Norbert Kidd, June 29th, 2016
GS: Hello, today is June 29, 2016. My name is Giancarlo Stefanutti, this is on behalf of the Detroit ’67 Oral History Project, and we are in Detroit Michigan, so thank you for sitting down with me today. Can you first start by telling me your name?
NK: My name is Norbert Kidd. K-I-D-D.
GS: Okay Norbert, and where and when were you born?
NK: I was born in Detroit, 1942.
GS: Okay. What neighborhood were you living in?
NK: East Side. Kind of like the central East Side. When I was young I grew up in what was the Denby High School area. Lived there till I was maybe five or six. Then they moved to I guess Grosse Pointe Woods. Lived there and Harper Woods until I was maybe 17, then I moved back to Detroit.
GS: Okay. What did your parents do growing up?
NK: Okay. My mother was a homemaker basically but eventually she became a nurse’s aide at Saint John’s Hospital. My father has a degree in electrical engineering, but ended up, because of things that happened—for example he was working at Henry Ford electrical train thing that was down by Dearborn. The depression ended that—ended his job. He eventually ended up opening a brass and bronze foundry on Bellevue Street in Detroit. Partnership with others, and he basically functioned as a salesperson. He would go around taking the brass castings to various places and taking orders and stuff like that. And he worked till he was, wow—78, 79, something like that.
GS: So where did you go to school growing up?
NK: Okay. went through Catholic schools—Saint Joan of Arc Grade School, Notre Dame High School. Graduated from Notre Dame in 1960, tops in the class. Then I went to Wayne State, got a bachelor’s degree in history and education, master’s degree in education, and I really got so many hours beyond that but I never bothered working for a doctor.
GS: So then, what was it like growing up as a child? Was your neighborhood—was it integrated racially?
NK: No. The Far East Side of Detroit was not. From my point of view, there was really not that much neighborhood spirit. As a young, young child, you might have played with the kids next door and that was it. You didn’t venture down the street—this might just been my parents’ way of doing things. As I grew older, it used to be you got to be within sight, you known. And when I went to school, we’d go visit each other’s houses from time to time. But again, if somebody lived six, eight, ten blocks away, no transportation really, we’d find excuses to get together for different things, ride bikes like crazy, stuff like that. I looked today and some of the neighborhood companionship, what’s called, it’s just amazing. It’s so totally different than what I experienced.
GS: So you said you moved to Grosse Pointe?
NK: Grosse Pointe Woods yeah. Really it was like six blocks out of Detroit. And that point it was kind of underdeveloped area really. I mean lots of open woods and lots and stuff. So we moved there. It was interesting my parents, both of them grew up on the West Side. Linwood, 24th Street. For some reason after they were married they just moved all the way to the East Side. That’s a major thing in those days. I mean it was like the East Side and West Side, had to pack a lunch to go to the other side of town. It was a major thing. The freeways were not really there, I can remember when they were first building the Edsel Ford Freeway. It was only open like from Russel to maybe where the Lodge is now. So we had to visit my grandmother, we’d go up to Warren to Russel, go up to Russel and [4:07??]. But that didn’t help much, but you know, with transportation, you didn’t communicate that much.
GS: Right. Do you have any siblings?
GS: Do you have any siblings?
NK: I had a brother, one brother, he was a year and a half younger, he died a couple years ago. And that was about it. We were a very small family. My father had two brothers that really I never saw. My mother had two sisters, they’re both dead, two cousins that have moved out of Detroit. You know, very small family.
GS: So when you moved to Grosse Pointe was that a vastly different community than on the East Side?
NK: I was too young to even notice a difference. It wasn’t the Grosse Pointe of today. You know the people in the neighborhood—there was a barber, a storekeeper, you know, it was not anything of upper middle class at that point. Because we were certainly not upper middle class. We were basically middle class, or maybe even lower middle class, but it didn’t have the prestige it has now. And if anything, since I went to catholic schools, there were a lot of catholic community type people. You know, “Oh, so and so goes to my school,” that sort of thing. I didn’t know Detroit well enough at that point to see a big difference.
GS: Okay. So then you moved back to Detroit when you said you were about 17?
