Berl Falbaum, April 21st, 2016
WW: Hello, my name is William Winkel. Today is April 21, 2016. This is the interview of Berl Falbaum for the 1967 Oral History Project. Thank you very much for sitting down with me today.
BF: My pleasure. Thank you for being here.
WW: Can you please tell me, where and when were you born?
BF: I was born in Berlin, Germany, in October 8, 1938.
WW: When did you come to the United States?
BF: Well, it was during the rise of Hitler – of course, he's already been in power – we escaped from Nazi Germany in August of '39, and escaped to Shanghai, China, where twenty thousand Jews escaped to. And I spent the first ten years of my life in Shanghai.
WW: What brought your family to Detroit?
BF: Well, after the war, different countries were starting to pick up refugees, and this country – the United States opened its borders, and we applied, and fortunately got accepted, and we came to Detroit, landing first in San Francisco, in August of '48.
WW: Who came to Detroit with you?
BF: Just my parents. I have no siblings.
WW: Okay. What was your first experience in Detroit? What was your first impression?
BF: Well, my first impression was the plentiful nature of the United States, given that we were poor – extremely poor – in Shanghai, war-torn, you know, and drug-infested, and war-torn – and so the plentiful nature of food was my first impression. And we moved into what is now called Rosa Parks Boulevard – it was Twelfth Street at the time – and I was enrolled in the fourth grade. But those were my impressions of – you know, first of all we had freedom, we could move around unlike in Shanghai, and we had, you know, enough food, and so forth.
WW: The time when you moved into Twelfth Street area – that was still predominantly Jewish, correct?
BF: No – not at the – well – yes and no. It was changing. There's a history in Detroit, as you know, probably maybe even better than I do, of movement of Jews from Hastings, way down south in Detroit, to Twelfth Street, then Dexter, then Seven Mile and Shafer, then Oak Park. And at the time we moved into Twelfth Street, that neighborhood was already dramatically changing.
WW: So how much time did you spend in the Twelfth Street area growing up?
BF: Fourth grade, I'm going to say, until the ninth or tenth grade, and we moved to Dexter. Dexter, roughly south of Davison – about a mile south of Davison – and I went to Central High School.
At Twelfth Street I went to Crossman Elementary, which is closed – it's boarded up, but it's still there – then I went to Hutchins Intermediate – we called it intermediate, which is middle school, and that's still there and active – and then I went to Central High School, which is still active – when I went – moved to Dexter.
WW: What were your experiences growing up in the city, especially in an interracial area?
BF: Well, I had, you know, very good experiences. I moved – always grew up in interracial atmosphere, which, of course, is very positive in terms of your education and interrelationships. So I had, you know, extremely good relationships growing up there. I wish it had stayed interracial, you know, again the white flight caused it to be almost predominantly, if not exclusively, a black community, and that's bad on the other side, so to speak. The interrelationship aspect would have been better, so – we already experienced the white flight from Twelfth Street, then Dexter and Seven Mile and Shafer.
WW: Growing up, what did your parents do for a living after they moved to the city?
BF: Well, my dad was a tailor. And he was a tailor in Germany, he was a tailor in Shanghai. He worked in a variety of shops. And my mother became a domestic to help out, because we were obviously extremely poor.
WW: How did growing up in a poor neighborhood affect you?
BF: Well, it affected me in a sense that I – I am not at all materialistic, and I raised my family on having what it needs – and I think that's good. One thing that I notice is the materialism of this country, you know – always see a new car – and one of the things that always – hasn't left me – is now we have cars which warm your seats. I mean, that's sort of indicative of my philosophy. You know, I wouldn't have thought of that in a million years. I'm a utilitarian kind of guy, you know, I have a – I never bought a new car – and I think that's because of my background. I've always bought a used car. I don't care the car it is, just gets me from A to B. So that's how my background impacted me, you know. I buy my clothes at thrifty stores – not because I don't want to spend the money – I don't see the point. And you know, I'd be glad – I like spending money for travel – so I think that's basically because of my background. You know, I use paper, I cut it in half, and use scraps of paper, and I think that's not because I'm cheap – I'm delighted to spend money, you know, on travel – but materialistically, I had a tremendous – that had a tremendous impact on me.
WW: Growing up in the 1950s, did you notice any tension growing in the city?
