didn’t use “guys.” You could look down toward Six Mile Road and there, up to Six Mile Road, now and you could look down Van Dyke and there was a line of smoke roughly from the whole horizon. Most of it seemed to happening on the west side. Well it started at Twelfth Street, not far from the Tiger Stadium, the area, but it did spread to the east side too. It seems to me most of it was west side stuff, but there was a lot of smoke down there. Of course, not being old enough to drive there, we kept our distance, and life seemed to go on pretty much. I mean the pool was closed. There was a rather large sporting goods store right across Van Dyke from our street, Dee’s Sporting Goods. Dee’s was closed because, and actually had guards around it, because they had enough weapons in there to arm a small army. That was one of the cool things, you walk into Dee’s and just see the gun room and all that kind of stuff. So that’s how it really affected our neighborhood.
JC: Do you remember any other reactions of your family, your neighbors at that time?
KH: We were all pretty much the same back then.
JC: What about your parish? You said everybody went to the parish? Do you remember any reaction within the church?
KH: No, not particularly. Again, we were a Polish group, and Polish had their own set of detractors, so if we could find somebody who we thought was farther down the pole than we were, then that made it that much — we were all cheering for the police, we were all cheering for the army. That was the way it was then.
JC: What about in the aftermath of what you saw, what you experienced? Did you find yourself, your family, your neighbors starting to change habits or attitudes? You said you were going down to the ballpark, to the Tigers game.
KH: I think things had changed considerably — When it was over for us, it was over. Even the next year, I think life went back pretty much too normal. Even next year, right after the assassination of Martin Luther King, there was not as a big a flare up, but there was another flare up, right after the assassination. But, even that was April 4, that was right around opening day, and we still went. I went to opening day ’68 and I went to another game, because it was Easter Vacation. I went to another game during that time, and we took the bus both times and even though there was some violence, we were careful, but I don’t think, the danger seemed as great as it had seemed in 1967. Now I was going to talk about my epiphany.
JC: Okay, go ahead.
KH: I mean I had my attitudes, but they changed in 1969. I was between junior and senior years of high school and I had to go to summer school for math, which is not surprising. I went to Osborn High School, a Detroit public school, not far from where I used to hitchhike. That’s in what is now a 48205 zip code, which was considered one of the more dangerous areas of Detroit in 2015. But anyway, it was me, and one other white girl, and about fifteen to twenty black kids, and we got along really well. I mean, I had friends come out of that group and so this isn’t so bad, we can get along, I mean heck, I’m in summer school with them, that doesn’t make me any better, I’m there. So my attitudes started changing, and then when I worked at K-Mart on the east side of Detroit in 1973-1974, most of the crew there was black kids my age, and we all got together, and those two incidents really changed my attitude. When we got married, we moved to Romulus and we bought a house, right after we moved in, the house next to us, moved out in the middle of the night. We’re going, “Uh-oh, there must be a black family moving in next to us,” and I said, “Well, if they can afford to buy a house that I can afford to buy, what’s the problem?” So by the end of the Seventies, I had probably done a 180-degree turn on how I felt, and I think that has continued. One of my best friends in choir is a black guy, wouldn’t have much a choir without him either, he’s a real deep bass, but anyway, so I’ve had friends from here on out. The riot kind of started changing my attitudes more than you would have thought.
JC: So the aftermath of ’67 was almost an awakening for you personally?
KH: Yeah, it was. There are certain people in my family who that hasn’t happened yet, but for me it was quite easy and with my kids’ attitudes are pretty same as mine.
JC: What do you think, you spoke about the legacy of the unrest, the riots of 1967 were personally — what more historically, community-wise, how would assess the legacy more generally for Detroit?
KH: There are a lot things that have happened in Detroit since then that make me sad. I don’t like what’s happened to the inner-city areas. I drive though past the abandoned auto plants and wish that I was born fifty years earlier than I was. When all this was going on, I have a Master’s degree in history, so that’s kind of where that comes from, but we took a tour several years through Henry Ford Museum where we went to Ford sites around the city. You get to Livernois and Warren, and this was where the Lincoln Plant used to be, and you go to Hamtramck and this is where the Dodge Main Plant used to be, and you drive past the Packard Plant and it’s just a derelict, that kind of stuff is hard. The southwest side, the same way, I did an interview with a priest down there, we’re driving down the Clark Road area down there, the southwest side of the city and all the auto plants are gone and so I’m probably wandering off the question, so you should repeat it again.
JC: Well, just to follow-up, so you see some of the racial tension and economic decline or problems that Detroit has faced as intertwined, then?
KH: Well, yeah, because the neighborhood I grew up in, which was 100 percent white from anywhere, almost north of Six Mile all the way to Eight Mile, is now heavily a black neighborhood. Granted, it’s a very stable neighborhood.
JC: Did your parents continue to live there?