NK: When I was in college, actually just before I graduated, I probably was older than 17, closer to 20, 21.
NK: I graduated from Wayne, and it was time to get my own, and I bought into the 1960s way of thinking, education wise, they keep telling us “You got to identify with your students. You have to be one with your students.” And I said “Well if I’m driving 15, 20 minutes, I’m not really one with my students. I need to be somewhere where I can be close to the school.” I hate driving to work, taking forever to get home. So I settled where I am right now. Same place I’ve been—basically within two lots.
NK: I went into an apartment building, eventually I had a chance to buy a house with friends of mine from college. So I’m still there. Apartment building’s gone, they’re gone, but I’m there.
GS: So you said you wanted to identify more with the students, so you were teaching at this time?
NK: Well yeah, I was a new teacher. I started teaching in ’64. And, you know, this was a time where—relevance, if you will. How much you understand the lives that your kids are leading, you know, where they shopped, where they socialized, where they this-and-this, you really can’t reach them effectively. And that’s true because I taught with one man who lived in Monroe, he drove all the way into the center of the city every day. He was in Monroe because his wife was a bank manager down there. You know, in terms of any kind of involvement, living as I did, five minutes away from the school, I was able to spend time before school and after school. Weekends, if there was activities I could get involved, I used to take kids out on weekend, you know, just quick trips—airport, Ann Arbor, stuff like that. And the school I taught at was Spain School, Mack and Beaubien, Brewster Projects. And at that point, it was like the kids had not really seen much of the city itself. I could go talking about Wayne State and they were like “That’s over there somewhere isn’t it?” Wayne State right now was surrounding the school, but I’d always go up to Wayne and take a walk around campus. That kind of stuff, you know. So, I had a little bit of freedom to do that sort of thing.
GS: Okay. So when you moved back to Detroit, could you sense any tension within the city or was there some sort of atmosphere change from the last time you were there?
NK: I didn’t really feel any of that tension. When I mover first of all into the apartment building, if there was any tension it was who is this young kid moving in here? Because it was mostly older retirees that had been in that community for a while and here I am, and “What’s he gonna do? This is gonna be the downfall of the building.” But in terms of tension, I heard stories, you know, and read things, and heard about this and that. But personally, I really didn’t pick up on anything to be honest.
GS: Okay. So then, where were you when you first heard about the riot starting?
NK: On my way back from New York City.
GS: Oh okay.
NK: Another teacher and I and my brother and a friend had gone to New York just for like a three day weekend. So we’re coming back, we got on 94, just about like where Flatrock is, and all of a sudden traffic was just stopped. “What’s this?” We turn the radio on and—because AM radio, you really couldn’t get it out in the boondocks—and they were talking about problems in Detroit and fires, and this-and-that, and “This is closed” and “That is closed.” So I got off the freeway, my brother lived in Redford, so I zoomed over there, dropped him off, came back down here, and now the freeway, you know, you could smell smoke and see smoke drifting over everything because it was going right down in the freeway. The teacher with me lived in Highland Park, so I went back up there, and my usual procedure would have been to take Oakland Avenue down here. “No, I’m gonna take John R.” And as I went down John R., I looked to my left down the side streets, and there was like a sheet of flame—a wall of flame. The stores on Oakland were burning. So, that’s when the beginning—I had no idea what the scope of the thing was yet, I just knew there was some terrible thing going on. And with my crazy self, I said “I wanna make sure the school is still there.” So I drove down by Mack and Beaubien, 10, 10:30 at night just to make sure the school was there, went around Woodward a little bit. And, like, there’s a liquor store Erskine and Woodward. And there were flames shooting all over the place, yet there were people running in and out of the broken out windows with liquor, with boxes of things, going across Woodward. And you come up—I got near the Boulevard, there used to be a Crowley’s store there. First it was Demery’s then it was Crowley’s, it’s gone now. It’s near where that railroad station is there. But, “What’s this?” you know. The windows were beautiful. I mean, they had brown paper, and they had this and that, but every single thing was gone. The windows and all the furniture and all the clothes and everything [inaudible], it was like you had a blank picture frame. So at that point I said “Something not right is going on here.” So I got home and, you know, you could hear sirens in the background, you knew things were going on. I got out, I was on the second floor, and windows looked straight up Seward Avenue. And I looked up Seward and I could see—first of all, there was a red glow where Twelfth Street was, all up in the sky was a red glow, and then I could look down Seward and I could see flames shooting all over the place. So, that was kind of like the introduction to the craziness. That was the first evening, and that first evening was kind of surreal because everybody was kind of like—there was a little balcony on this apartment building and a bunch of people just sit out there, kind of watching and listening, sirens, and you’d hear gunfire. I did a lot of that because since there was a curfew during the day, you couldn’t do too much. So evenings you could sit up and just—evenings seemed to be the threatening time if you will. And we’d sit out there and watching and you’d see police cars zooming back and forth, but in terms of anything happening right in that neighborhood at that point, everything seemed to be pretty peaceful.
