Cecile Jenson, July 16th, 2015
NL: Today is July 17th, 2015. This is the interview of Cecile Jensen by Noah Levinson. We are at the Polish Mission located at Orchard Lake School’s campus in West Bloomfield, Michigan. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society and the Detroit 1967 Oral History Project. Cecile, thanks for taking the time to meet with us today. Could you first tell me where and when were you born?
CJ: I was born in Detroit in 1950, at Crittenton Hospital.
NL: Do you recall where that was?
CJ: Well, it was the old one. It was along the expressway and it was the forerunner to the one that’s in Rochester today.
NL: What neighborhood do you first remember living in?
CJ: I only lived in one, for the first 18 years of my life. It was on the west side of Detroit. West Chicago and Wyoming were the cross streets. And when I was growing up, as a Catholic school girl, we would never really ask somebody, “What neighborhood are you from?” We would say, “Which parish are you from?” So that was the way we organized our life, by the parish we were in, and we had an elementary school as well.
NL: Was there a correlation that was understood by most people that certain parishes correspond to certain parts of the city or people just went to different ones they liked for various reasons?
CJ: There was a guidance map throughout the diocese of metro Detroit, so if you lived on certain streets, then there was a designated parish for you to belong to and support.
NL: Were you allowed to support a different one if you chose to, or was it pretty strictly adhered to?
CJ: It was pretty strictly adhered to. We have stories of families who got into a discussion with the pastor because they wanted to go somewhere else and that was being allowed. But this was the fifties, now I think a pastor would be very happy with a new parishioner.
NL: I would think so as well. Can you describe that neighborhood, Chicago and Wyoming, where you were growing up?
CJ: Sure. I think now when we look back, it’s sort of like one of those dream sequences. You could walk up to the grocery store, you could walk up to the drug store. If you went in the other direction on Wyoming, there was a toy store. I was always sent up to the German meat market to go to buy the lunchmeat for the family. There were five kids in our family, and I was sort of like the grocery girl. Get on my bike, and go through the neighborhood. So it was close-knit. Not only did we know our neighbors well, but my aunt and uncle lived around the block, and my grandparents lived two blocks away, and down the street from them was yet another aunt and uncle. So we all congregated in that neighborhood because right after World War II, when the expressway went through, our family homes were condemned, and our family had to resettle. So they had been at, like, Michigan and more into a Polish community when they were growing up. And then after World War II, they condemned the houses so they could put in the expressway, and so a new neighborhood was sought. So there are a lot of Poles in our parish, but there were also Irish folks, and other ethnicities as well.
NL: At that time, to the best of your memory, was the Polish community pretty well-spread around the city of Detroit?
CJ: Yes, the Polish community in metro Detroit really started on the east side. Then it went to the west side, and then eventually to Hamtramck, which people are more familiar with. But the core parishes first started on the east side and the west side.
NL: And when did that—I would be part of that camp, the association between here and Hamtramck, the Polish community, they’re synonymous—when did that transition start happening from the neighborhoods more closer to downtown up toward Hamtramck?
CJ: I would say maybe when the plants opened, so maybe around 1910 or so? When I’m talking about the first parishes, I’m talking about the 1880s, so our seminary was actually part of the very core, first Polish community in Detroit, at Canfield and St. Aubin. So St. Albertus church still stands. There had been our seminary; that building does not stand there anymore. And there was also a mother house for the Polish nuns—the Felician sisters—and that really was like a transplanted village from Europe, and then they transplanted that same type of community into Detroit.
NL: You mentioned that you were one of five growing up. Where were you in the pecking order?
CJ: I am the middle girl, but I’m the fourth of five. So I think when I do my Facebook quizzes, I don’t think that gives me any badge.
NL: And what were your parents’ occupations when you were growing up?