KH: They lived there until 1991. That bothered my dad to even move then, because the house he grew up in was right on the corner of Van Dyke and Lance, which is one street over from us. That house was built by his dad. When we were kids, it was owned by J.J. Knapp’s Photo Studio. It’s still there now, although I think it’s empty and another thing, I mentioned earlier my great-grandfather’s house down on St. Cyril and Harper, in 1997 or 1998, I guess it was, for my parent’s fifty-seventh wedding anniversary, we rented a bus and we went down to places where they had grown up. We went to, my mom grew up at Miller and St. Cyril and every time we drive down St. Cyril we’d see the house, well went by there in 1998 and it was gone. My great-grandfather’s first house, which was on Hathon Street, just off of St. Cyril was built in the 1880s and every time we’d drive by we’d see it. 1987, we were down that way, we took our kids to go see their great-great-grandfather’s house, it was gone. My great-grandfather’s beautiful brick house was occupied in 1998 and the people who were there, sitting on the porch, it was a black family, they were perfectly happy to have us come and take pictures on their front lawn, and Hafeli Street is right there, so were telling them the story of Hafeli Street and they knew how to pronounce it after that, but two years ago, Josie, my wife, and I went up there. We were coming back from Belle Isle and we said, “Let’s go up through the old neighborhoods,” and all that was left of my great-grandfather’s house was a shell. The floors were gone. Everything was gone. The only thing that was still there was the front door and the glass on either side of the front door. Why didn’t they take that? So, it was just, everything, that really, I took pictures and posted on Facebook and my sister posted pictures of the way it looked in ’98, and I said do not like this post, do not push like, there is nothing to like about this picture. I was really angry. Can’t blame everybody, but looting is something that happens. We actually took a tour of a copper mine, when my son was starting at Michigan Tech in 2003, and the guy said, “There is 90 percent of the copper is still left in the mines of the Upper Peninsula, but as long as there are people stripping copper out of houses, there is no need, there is no industry for it, there is no reason to open the mines.” That is one of the saddest things about Detroit, is that kind of economic destruction for those kinds of reasons, that’s what bothers me the most about driving around down there.
JC: Despite that, you still say you see yourself as a defender of Detroit; you encountered people, when you went up to college in the UP, when you have traveled extensively?
KH: Always, always
JC: You’ve encountered the negative perceptions of Detroit, but you—
KH: Even the job I have now, I’ve worked for the federal government for 38 years, but about two years after I started working there, before I got married, I was living at home from 1977 until I got married in 1979, and in early 1979, I saw an ad for a job at the Detroit Historical Society. It was to work out at Fort Wayne and I thought, this is what I want to do. This will be fun. I got interviewed by the head of the Society, or the Historical Museum, I think his name was Weeks.
KH: Yeah, I think that was his name. They asked me for ID and I pulled out my driver’s license and because I had just moved to Romulus, there was a sticker on the back of my driver’s license that said I no longer lived in the city of Detroit. Sorry, this interview is over. I was heartbroken; I really was, because I would have moved back to my old neighborhood in a flash. Even though I had a nice house in Romulus, but I could have got a much nicer house in Detroit for less money or about the same about of money, and I wanted to save that neighborhood, because it was my grandfather’s neighborhood. I’ve always wanted to move back to Detroit. As it turned out, I knew the guy who got the job, and he got laid off after about a year, so I guess I made the right — so I was fortunate that it happened the way that it did, because I’ll be retiring in another 230 days, and it’s the only job I ever had out of college. I have to be happy with that.
JC: We can wrap up here, I wanted to know: is there anything else that I didn’t touch on, any memories, or thoughts, or ideas, or things you would like to discuss that we didn’t get to?
KH: Oh, there’s tons of memories, but I’m not sure they apply to this, and plus it’s get a little loud, we can mosey over to my house. We covered a lot of it. I will always be a Detroit defender. My mother still goes down to Queen of Heaven once in a while.
JC: The parish is still there?
KH: Oh, yeah, it will stay now because it’s the only Catholic parish in the Eight Mile corridor between Grosse Pointe and Redford. So the Archdiocese will do what it can to keep it going. The only problem is that it has no parking, as I mentioned earlier. We were pretty much boxed in on Sundays because everybody parked on the street and parked on three streets around it, six masses on Sunday. We had a Rolyat Street reunion about three years ago. Now, I found it funny that you had to, if you lived on Rolyat before 1970 was the cutoff. I found that a little suspicious. To me, it was no black people allowed, basically what it was. I don’t know if it was conscience or not, but that’s when we grew up, so that’s the kids we knew. We didn’t want the kids that none of us played with, none of us hung out with. The motive may not have been that, but that’s the way I saw it, well I don’t think it was, because my brother organized it and my brother’s probably more liberal than I am, but I just found it funny. We met in the gym at Queen of Heaven and there was about thirty of us were there, it was great, and we did pictures. If you want pictures of Detroit, eastside of Detroit, I will be happy to provide that to Society at some point.
JC: Okay, I can get you in touch with the staff there.
KH: It would be copies, because, I just bought a scanner.
JC: We can wrap up and talk about this, but Ken thank you very much for taking the time today. I really appreciate you spending time and recalling the memories from the period.
KH: And introducing you to Rocky’s.
JC: Yes, that’s true. Thanks, Ken.
KH: You’re welcome.**