GS: Were the tenants in you apartment complex, were they panicking, or how were they reacting?
NK: There were a couple of people I know packed up and moved to relatives out in the suburbs or in Northwest Detroit. But most of them were just kind of laid back, you know. They were older people, and they didn’t seem to feel particularly threatened. But the rumors that were flying around for the whole three days, they stopped a busload of people coming in from Chicago to help with the rioters. They’ve been getting secret supplies from here and there, you know, there were all these crazy rumors floating around and people were gullible enough at that point, because of the fear I guess, to believe almost anything. Back in those days, the newspapers would come out with extras. So every three, four hours, a new extra with the latest information came out, because television news in those days was nothing to write home about. So they were keeping up with things but the people I associated with, outside of the three or four people that decided, you know, “We’re getting out of here. We’re taking the dog and we’re going.” But most of us were still—I hate to use the word “interested,” but just see what was gonna happen, you know. I never felt really physically threatened. But others were that were out there in the mix of things.
GS: So did you stay in your building for the rest of the days of the riot?
NK: Oh yeah. Oh yeah yeah yeah. I went out once—actually I went out a couple of times, the store across the street didn’t have any milk or anything. It was closed, it wasn’t even open. So I had to walk up a little ways to get some milk. But one afternoon—the weather was like it is today, sunny, warm—I decided just to go around the city and just zoom around and see what was happening. I took a few pictures, you know, just to document. But, you know, you go down along the Chrysler freeway, you look up in the sky and you see smoke rising here, smoke rising there, four or five different places around the city, you’d see smoke rising. I drove around West Side, West Warren, that area there, there was a lot of stuff going on there, I drove up to—I just circled around, pictures of burned-out houses, burned-out buildings. The weirdest thing was I thought I’d see how close I could get to Twelfth Street, knowing I couldn’t get too close to it. Well I went up Twelfth, and at the Boulevard it was blocked off. Police cars and barricades and they’re directing traffic, but you could look up the street and see smoke and fires still going, but as I’m getting ready to turn right off of Twelfth, these two motorcycles just come zooming right through the barricades, right on down the thing—my brother with his crazy self. [laughter]. Yeah. Yeah.