CJ: When I was growing up, my mother was a bookkeeper by trade, or by training. She raised us as a stay-at-home mom, and once it was time to go back into the workforce, she became a controller at Mercy School of Nursing on the boulevard. My father was the first generation born in the United States for his family, and one of the things I love so much, I see one of the documents his mother signed with an X, and then my father became a lawyer for the City of Detroit. So I like to see that progress.
NL: Do you know what type of work, more specifically, he handled for the city of Detroit?
CJ: Yes, condemnation. He would start taking down neighborhoods. They would condemn part of the neighborhood, whether it was for the highway that his own family was impacted by, but also for other areas so they could build factories or thoroughfares, so he went to court a lot, to be able to settle those matters on behalf of the city.
NL: What do you remember about Detroit in general, beyond the neighborhood you grew up in, in the fifties and sixties?
CJ: Well, I thought it was pretty exciting to be able to take my dad to work, because first he was at the city hall, over where Kennedy center is right now, and then eventually he did have an office in the Coleman Young building. We used to call it the city-county building. That was super special. When he would take his daughter to work, and I would get to go into the law offices, I’d get to see all the mimeograph machines, all the high-tech that they were creating things with. And then, I got to go into the City of Detroit Chamber, I got to meet the mayor, I got to meet some of the council people, and that really impressed me, that my father would have that level of access to people. So I really loved going downtown. As we approached the city hall, when I was very young, they still had trolleys in the street, so you would see the little snaps of electricity in the overhead, so that had to be in the early fifties. Then my dad died in 1964, I had said goodbye to him and went to Girl Scout camp, and he died when I was at camp. So for me, my idea of Detroit in the sixties, first of all, cozy neighborhood, excellent going down to the city county building, getting to enjoy everything that was on Woodward, walking, enjoying Freedom Festival with Windsor and Detroit, and then all of a sudden, it started falling apart. Being a Catholic, one of the things that happened was the pope died. Then in the sixties, JFK was assassinated. Then Robert Kennedy was assassinated. And then Martin Luther King was assassinated. It’s like, we’re always in mourning, in the early sixties, we’re in mourning! And my own father’s death, and then the riots! So everything that had a beautiful, strong foundation for me was crumbling.
NL: Speaking of the riots, could you tell me where you were and how you first heard of that in late July 1967?
CJ: I was selling snacks at Tiger Stadium. I was at stand 22, and I wasn’t selling beer—I wasn’t old enough—but we were selling hot dogs, and filling the ketchup, and reconstituting the dry onions, and making sure we had enough for everybody, and it was a pretty exciting day. I didn’t first hear about it, I first smelled it, because I could smell things burning around Tiger Stadium. And then we got the word that the city was burning, and I was with some older women, I didn’t have a car, I relied on them to drive me to work and back, and at first we were kind of panicked, and we thought, “What are we going to do? How are we going to get home?” And so at first, we went, “Why don’t we turn off the freezer and hide in the freezer?” Because, you know, it would warm up pretty quickly, and we would have a pretty good defense, but who would know we were there? So that’s how I first—I smelled it.
NL: And how was your commute home, eventually, that day? How did that take place?
CJ: I talked her into driving—I think there were three or four of us that were all carpooling. And we had to get back to the west side, of course, and so we were taking Grand River, and we started to see all the looting going on—shop windows were being shattered, and people were walking out with washing machines, radios, record players, stereo record players. We saw a lot of that that was going on. We just tried to watch and move forward. I also noticed a car that was next to us, and they were calling so many firemen that there weren’t enough vehicles for them, so these were firemen in full uniform but they were driving around in a private car. So that kind of put the panic in us.
NL: As you saw that looting there on Grand River, were there police, other members of law enforcement starting to help tone down the looting and the violence?
CJ: The only thing that I saw were those firemen that were going by, and I don’t know what their destination was, so no, I did not see any law and order out on the streets.
NL: How did you spend your next few days while the looting and the violence continued?
