Dennis Vatsis, August 18th, 2016
WW: Hello today is August 18, 2016. My name is William Winkel. I am in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society’s Detroit ’67 Oral History Project. And I am sitting down with—
DV: Dennis Vatsis.
WW: Thank you so much for sitting down with me today.
WW: Can you please tell me where and when were you born?
DV: June 25, 1944 in Detroit.
WW: Did you grow up in Detroit?
DV: Sure did.
WW: What neighborhood did you grow up in?
DV: Linwood Avenue near Virginia Park.
WW: Was that area integrated at that time?
DV: No, it was all immigrant community essentially, and largely Jewish. I’m not Jewish, but it was an immigrant community. My father was from Europe and if you look at the 1940 census, which was just released a year or two ago, it was amazing. Everybody on Linwood Avenue had to be an immigrant from somewhere around the world other than the U.S.A. So it’s really interesting going down that census list. You can go down literally every address on Linwood Avenue and you’ll see that somebody came from another part of the world. They were all employed at a car company, ironically.
WW: Did you enjoy growing up in that neighborhood?
DV: I sure did, it was great.
WW: Would you like to share any stories from growing up in that neighborhood?
DV: It was just great, real sense of community. Everybody knew each other. My father owned a restaurant on Linwood Avenue and we lived on top of it in a little bungalow probably smaller than the room we’re in right now. Five of us- mother, dad, brother, sister, and me.
WW: Oh wow.
DV: Yeah. So we lived on top of the restaurant. My dad had a restaurant downstairs that he started probably around 1924, he came into this country in about 1920.
WW: Growing up in the city, did you venture around it or did you tend to stay in your own neighborhood?
DV: No, no we ventured around. We took the streetcar downtown. We played in the alleys, played baseball in the alleys, climbed trees, all kinds of stuff. It was really quite a bit of fun, I miss it even to this day.
WW: Growing up, what schools did you go to?
DV: I went to Angell Elementary, which is now a vacant field. It was torn down. Then I was at Holmer and Euclid. My sister went there, my brother went there, and my sister went to Cass Tech. The original Cass Tech. My brother went to the original Northwestern High School, that was torn down. Now there’s a new Northwestern High School. My family moved to —it was Inkster at the time, but then it was incorporated into Dearborn Heights, which it is now…back in 1956 or '57. So I moved out of Detroit around age 12 or 13. My father kept the restaurant until about 1959 or 1960, I think, sold it. Then he opened another restaurant. We have a pretty strong family background in restaurants. My dad opened a restaurant after that in Oak Park, Seven mile, in Detroit. Near Evergreen. It’s now Lou’s Deli, which does pretty well.
WW: Why did your family move out?
DV: Well, you know, the neighborhood was changing demographically and it was getting tough, you know, to be candid. Lot of kids, including me, were just being bullied and harassed by a lot of minority kids, you know. It was really uncomfortable.
WW: Okay. Even after your family moved out, did you visit Detroit or did you —
DV: Oh, yeah, I love Detroit. My family kept the restaurant til about ’59, thereabouts. And to this day, I still drive down Linwood Avenue just to see the old neighborhood decades later.
WW: After you graduated high school, did you stay in the area?
DV: Yeah, I went to U of M [University of Michigan] in Ann Arbor. Graduated from there with a degree in economics and after that I graduated from U of M in ’66. ’62-’66 in Ann Arbor, which is really a great city. I really like Ann Arbor a lot. And then I went to law school at Wayne, ’66-’69 and I’ve been a lawyer ever since. 47 years.
WW: When you came back to the city in ’66 to go to law school, was it still the same city you left as a kid or did it seem different to you?
DV: No, it was pretty much the same except Linwood Avenue, where I grew up, it had changed dramatically. Then the riots were in ’67, everything was burned down. When I drive by there now, this beautiful neighborhood where I lived is nothing but a vacant field surrounded by a chain link fence. I can’t even believe this has happened to this vibrant neighborhood back 50 years ago. It’s just a decimated neighborhood now.
WW: When you came back to go to law school, where did you live?
DV: At home. Now it’s Dearborn Heights but I’d commute everyday down Michigan Avenue or the freeway.
WW: How did you first hear what was going on in July?