BF: Oh yes, yes, yeah. There was a lot of tension in the schools. I – you know – you could feel the tension between the blacks and whites – you know – there – again, discrimination they suffered, and the white flight caused a lot of problems, you know, and I understand that now, of course, and sympathetic to it. So there were a lot of tensions already in school, between the races, you know, and so to answer your question, yes. I noticed it. Yeah.
WW: Do you remember any particular instances where it was right in front of you?
BF: Yeah, yeah. I was a paper boy, and, you know, I'd be confronted with blacks who – I had good relationships, and I liked interrelationships, but – there were these confrontations from time to time, and especially with young kids, you know – so you'd have confrontations in school, on the streets. You know, I think they understood my view too, and so to answer your question, overall, yes. There were confrontations in school between blacks and whites. There were confrontations on the streets. I understood it, as much as a fifteen, sixteen year old, you know, understood. Of course I understood it better as I grew older.
WW: Moving into the 1960s, what year did you graduate from high school?
BF: From high school? January '57, and I went to Wayne State University, and I graduated from Wayne State in the summer of '61, because I was already hired by the News as a reporter full-time before I finished, and so I finished at night.
WW: What work did you do for the Detroit News?
BF: I started out as – where everybody starts out – you do a variety of beats. I went to the police beat, where you cover crime, and then you went to general assignment, meaning you do soup to nuts, you do a little of everything, and in '65 I was sent over to City Hall to cover politics.
WW: When you were covering the police, did you notice any – did you cover the Big Four at all?
BF: Big Four?
WW: The police tactic used in the early 1960s.
BF: I don't remember it by that name. What you do – what I did at the police beat is – there's – it's closed now, it closed many years ago – but there's an office that the press has in police headquarters. At the time it was manned by three – well, three newspapers – one died quickly – the News, Free Press, and the Times, and you covered murder from that desk. And you went to a different office in that building – you never left the building. And you'd call around to suburban bureaus to see what was going on every few hours. You had, you know, hundreds of phone calls to make. So when you say did you cover the Big Four, there was a very controversial program called STRESS [Stop The Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets.
WW: Yeah, that was later on.
BF: That was later on. So the answer is, I didn't cover it as such. I covered the crime, and so forth. I didn't really cover the politics of the crime – I covered the crime.
BF: I – you know, if there's a murder I'd go cover that. Don't go – you cover it from your office. And if there's a good story – meaning a terrible story – required a reporter on scene, that was done out of the office.
WW: Okay. Was moving from crime – the police department to City Hall a promotion, or -
WW: Was it just a different assignment?
BF: Well, a different assignment. Those who stayed with the police would say it's a different – I know I didn't like doing that. It was a good learning process, but I don't – I love politics. So next I went on general assignment – there were people on police beat which have been there for thirty years. And so they would say that's heaven to them, but it wasn't my kind of – similarly, I didn't want to cover sports, but – I went to general assignment, which you cover everything, and I did that for about three-four years, and then I went over to City Hall.
WW: So you were covering City Hall in 1967, correct?
BF: I started in '65 at City Hall and yes, I was at City Hall in '67 when the riot broke out July 23, 1967.
WW: Where were you living in 1967?
BF: I was just inside the border of Detroit, on Schoolcraft and Telegraph – the other side of Telegraph. I was on the east side of Telegraph and the other side was where Redford Township. And we were on the Detroit border. Matter of fact Sunday I was sitting on my porch – well, we – a little step, it wasn't a porch – when I heard on the radio, the riot, and I said to my wife I've got to go downtown and go to work. She said, "You're not leaving the family for a riot.” I said yes I am.
WW: What was the atmosphere going in – driving through the city and then getting to City Hall?
BF: Well, at the time, I didn't encounter any police or military yet. It was just broke out. So I didn't go to City Hall, I went to the main office. We had an office in City Hall where you covered the politics, you never went to it, but I knew right away I'd go back to the city room and see what my assignment would be. But I didn't encounter anything on the streets. And I didn't see anything because I didn't go into the – driving down, I didn't pass the 12th Street – devastated area.
WW: Can you share some of your experiences you had during that week?