CJ: I got back home on Orange Lawn and nobody was home. So one of my older brothers was at our family cottage on Lake St. Clair in Canada. Another brother was out of state for his summer job. My widowed mother and my younger sister were also out at the cottage, and then my older sister was at Michigan State. So I gave her a call asking her what she thought I should do. I was most concerned, what if mother and Margot start coming across the bridge? And then end up right in the middle of it? So her advice to me was only tears. She started crying. And I was sort of like, “But you’re in East Lansing, and I’m in Detroit! So actually that day made me start to believe in my own judgement, because I was 17, and I had to try to get a message to my family. I did know that there was one phone—I mean nowadays, what are we going to do? We’re going to text somebody, send it by our smartphone—but at that point, it was a rural beach community, and there was only one permanent resident that had a telephone. So I was trying to find that phone number so I would be able to warn them not to come home. But in hindsight, I found out that they didn’t need me to tell them that because they could see flames across the lake. They could already see the burning that was going on.
NL: You said this was on Lake St. Clair, on the Canadian side. What town or area is that?
CJ: Stony Point. The French is [unknown]. It’s nearby Tillberry, nearby Chatham—well Chatham is pretty far away, but it’s outside Windsor.
NL: Okay. How long did they remain there past what they expected?
CJ: That night, I got ahold of my cousins that lived around the block. And my cousin Gordon said, “You know what, we’re going to all go out to the cottage. We’re going to go to our summer homes, and we’ll do that by going through Port Huron.” So I got to leave the neighborhood shortly thereafter, so I spent a week in Canada, at the cottage.
NL: And you were able to drive from your neighborhood, which was not too far away from the nexus of a lot of the violence—you were able to drive on the expressway out of the city that way without being impeded by the curfews or law enforcement personnel with no-drive orders?
CJ: Right. Well, we left the next day. So a lot of those curfews and patrols, I don’t think, were quite in place yet. Because I did hear additional stories that my older brother that had stayed, kind of went snooping around in the daytime with my grandfather. They would go down to see where the National Guard was at, gawking a little bit. He denies it now. I was telling him I was going to tell that story. “No! No! It had to be another cousin!” But I think that they were able to go out a bit, but I was very grateful that my cousin who was just a couple years older than me would agree to drive us out. I think we used back roads to get up to Port Huron.
NL: How long, approximately, did you stay at the cottage?
CJ: I would say a good week.
NL: What do you remember about coming back, crossing the border, and re-entering the city? What did you notice?
CJ: Looked like a very different place. We were noticing all the boarded up buildings. I think people were a little more fearful as we drove. Myself, I was concerned about my younger sister and my mother as well, because she worked on the boulevard. She worked very close to that area, and I’m not sure how long the nursing school stayed closed. Because they had a running school, but maybe because it was in the summer, maybe they didn’t have a session running at the time.
NL: Do you remember anything unusual about the border crossing on the way back?
CJ: No, that’s a good question. I think we just had the regular questions, you know, like, “Where were you? Where are you going? How long were you there? Do you have any meat in the car?”
NL: Did you feel that your neighborhood was affected—which is to say physically was it affected? Obviously all the residents of Detroit were affected in a number of ways, but the actual neighborhood, was that affected at all by the violence?
CJ: No, not immediately. I didn’t see that any of our storefronts were broken into. I saw that more further toward the stadium and along Grand River, even though Grand River was one of our main thoroughfares. I don’t remember our neighborhood specifically suffering. Eventually it did because there was white flight, because so many people wanted to get out of the neighborhood, and that had already started with people going into the suburbs. But that, I think, did eventually take our neighborhood down.
NL: Can you talk a little bit more about that transition in the neighborhood?
CJ: Yes, I mentioned how my family had to relocate from Detroit, from Michigan and Fullerton—well, Fullerton that was later, but Michigan Avenue and Warren, that kind of area, the Polish parish. So they had to relocate. So in the late forties, they relocated in this west side community, we called in Epiphany parish. That was stable, into the sixties, but then people started moving. They started moving—they now had expressways to get faster, they could communicate on them. Some of the areas of choice were Livonia and Dearborn. Some of my classmates, their families started moving out.