DV: It was all over the news, it wasn’t much to find out about. It was there to see and know.
WW: Did it take you by surprise?
DV: Not really, because you know there was and I think there even is today, a lot of racial tension in the city. And it was just an explosion that was ready to occur. And it occurred in my neighborhood, my old neighborhood. Linwood Avenue and what was then Twelfth street, now it’s Rosa Parks.
WW: How do you interpret the events? Because you said there was racial tension do you think it was a race riot?
DV: It was definitely a race riot, you know. The neighborhoods were burned down and actually during the riots, because I still am fond of that neighborhood, you know in the back of my mind I’m still thinking of what a great neighborhood it was to grow up in. All the friendly kids, the sense of community. You’d play anywhere you wanted, take the street car downtown. My father’s restaurant, even though we lived upstairs in this little cubby-hole apartment, which I don’t think was the size of this room, you know, when you’re a kid, those things don’t matter. So, your question was—?
WW: How do you interpret what happened?
DV: Definitely a race riot, yeah. Because there was a lot of racial tension. Even when I was going to Angell Elementary, before it was torn down. There’s just a lot of tension. I was a safety boy and I would be harassed literally everyday by a lot of the incoming new residents. They just wouldn’t listen to me and just harassed me to death, literally. Just being really intimidating.
WW: Did you see any of the events of ’67 first hand?
DV: Yeah, sure did.
WW: What’d you see?
DV: Well, I don't know which night, that was 50 years ago, but I decided with my friend Mike, who was my roommate in Ann Arbor, to go through the whole neighborhood, to drive through there. There was a curfew but who cared? So we drove through there and it was really quite an experience. The was a curfew wasn’t very well enforced. People were milling around, people driving around. Went down Linwood Avenue where I grew up. Half of it was on fire and there was troops all over the place. Turned down one of the side streets and got down to Grand River, which is about a mile off Linwood, a mile and a half, and drove to West Grand Boulevard, if you can picture all this. And right there at West Grand Boulevard, there was an armored personnel carrier, which was weird, in the middle of Detroit. And the troops stopped us, I think the Airborne division, if I’m not mistaken, and they were kind of mean and gruff to Mike and me. They were like, “What are you doing here? There’s a curfew” etc., etc. “There’s a riot going on, what are doing here before you get killed—” One of the soldiers, he was so annoyed at me, he actually hit me in the chest with his gun butt, rather hard, you know, knocked me back quite a ways. Told us to get out of there. So I can still remember him, whoever he was. Who knows.
DV: So we still roamed around a little while, there was really nothing to see except fires, devastation right there at West Grand Boulevard and Grand River, the original Northwestern High School was still standing. I remember that because my brother went there. I’d go there for events when I was a kid. Actually had a big cannon from the first World War out front. Now it’s at the new Northwestern High School, they just moved it. And at the corner where Northwestern High School was, there’s a Baptist Church now. The school just moved down a few hundred feet. Right across the street was the YMCA that I’d love to go to every Saturday morning and swim and here the whole city’s on fire. The whole city I knew growing up was essentially being torn apart here. Really very sad from my standpoint. But I knew the neighborhood, I knew Grand River and West Grand Boulevard because I went to the YMCA right there.
WW: After, did you have any second thoughts about coming back to Detroit?
DV: No, no. I’ve been connected to Detroit all my life. My office right now, I’m a lawyer, is downtown. I’ve been downtown all my life, working. So I like the city. Now it’s made a slight rebound, as you know.
WW: Are you optimistic for the city moving forward?
DV: Yeah I am. But you know, if you read all these Pew studies, the one I’m thinking of in the back of my mind, you know like 47 or 48 percent of the city is functionally illiterate. You can’t do much forward progress when literally half the community is functionally illiterate. From my estimations, it’s probably greater than that. I deal with a lot of people from the city. My guess there’s more functional illiteracy than just 47 or 48 percent. So you can’t move forward with that type of background. Community’s got to educate itself and hopefully it will.
WW: Is there anything else you’d like to add today?
DV: No, no. It’s just- it was a great city, still is a great city but it’s not the city it was back in the Forties or Fifties, let me put it that way. I wish it was.
WW: Okay, thank you so much for sitting down with me today. I greatly appreciate it.