Daniel J. O'Brien
"8 MILE, ETHNICITY, AND A SMOKING GUN"
In the decade following the 1967 Detroit Riots, I lived a half mile north of 8 Mile Road—the boulevard that drew a deep cut between Detroit and the northern suburbs. For several decades, the cut has been infected with racial polarity. My neighborhood in Warren was mostly German/Irish. In every direction of the compass, except due south, there were no black residents. If there were, their scarcity left them out of the census. Although hundreds of thousands of African Americans could be found within a mile, I know there were several kids in my neighborhood who hadn't interacted with a single one, in any capacity, until they reached adulthood.
When I was four or five, I played at the Belle Isle beach with children who were black. At the time, they were just other kids to me. In a few short years, I was taught by my relatives and neighbors that the word, other, had deeper implications for blacks. "We gave them the city," my grandmother would say, "and look what the hell they've done to it." The city she was referring to had a distinct boundary. I often tagged along with my mother and grandmother as they walked to the shops on our side, the Warren side, of 8 Mile. I would look across the wide boulevard to Falwell Field. It was huge, with park benches, picnic tables, and baseball diamonds. I could see black kids playing there, and envisioned myself being in that field with them. Then I would imagine them in my park, with my friends, and the same awkward feeling of alienation always percolated in my belly. Perhaps I harbored the fear that they would one day want my city. Looking back, I realize there were many things I was taught to fear as a child. Very few of them proved sound or unbiased. The Light Guard Armory building, which rolled out a number of tanks to quell the '67 Riots, still stands next to Farwell Field—now a dilapidated structure used mainly, ironically enough, for gun and knife shows.
Occasionally, I would see a black mother and child or an elderly black man shopping at the grocery store in Warren. Silence surrounded them as they strolled the aisles like unwelcome party guests no one would ask to leave; though it was clear their presence impeded the social ease of everyone else. I'm sure most people who entered the local stores and restaurants lived in my city. But there was no way of knowing for certain which shoppers lived in Warren and which ones didn't. If the individual was black, however, one might as well bet the pot they were from Detroit.
Twenty years ago, I worked in Hamtramck. The city was literally surrounded by Detroit. On my commute, I noticed that every northbound car in front of me with a black driver turned east or west at some point. None of them ever crossed 8 Mile. As I made my way across the median of the road Eminem had made famous, I wondered if there was an invisible wall running along it.
I had witnessed first-hand why discernible numbers of black Detroiters never traversed it. On my ninth birthday, in the playground of my elementary school, I witnessed the strangest event of my childhood. It was the only time I ever saw someone draw a gun, point it at another human, and pull the trigger.
I remember the incident—the year was 1977, August 31st to be exact—in colorful detail. Although it was my birthday, I went to the schoolyard alone. The neighborhood kids boycotted my party because I had said one their mothers looked like Johnny Cash. My punishment was justified.
I had become a fan of a group of hoopsters playing basketball on the old concrete court at my school. Athletic and in their twenties, they drove the basket hard and moved fast. It was exciting to watch them, which I did from a nearby swing. They played on my enthusiasm, throwing me a wink or a grin when they dunked the ball or made a seemingly impossible shot—a street level version of fan appreciation. I even forgot my purgatorial birthday brooding.
It was also the only time I remember a collective of African Americans anywhere, doing anything, in the city of Warren. I'm certain that part of my fascination stemmed from knowing this was as far from usual as, well...a dozen black folks shopping in my grocery store.
A short, stocky man in a suit showed up and said something to the players, his words drowned out by the action on the court. When he yelled, "Hey!" he got their attention. ''I think it's better for everyone if you get in your cars right now and get the hell outta here."
One of the players politely said it was a free country and they weren't bothering anyone. The J. Edgar lookalike pulled out a pistol and pointed it at them. ''Go back to your own goddamn neighborhood," he sneered. "You know damn well you don't belong here." Then I heard five or six bangs and saw a puff of smoke emerge from the gun. The players flinched and cowered from the loud popping sounds, but no one was hurt. Then the man walked briskly back to his car and drove away. Thankfully, he was shooting blanks, but the incident left me frozen to that swing long after everyone had cleared the schoolyard, which they did swiftly.
They must have known this was a game none of them could win. Who knew how far away from the school they lived? It could have been less than half a mile. Wherever it was, 8 Mile was the ethnic knife that sliced through the city.
Nowadays, I occasionally check in on my old neighborhood, driving though the streets I biked as a child innumerable times. My old elementary school is now an empty field. The homes still have the same features, many of them built in the '50s when the great white flight to the suburbs was in full bloom. By 1968 when the Fair Housing Act was passed—a bureaucratic effort to disrupt neighborhood segregation−white Detroit residents had already been selling their homes to black families. This was not a sign of tolerance or harmonic integration. Rather, it was an act of abandonment, where white families could find new communities on the other side of 8 Mile. There, the Fair Housing Act dwindled into impotency. My own family's diaspora started in the 1950s, when my grandparents and several aunts and uncles left their old Italian neighborhood and moved to cities like Warren, Royal Oak or near the lake in St. Claire Shores. A few relatives chose to remain in Detroit, but by the early nineties, they left, too.
I remember an encounter some years back with a U.S. customs agent. I was returning from a visit to Canada. She asked me where I lived and my natural response was "Detroit." She became incredulous, and replied, "Are you telling me Detroit is the city on your driver's license?" When I told her the city on my license was Troy, I must have fit the demographic she was expecting. I was cleared without further delay. I wouldn't have been surprised if those players would have had an easier time playing a game of basketball in Canada. The only two obstacles they would have encountered would be the Detroit River and a customs official. In order to make it in Warren, at least when I was growing up, African Americans needed a powerful saw to cut through the icy bark of racism.
A blade durable enough to meet the task hasn't been invented yet, and the grim events over the past year and a half−Ferguson, Baltimore, Chicago, New York, Charleston are a few of the cities spotlighting the recent rise in racial disharmony−indicate the frost covering the bark is only thickening.