BF: Sure. In '65 I [unintelligible], by '67 I think I was head or chief of the bureau and my job was to cover the mayor. So what I did, was I just attached myself to the mayor, meaning wherever he went, I went. Whatever meetings and press conference I'd cover. And so, the answer is yes, one of the pictures I gave to – uh – what's his -
BF: Joel is, I have a picture of the mayor and Senator Philip Hart, democrat from – U.S. Senator, from Michigan. They were touring the area, and I have a picture – I'm behind them, and I gave him that photo, and we toured – he toured, I followed, and took notes – you know, what they were saying, and so forth. So that was my major assignment, and I covered the press conference between Mayor Cavanagh, Governor Romney, who came in of course, George Romney. Cyrus Vance, who was sent in from Lyndon Johnson, I think he was Secretary of State at the time was -
WW: He had stepped down as Secretary of Defense.
BF: Yeah, okay. He came in as the federal representative, and so I covered those. So I didn't really cover the riot itself, the violence, and so forth. I did go by myself once back to tour it – and a fellow I knew, who I covered as a community activist, his name was Joe Williams – I see him – who suggested I leave – he said it wasn't safe for me to be alone, walking, you know, in the streets. So I didn't cover the actual devastation, and the fighting, and the looting, and the violence. I covered the political side of it.
WW: Going – so you said you were part of the meetings and you were Mayor Cavanagh's shadow. Can you speak to the disagreements he had with Governor Romney, and especially President Johnson?
BF: Yes. I came across – and I gave it to Joel – by accident I came across an oral history that Cavanagh did for the Lyndon Johnson library in the 70's. They were doing oral histories for anybody that had a relationship with Lyndon Johnson. So they did Cavanagh. Now they weren't focused specifically on the riot, but as a result, about ten of those hundred pages deal with the riot. And he talks about the friction and the – yes, there was a lot of friction. One, you know, pure political, without egos – you know, Romney feeling that he's the governor of the state, and he perhaps should take the lead – Cavanagh feeling “this is my city, and I'm the chief executive officer.” And then you had political issues with, should you have the federal troops – is it too early to come in – what are the politics of it. So the federal government was, according to Cavanagh, and I tend to agree with him – is they were a little slow to react.
Some of it may have been based on waiting for a good assessment of the situation, or some of it may have been politics. I'm sure it was a combination of both.
So there's tremendous friction between Cavanagh and the powers to be, of when to send in the troops, and how, you know, and how quickly, and Cavanagh was of the opinion – send them right away. And that was the major disagreement. There were, you know, little ego issues between, that always happens, who conducts the press conference, and who's first, and all that.
WW: Can you speak to how Cavanagh himself handled the situation?
BF: I had covered Cavanagh, by that time, about four – three-four years. And what I noticed, is that this took a tremendous personal toll on Cavanagh. And the reason is, here was a mayor who was elected at, I think thirty-one or thirty-two years old, in '61 – the youngest mayor ever elected to the city until, I think, Kilpatrick came along – and he got national headlines. He was on the covers of major magazines for doing all the right things in Detroit. Integrating the police department, you know, being responsive to discrimination against blacks. He was doing everything right. He became president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and the National League of Cities, at the same time. Unheard of. He was a national figure. Matter a fact, a lot of people already started talking to him as a presidential candidate somewhere along the line. [coughs] – excuse me.
This took a personal toll. Basically, I've done everything right, and he ended up having not just a riot, but the worst riot in the country. I think forty-three died. And he had the worst fatality record, and that was the irony of it. And I don't think I saw him at ease - and I don't mean at ease, sitting back and just relaxing – but just at ease, throughout those days, and I don't think I ever saw a smile on his face for anything. I remember him coming back to the office, about twelve, one o'clock in the morning, and our office – not just the News, but the Free Press – was right down the hall. But I was the only one there. So he walked into his office and I walked in – he let me come in – we sat down. It wasn't to do a story, just to talk. And I could feel the pain. I could feel the pain. You know, we had a drink – he had a little bar in the back – and I could feel the pain. I don't think I ever saw him smile after the – for a long time after that.
WW: Wow. Can you speak to the time following the riots? So, the gradual – with the Cyrus Vance taking over – General Throckmorton taking over the National Guard, and federalizing the troops?