NK: You know, he did things like that. Obviously he survived, but that was about the extent of my going off into different areas. The area where I lived was basically not too, I want to say damaged maybe. The crazy thing was—I think it was that Monday night—again, five or six of us sitting on this balcony just watching things, and this one idiot is eating chips. So when he finishes the bag of chips, what do you do? You blow it up and pop it. Sounded like a gunshot. And you could see people across the street on porches and everything getting up like “Okay, where is it? Where is it?” They were ready. Ready for action, you know, [inaudible] start shooting, thank goodness. It was basically an integrated neighborhood. Not completely, nothing like it is now, but it was integrated. Another thing that happened, one of those nights, about two of three in the morning, all of a sudden, a garage, maybe two blocks away, burst into flames. And you could sit there in this surreal quiet and darkness, and see these flames, no sign of any fire department coming to do anything, and you didn’t know what it was. Is it a house? Is it a garden? What is it? You know, so that was a memorable thing that sticks in my mind. By Tuesday, when the National Guard and the army were called in, you could see tanks rolling up and down Woodward. In fact, the day I was going around taking pictures, I passed some kind of armed vehicle on the freeway, headed west. Kind of unusual to see these big military things rumbling on there. At the corner of Shane and Warren, the park across from Northeastern High School was a camp for the National Guard. And you’d go by there and see these tanks and these supply trucks and everything, and they’re all camped there. That was an unusual sight, to put it that way. You look out the front window and you see a soldier standing on the corner next to the mailbox with a gun, ready for action. The gas station behind me had “soul brother” written on its window. I always thought he was Greek [laughter]. He was. But, you know, a lot of people were kind of shocked at the—there was a motel out on the Lodge freeway in Grand Boulevard, a businessman was in there for a conference visiting Detroit, standing from the window, some sniper from across the freeway killed him. And that guy said “Wow, what’s going on here?” You know, getting closer. Probably the claim to fame might be the Algiers Motel, which was like a block over from me. And I can remember the night because—I can’t say I heard gunfire from the motel, you were always hearing gunfire from everywhere. But all of a sudden, there was this huge police presence. Just racing in and racing in, so we knew something was going on. And that was supposedly where that police officer killed those three guys that were in the motel. So that was something I remembered for sure. Other than that, you know, slowly, stability returned. I was teaching summer program at the school, and another teacher, and she was big on social things etcetera, said she wanted to take some pictures, to take the kids around and show them. So it would’ve been like the next Monday or Tuesday after things had kind of subsided. We went up Twelfth Street, and took a lot of pictures of the burned-out buildings, you know, the wrecked automobiles, the twisted timbers or whatever, and especially that block at Philadelphia and Twelfth. The whole block had been burned. All you saw was the chimneys of these old houses standing. Very unreal sight, so that is related to the riots and that’s memorable too. Other than that, there still was a lot of this—I say suspicion, maybe it’s fear—“What’s going to happen? It’s going to happen again. It’s going to break out.” For months afterwards, you hear a siren in the middle of the night, you think “Oh, we’re going backwards,” you know. Honestly, it took me awhile to get over that syndrome too, because—not that I was afraid, I just didn’t want to have things happen again after we started finding our way out of it. Interesting thing I was really impressed by, during all of this from time to time, students would call me to make sure I was okay. And I thought that was very thoughtful and very nice, you know, kind of something to touch base with in the midst of all this craziness. Other than that, the kids at school would talk about stuff. You know, they felt comfortable talking in front of me, going into a store, takings TVs, taking shoes and clothes, taking food—piles and piles of food. And that made me realize that one of the things—they often say that this riot, some people call it a rebellion, an uprising—
GS: I was about to ask you about that actually.
NK: Yes, yes. Because I didn’t really see the black/ white conflict. It was more an economic thing. I mean, in those days, at least the kids I taught, and that’s the Brewster Projects, there wasn’t much money. The families didn’t really have cars. I don’t know how many kids I’ve taken for road tests in my car because they didn’t have a family car. And if they did, it wasn’t insured. Food, fill up the freezer, you know, when they talk about—the poor people, the poor black people in the city were exploited by retails. I’ve been in grocery stores and you look in and say “What is that?” You know, you see a meat department with those dried up [21:04??] of something, the vegetables look like they came from a Christmas basket, all dried out and, you know. These used furniture stores, there were a lot of them along Twelfth and Long Mack. Some piece of junk, they charge a fortune, and if you can’t pay them, they give you generous terms, where you end up paying five times the cost of the item over time. When I was in college, I used to walk around the city a lot. I had a nine o’clock class, next one at two, I just walked. I walked up and down Twelfth Street five years before this happened, when the old Jewish merchants were still there with pickle barrels out in front, I walked up and down Mack, I really got to know the city. I just enjoyed doing that stuff. So I do think a lot of—you were gonna mention what the terminology is—I don’t see this as a riot. I remember I’ve read about the ’44 riot where there actually was black and white conflict and antagonism. You know, it happened, yes. But I don’t think anybody got shot necessarily just because he was white or he was black in a certain situation—unless it was by the cops. But, you know, looking back on it over 50 years, I keep wondering why. I don’t think there was any one incident. Like in ’44, there was an incident here, and there was a rumor spread that “This happened on Belle Isle. This happened over here.” Turned out not to be particularly true, but that’s what got emotions going. Of course in those years, the city was over-burdened with people. All the workers from the factories living in terrible conditions. Not saying the conditions were that much better in ’67, but there weren’t the social programs that we have now, and there was discrimination in higher discrimination in employment, and maybe this was just the way to let steam off, I don’t know. There are those I’m sure that have a much more militaristic view, I don’t know. This is me, relatively a peaceful person. I consider myself a peaceful person, I would never get involved in riots, conflicts, etcetera like that. But I certainly have feelings for what went on. So, that basically was the week that was.