NL: Where did you first live after your family residence where you grew up in?
CJ: I graduated from high school in 1968, and we were still living on Orange Lawn at that time. And then, in the course of the next two years, I went to Michigan State, I was in college, and my mother bought a new home in Troy. And she picked that neighborhood because there was some extended family out there, we were still doing that tradition.
NL: And after your time in East Lansing, where did you live?
CJ: Then I came home for short semesters, but I got married in 1972 and so, we were finishing our education—my husband and I were finishing our educations at Michigan State, so we lived in Lansing and East Lansing, eventually coming back to metro Detroit five years later.
NL: And what part of the metro area did you come to?
CJ: We bunked up at my mom’s house for a little while in Troy, and then we bought our own home in Huntington Woods, and we were there for a number of years. And now—you know, we’re really not the regular American demographic because we really stayed put for a long time—we’re probably in Huntington Woods for fifteen years, and I think we’re surpassing twenty years now in Rochester Hills.
NL: Wow. What do you recall about your time in those neighborhoods? Anything specific?
CJ: Well, I like them both very much. I loved Huntington Woods because it had that old neighborhood feel again. You could walk to the library, you could walk to the doctors, you could walk up to the drug store. We had great neighbors, and everything’s on Woodward. Who doesn’t love Woodward? So Huntington Woods was great, and it was halfway between my husband’s job at a brokerage house in Detroit, and halfway between my job teaching in Rochester Hills. We each left in the morning and went different directions. And then, in Rochester Hills, I’m devoted to that community because I spent thirty years teaching in that school district. And so even today, when I go up to the market, even though I’ve been retired for twelve, thirteen years, I still see my old students. I’m lucky that I still have a sense of community, but it’s a different community. It’s not all those kids I went to school with, but it’s children I schooled.
NL: In the years that you’ve lived in the various cities and suburbs of the metro area, do you frequent the city of Detroit?
CJ: I’m a big fan of the city. In fact, when I had the opportunity to take an early retirement, I thought, “What shall I do?” and I had gotten that genealogy bug very early on in my life. My dad had shown me that document when I was fourteen when I was doing a school project, and they said, “Interview one of your parents about their family history.” So I interviewed him, he showed me these very cool documents, but they’re written in German, and I thought, “But we’re Polish! What’s that all about?” But he died two months later, so that really got me interested. I wanted to start asking questions of aunts, uncles, and grandparents. “How did we end up in Detroit? Why did we end up in Detroit?” I began that when I was very young, and when there was an opportunity to take early retirement, I said, “I’m going to do what I can for Poles in Detroit.” So one of my first projects was doing one of these arcadia pictorial histories and I did that on Detroit’s Palonia, so it was wonderful to go back to the Reuther library at Wayne State and look at their negative morgue and start picking out images that would relate to the polish story. Then after we had that one published, so many people were enthusiastic. “Tell my ancestors’ story! Use my picture!” that we started working on two other books, again related to Detroit. One of the oldest active cemeteries in Detroit, Mt. Elliot Cemetery, and also Mt. Olivet Cemetery. That was great fun—yeah, I do like cemeteries. It was great finding the depth of information and compiling it because everyone had a unique, individual story, and just like you’re doing, you’re going to make a greater whole of everyone’s individual story. So we were able to do that with the arcadia books and I go back to the old neighborhoods—not the safest place to drive around—but yes, I’m still devoted to Detroit. Every fall, the burton collection has a genealogy fair, and we always encourage people to document their Detroit history as well.
NL: The project, the Detroit’s Palonia, that was your first involvement with the Mission here? Or was that a separate group?