BF: I don't remember a lot of that. Only because the years have gone by. But the next steps that I recall is, after everything calmed down again, Cavanagh was instrumental, if not the lead character in creating New Detroit, which was – the first president, if I recall, was Joe Watson, you know, from the Hudson department stores, and the – the insistence of New Detroit that members could only be the heads of organizations – you know, staff people couldn't come – which was the right thing, because these are people making the decisions, and you don't have to worry about staff. And I don't remember some of what you're referring to, I don't think I could speak to it, 'cause I don't recall that. Fifty years. [laughter]
And he started the so-called reconstruction. The problem was, for him, his political strength has been ebbed, dramatically. One, you had the riot. He, unfortunately, had a lot of other political issues which had sapped his strength. Some of his own making. He had – he challenged Soapy Williams for the primary nomination for U.S. Senate – which hurt him badly, because the democrats felt it was Soapy Williams' turn – he should wait - but the party was very angry at him for challenging Soapy Williams. And he – he lost. And that sapped his political capitol. And then he had a messy – it's not of his own making, it's just one of those things – he had a terrible, messy personal divorce that became highly public, and messy, and so that sapped him. So unfortunately, a lot of things I think he could have and would have achieved, he couldn't because of – you know, he had all these other issues to deal with.
WW: How long did you stay in the city after 1967?
BF: Well, I – he did not run again in 1970 - funny story, how I learned that – but that's not – too long for you to tape – it's a cute story but it's a long one.
WW: Feel free to tell it.
BF: Well he and I had a good relationship, so that when he would announce something major, like a budget, he'd give it to me three-four days in advance, so I could study it. I couldn't use it until he's ready – so come his announcement, whether he's going to run for a third term – it was on a Tuesday he was going to announce, so I asked him if I could have his decision on the weekend, so I could write all the stories. He said “no, I can't give you this one.” And I said don't you trust me? He said “It's not that, I just [unintelligible].”
So I negotiated with him, that if I came to the Manoogian mansion, say, at three in the morning, that day – just so I have time to write, 'cause we're on deadline. So he agreed to that. So I drove done to the Manoogian mansion at three in the morning, and security opened it up and said “there you are,” and I get ready to write, and I take out a piece of paper, and it said something like “I will run again.” And just before I start, I see another piece of paper, which says “I will not run again.” [laughter]
So I said which is it? They said “I don't know!” I said, wake him up! “Yeah, we're going to wake up the mayor at two in the morning, or three in the morning.” I had to wait. He came down about seven o'clock with a big smile on his face. “So how's it going?” But I couldn't write anything - [laughter] – it was his practical joke.
So he didn't run again, and I covered Roman Gribbs, who just passed away, about two weeks ago, at 92, I believe – or 90, 92, I think he was 90 – and Nick Hood, who I covered, died about a week later at 92. And I covered him for a year. Gribbs – and then I quit, and went into Bill Milliken's office as administrative aide to Lieutenant Governor James Brickley who has passed away. So, to answer your question, I left the News in '70.
WW: And when you left the News, did you move to Lansing?
BF: I didn't move, but -
BF: Basically, my job was – we should have moved – I commuted almost daily, and that was a terrible – how I did that for four years, I don't know. We knew it was a political appointment and we didn't want to buy a house there and come back – terrible mistake. It was awful. Especially in the winters, you know – the drive. And we didn't have the kind of full expressways we have now, and it was awful – but. So I worked in Lansing for four years.
WW: When did your family leave the city? When did they move out, I mean?
BF: I think I want to say – Phil? - I want to say – I know that we left before Gribbs was - Gribbs was elected – because he offered me to become press secretary, and I was living in Oak Park, so I couldn't take it then – so that's one reason I took the Milliken job. Phil?
Woman's voice: Yeah?
BF: When did we move to Oak Park?
Woman's voice: I can't hear you. What?
BF: When did we move to Oak Park?
Woman's voice: Oh, Julie was three. So, forty-eight years ago -
BF: So '67. So the year must have been -
Woman's voice: '67.
BF: So one month later, before the riot, so I didn't know that.
WW: So your – you moved out before the riot happened?
BF: I guess -
Woman's voice: Wait a minute, no no -
BF: You said June of '67?
Woman's voice: No – I said Julie was – no – I remember -
Woman's voice: I remember, in the apartment in Detroit, you were called down – the riots broke out when we were in Detroit. We moved in October when Julie was past three and a half.
BF: So '65. Yeah. So we were out -
Woman's voice: She was born in '64. She was born in '64 -
WW: So October of 1967?