GS: So how do you see Detroit presently? Do you think it’s improved at all?
NK: Okay, first of all, I absolutely believe in Detroit since I’ve been here all these years in the same neighborhood, which is like six blocks north of the Boulevard. And I think it’s improving, although I’m beginning to see some steps backwards with all the gentrification. I haven’t really heard—well, I hear things, you know, “They’re taking over our territory.” I mean, I’ve been up and down John R. and Brush, after school every day I’d go downtown. I never saw people walking French poodles, skateboarding, you know, it’s a big change. I never dreamed they’d be paying 15 hundred, 18 hundred dollars a month rent, in the Woodward corridor down there. Is it changed? Yes it’s changed. Is it better? It’s too early to tell. If some of the people who move in here are open to communication with those who have lived here, it would be good, if there’s more understanding. If it becomes two separate worlds, it’s not good. And if it really becomes antagonistic, you know, something might happen to drive all these people back on out, and I wonder if they’re waiting for it. There was some controversy within the last couple years about the old Brewster Projects, they tore them down. There’s the Brewster Community Center, which was like the core of that community, it was like home away from home. The kids were at school or at the center. That was it. And Joe Louis trained there, etcetera, etcetera. So, a lady, one of my former students, you know, 35, decided we’re not gonna let them tear that down. So she organized a fight, she got committee, she went downtown, she put me on the committee. I said “What am I doing? I didn’t grow up down here.” “Yeah, we needed an older man.” “Thanks.” [laughter] But she got historical designation for it, so they’re not going to tear it down. I went to the commission with her and I gave my little spiel, you know, I said “This is probably the only building left that was anywhere near Hastings Street.” And that got their attention. It really is, outside of a couple of churches. And then I mentioned the whole history of the thing. It was a—what’s his name? Library man. Carnegie! It was a Carnegie library, long story, long story, became a recreation center. So right now, the mayor said “Okay, we’re gonna open it up for development.” It’s never gonna be a community center, there’s no community. So some of those people wondered what’s he gonna put in there? You know, that’s another interesting issue that might pop up, might not. So I don’t know what to say about the future, it was looking very good. I mean, it seems that especially down here, maybe the university has a lot to do with it too, because university certainly welcomes people of all backgrounds, has activities for young and old, I just would hope that somehow, a new Detroit will emerge that has a real spirit to it.
GS: Alright, is there anything else you’d like to add?
NK: You had asked about my image of Detroit when I was young. And again, like so many others, I saw these factories belching out smoke, you know, this is good. There’s all this productivity, you know, all those auto plants that used to be along Jefferson by Belle Isle, we used to go by there on our way to Belle Isle all the time. That’s over with and you can’t go back. Down on Hudson’s, loved it. But you can’t go back. I was in that building five times a week. I called it my “vertical mall.” You know, but you can’t go back. And that’s the thing that kind of bothers me, these people that wanna go back, and I don’t know exactly if that’s all they’re talking about, they’re talking about “The old days when I was somebody around here,” you know, I worry about that. But things like this project I think are good because you’re gonna have—I’m sure you’ve got a wide range of opinions and ideas, and my little bit, you know, like I say, I didn’t really experience firsthand that much. But I try to be observant, you know. I’m happy I have chance to record them somewhere.
GS: Alright. Well thank you for sitting down with me today.
NK: Pardon me?
GS: Thank you for sitting down with me today. [laughter]
NK: Okay. That’s good.