CJ: This was before I joined the mission. So it was just the art teacher and history teacher and me coming out, and I saw they didn’t have a title that dealt with Detroit—they had some ethnic groups, they had some sections of Detroit, so I had to write up a proposal, and I worked with a number of colleagues in the genealogy group here in metro Detroit. Ran around, met people at different libraries, took my scanner, made big old .tiff images so they would be published, and then turned all that digital information and all the captions over to Arcadia.
NL: What are your observations of the city in the last fifty years compared to your observations pre-1967?
CJ: I’ve been very lucky that my husband has a good eye for travel. And so, I’ve been able to visit many major cities throughout the world, and I always think, you know, we have the essence of a lot of these other cities right here in Detroit, and I really wish it would shine more. But we have a very interesting history, and I think there are core pieces that are just waiting to be harvested and rejuvenated. I guess that’s one of the benefits of travel, that I see the rough jewel that Detroit is and can be again.
NL: Well put. Could you elaborate a little bit about what you mean by that we here in Detroit have that essence that you see abroad? Could you describe that?
CJ: Well sure, we have a mixture of cultures, we have many different cultures. We can explore different ethnic groups, different food waves, different arts in our community. We have that lively mix that generates a lot of energy. We’re not homogenized. We’re still inviting and we’re still getting a lot of immigrants to come into our community. We might have 21st century minorities now, and the people that came in the 20th century are now assimilated, better assimilated, but that is part of the energy, I think, that will move us forward. And I’m not a Pollyanna.
NL: Why do you think it’s been so difficult then for the city to capitalize on that essence and that hotbed of cultures colliding and making for interesting things?
CJ: Well, we have to talk about some leadership issues that have happened to us in the past. People that would rather redline than look for a way to merge things. Maybe all the communities needed to mature a little bit more, and realize this is a good spot on the mitten to be. We still have the water resources, we still have roadways. I just saw that that one defunct factory by the river has been opened to look like a nature reserve from up north—I think it just opened this week. And that’s a cool thing, look at Belle Isle, as well: what a beautiful sanctuary for everybody as well, with the Botanical Gardens, with the aquarium there, and some of my other colleagues and I, we were remembering when there was a petting zoo there as well. That has been, why can’t it be revived? I mean 21st century people want that in their lives, as well as 20th century people.
NL: Absolutely. Where do you live now?
CJ: I live in Rochester Hills.
NL: Still in Rochester Hills. Are you working here in West Bloomfield, regularly, every day?
CJ: I’m here three days a week. My Monday-Wednesday-Friday.
NL: Do you notice a difference in the ability or just the end result of people living in the Oakland, Macomb, suburban communities collaborating together for the types of projects that you do here, is that any different than collaborating with people in the city?
CJ: I would have to say yes, because one thing, we’re one ethnic group here on campus. So there’s a demographic that’s going to come here. But I will say that the prep school does have a number of Asian students as well, we have black students here. Our Chaldean neighbors are sending their boys here. We have a mix at the high school, at the prep school. I would say we probably don’t—we’re not going to necessarily avail ourselves to the ethnic mix that you’re going to find if you go in Detroit. And maybe you have to go to Dearborn for some of that, but let’s also think about the beauty of going to Eastern market, because that’s a pretty nice level field for everyone, I’d say.
NL: For your personal life, what has been the largest lasting impact of the events of July 1967?
CJ: Well, as a teenager, it was a turning point where I couldn’t find an adult to give me direction, and I had to rely on whatever I had been instructed throughout my life to make some decisions about how to stay safe. And then, watching the neighborhood kind of dissolve. That was sad. And it’s only in the last few years because of Facebook that I have actually found elementary school friends! Because everybody scattered! And I tell people, what’s very interesting is that I cannot go back to my grandparent’s parish in Detroit, I cannot go back to my parents’, and I cannot go back to mine but ironically, I can go back to all four of my ancestral villages in Poland, and they’ve been in existence for 750 years. And you would think it would be the exact opposite, you would say, “How can you go back to anything in Poland? They’ve had two major wars!” And yet, I have been able to trace back to 1690 of my European heritage, but no vestiges, really. And that’s why, we actually think of ourselves—Poland talks about a nest, that you want to be in your group, your community, so we actually say, we’re the Polish nest for the metro Detroit because your parishes are gone, or they’ve merged, they’ve vanished, but you can come back here and look at our shelves, and find your history books, find vintage photos, and find someone to tell your story to.