BF: That's when -
Woman's voice: She was born in June of '64 -
BF: So she was three. I said '67.
Woman's voice: But we were still living in – because we moved to Oak Park in June – in October of '67.
WW: Okay. Why did you move? Did you move – were you planning on moving ahead of time?
BF: Schools -
Woman's voice: We were ready to buy a house. [laughter]
BF: You mean, we – why we moved to Oak Park?
BF: Primarily school system. Yeah.
BF: Primarily school system.
Woman's voice: At that time -
BF: Oak Park at the top school system in the country – in the state, I believe -
WW: Okay -
Woman's voice: Well -
BF: Close to it.
Woman's voice: It was a very, very good school system.
BF: It was one of the best in the state.
Woman's voice: And -
BF: Yeah, so -
Woman's voice: Yeah.
WW: What are your impressions going back to the city now? Like seeing how – how do you believe the riot has affected the city? You talked about how it sapped the strength of Mayor Cavanagh -
BF: It sapped the strength of Mayor Cavanagh, and if caused – first of all, it accelerated white flight. It already began, with the building of expressways and shopping centers in the suburbs, so that made it easier for – unfortunately, for whites to leave the city, but the riot accelerated it. And so it sapped its – not only bad for the integration process, but it sapped its economic strength. Businesses moving out and white residents moving out. So I think it had terribly detrimental impact from that standpoint.
Then along came Coleman Young. And I happen to be an admirer of Coleman Young. But I also understood the tension he was creating, and I think unfairly – he was unfairly judged, with his comment about Eight Mile Road, which you've probably come across in your research. I think it was a bum rap – I don't think he meant “go rob the white people in the suburbs.” I think he meant there was a new sheriff in town, you know – And I – I happen to be a big admirer of Coleman Young – read his – couple biographies and I think he was a great hero, frankly – political hero in this country – taking on the unAmerican committee in Washington, and his union activities, and his army activities. But he – but – the perception of white people was that he didn't like white people, and so they left – which, again, I think was wrong, and unfair to Coleman Young and the city.
So there were a lot of issues which accelerated – I don't know, I don't think the riot was the beginning of it – I think the expressways and the shopping centers, things, started – the Davison Expressway, I think was the first one in the country. That helped – they went east/west, not north/south – but once you went north/south, it made it even quicker.
So I think that – the riot, obviously, accelerated the white flight, then came up wrong Coleman – who, Mayor Young, who I think, like I say, got a bum rap from the white community, especially the conservatives out in the suburbs, and I thought that was terribly unfair to him, and the city.
WW: You spoke about – you spoke about earlier, how it was unfortunate that your neighborhood in 12th Street became - went from being integrated to all black. How do you see – well, do you see that hampering the metropolitan Detroit now, given that the suburbs are primarily white and the city is primarily black?
BF: Yeah, I think so. Again, I – I'm a supporter of integrated – you know, I understand the value of living in an integrated, you know, community. And I think it – the segregation, if you will, between the communities now, I don't think helps either side. I don't know if we'll ever see that again, you know -
WW: The integration?
BF: In the city – in the city. I don't know – I don't know if we'll see that again. I think we see it somewhat in Southfield, I'm not an expert on that – you're much more – and we have it here in this community, you know. My subdivision now, taking a census, it's wonderful. I don't know if we're fifty/fifty now – I don't know. But it's certainly much more integrated than when I moved here thirty-five years ago – which is good!
And my kids went to integrated schools, and I thought they, you know, they – a lot of value in that, and made them better people, but I don't think – I don't see Detroit becoming a vibrant, integrated city along those lines again. Matter of fact, there seem to be a lot of complaints – I heard it just the other day. I heard a speaker on - on Detroit. That as well as Detroit and Midtown is doing, there seem to be a lot of complaints that the entrepreneurs are all white, and that the population of downtown is white, and not integrated. That they're young people, yes, but they're all white people. By the way, I don't know that to be true, 'cause I don't study it. I've heard those complaints. So I don't think – to answer your question, yes, I think there's tremendous value in the comprehensive integrated community.
WW: Is there anything else you'd like to share?
BF: No, you've done a good job. You've worn me out!
WW: Thank you very much for sitting down with me today.
BF: My pleasure, my pleasure.
1967 riot - Detroit - Michigan