NL: I had just a couple other questions. Backtracking a little bit in our conversation, that day at Tiger stadium, you mentioned the smell as what really stood out to you. What do you remember visually? I’m wondering, was there enough knowledge of the events of that time, do you remember the crowd? There were maybe almost 50,000 people there that day. Was there a big reaction in the crowd?
CJ: There wasn’t, no. I don’t even remember an announcement being made, that it’s time to leave the stadium. I don’t think they swept the stadium of people. I would have to go back and do a little research on that. But I think people just left at the end of the game, and then we were there cleaning up and realized what’s happened. That’s a good point, I would really have to go back and read a news report about, “It’s a great day for a Tiger game!” and see what’s written up that way.
NL: For the events of that day, that week, July 1967, historians and people who lived through it are often calling it a riot, the Detroit Riots of 1967, the Twelfth Street Riots. In your estimation, in your experience is that the most accurate word to describe the events of that week?
CJ: That was our vernacular at that time. That’s how we spoke about it. “Upheaval,” “Crisis,” “Cataclysmic event,” all of those would be good, because it did have that huge of an impact on the tri-county area. Because where did a lot of these people go? They went into Oakland County, or they went into Macomb County, and left the neighborhoods behind.
NL: Lastly, if you could leave a general message for the city of Detroit, going forward on what is soon to be the fiftieth anniversary of these events, what might that be?
CJ: Might be a turning point to change the tide. Might be a day to remember and say, “Well, let’s see what we can go forward with.” Not forgetting our history, but talking about those good elements we do have, I mean a rich history. Look at the flag of Detroit. You have the British influence, you have the French influence, you have the American. We have a lot to talk about. We have a lot of things to be pleased about. Maybe a little more positive and a whole lot less negative.
NL: Well, thank you so much for sharing your stories and memories with us. Is there anything else that we did not touch on that you would like to share?
CJ: I think I told you earlier today of the sad news report I was watching. They said, “Alert! The police have never found a 500-pound pig in the basement in metro Detroit! But now we have.” So there was all day coverage of trying to get this poor porker out of the basement that had two feet of refuse around his feet and the staircase was gone from the basement, there was only a ladder. Unfortunately it was the home of a hoarder who had died like a week before. So I’m watching it, and they say west side Detroit, and I go, “Oooh, I’m going to watch this!” And they go and say, Orange Lawn, I’m like, “Oh my!” And then they show the visuals, and I’m looking at the Shuckle’s house, which was our next-door neighbors in Detroit, and I actually felt very, very sad, not only for the pig, but to see that that now is the condition of my old neighborhood. It was a very sad feeling. Everybody else is like, “The pig! The pig!” and when I saw the video, it’s like, “That’s the Shuckle’s house, that’s the lot our home stood on, that’s where the McClays lived,” and I don’t know what to make of it, but it’s like, what an ending to that neighborhood.
NL: Could you see your house at any parts of that report?
CJ: Our home is not standing anymore, but I could see the neighbors on the other side. I mean, I could tell everybody’s house. I could still recognize their homes and then all of a sudden, I started getting text messages from friends: “What do you now about Orange Lawn? What do you know about the pig?” and the happy ending is that the pig was removed safely and is now at a shelter, a barn, shelter-barn for animals outside Monroe.
NL: Now with that behind us, the city of Detroit can finally move forward, I think. Thanks for sharing your time and your stories with us today, Cecile.
CJ: My pleasure. Thank you.