Frank DiMaria, August 11, 2016
HS: Hello, this is Hannah Sabal. I am in Clinton Township, MI. The date is August 11, 2016 and I am here for the Detroit Historical Society’s Detroit 67 Oral History Project with Mr. Frank DiMaria. Thank you for sitting down with me today.
FD: Well, thank you for asking me. I appreciate that.
HS: Can you start by telling me where and when you were born?
FD: I was born in 1942 in Detroit, MI. At the time there was a Women’s Hospital downtown. I was born here. Lived here til ‘74.
HS: So you grew up in Detroit?
FD: I grew up in Detroit.
HS: What part of Detroit?
FD: Well, my parents had a place on Lake Point near Outer Drive for a little while then they bought a new home on Kelly and Redmond area somewhere in that northeast suburb of Detroit.
HS: Okay, so east side.
FD: East side, oh yeah. Always an east sider.
HS: What did your parents do for a living?
FD: Well, my mother had various jobs. She always worked; she was one of the first ones I knew that worked in the neighborhood and she various jobs. McKessons & Robbins which was a drug store at the time. My dad worked for a furniture company. He was a salesman manager when there were furniture stores in Detroit. Then later on when I got older, we decided to go into business together. We started out on Kelly Road. Our first building was on Kelly Road. Then now we moved to Morang and eventually Grosse Pointe Woods. We worked together for 35 years, I think.
HS: Awesome. What was your neighborhood like growing up?
FD: Very pleasant. It was, I guess, what you would call a typical neighborhood. It was quiet and it was all families that work. Firemen, policemen, all working families. They were small bungalows, typical of Detroit east side subdivision, and dirt roads, when I was growing up, believe it or not. They used to oil them and it was messy but they eventually got it all paved all around us as progress went. We got more and more shops around and supermarkets. It was very pleasant because as a child, I remember that we were pretty free to go anywhere we wanted. In fact, I often talk about it with my peers that if we wanted to go downtown or a local park or anywhere we were free to do it. There were no concerns with my parents that we went anywhere.
HS: Was your neighborhood integrated?
HS: I’m going by your last name, is your family Italian?
HS: So was it a lot of Italians or a mixture?
FS: This neighborhood was a mixture, I would say. It was a pretty good mixture. There was – I don’t know what percentage – I would say it’s safe to say that it was a mixture. Some of my friends were Polish decent. We had my friend, Gary Barnes, and that. We had a pretty diversified, except, like you mentioned, there was no integration. As a matter of fact, that’s unfortunate because I do remember that, too, when the first family moved in.
HS: When did that first family move in?
FD: You know, I can’t tell you the year but it was before the riots.
HS: Was it in the 1960s?
FD: Yes, it had to be in the 1960s. The exact time, it was on Moross Road. There were duplexes on Moross Road and they bought one half of the duplex and this lead to, unfortunately, confrontation. They were the first ones in our area and it lead to strong confrontation and eventually, as I recall it, they did move out. They did move out. They did not stay.
HS: So your neighborhood did not react very well to a black family moving in?
FD: No, absolutely not. It wasn’t until – I went to Denby High School and I graduated in '60 and maybe ‘65, ‘64 or ‘65, students were coming up to Denby. Then things were starting to get more integrated, but even that was a situation and even though I wasn’t going to school anymore, my brother was going to school at the time and it was a problem. But it eventually it didn’t lead to anything, luckily. But that was what we felt changed and I still lived in the neighborhood myself after I got married and we lived there until ‘74.
HS: So in the 1960s, did you sense any tension in the city or did you anticipate any violence?
HS: Not at all?
FD: The east side, again, was quiet. It seemed like the west side was a different situation. But we were sort of a secure little area of Detroit. At least, that’s the way I felt and actually, I didn’t contemplate moving. Only after the circumstances that, like a lot of Detroiters unfortunately, decided to move for the sake of the children and that. So, right or wrong, that was the case after. But before we were just a neighborhood of kids and just very, very typical, good American east side.
HS: We’re going to touch on you moving out in a little bit but for now, how did you first hear about the events in July in ‘67?
FD: My brother was a musician–my younger brother was a musician, and at the time, let’s see, you asked how did I find – it was a mixture of – it was the news of course. Probably I would have to say the news was the first thing. The second one was my brother because he played at a bar on Grand River, The Barbary Coast, and he played each weekend and we went to see him and, as a loyal brother, my wife and I used to go and see him. He was nervous because he played that Saturday and he left at the normal bar closing time at 2:00 or something like that not knowing what was going on down the block a ways. And the next morning, of course, when we all heard the news, he called and he was all upset and that because he was a keyboard player and at the time there wasn’t these electronic keyboards that were small and mobile. He had this fabulous organ that was a Hammond B3 that weighed 300 pounds if it weighed an ounce and two big Leslie speakers that weigh a couple hundred pounds each. They were huge. And that’s the way the top performers at the time were using keyboard people and he had this outfit with the amplifiers and everything else and he was really concerned because of course on TV and I think Mayor Cavanagh that Sunday declared curfew that Sunday, if I remember right. And he was concerned because he had so much invested in this on Grand River in a bar that wasn’t – it was a gay bar and it wasn’t known for the best spot anyway so he was a little nervous and we were watching the news but there was nothing we could do about it at that time on Sunday. But that’s when I first heard about it. I didn’t know nothing Saturday night. It wasn’t until Sunday that we heard that there was these problems. But before that moment, everything was, as far as I was concerned, everything was fine. There was no change in anything. Like I said, we were down there almost every weekend listening to him play in and out of the city. In fact, we did a lot downtown. We were Detroiters and we spent a lot of time down there, you know. We were members at the DIA [Detroit Institute of Arts] and all that kind of good stuff. So we were good citizens downtown.
HS: Did you witness or experience anything during that week from the riots?
FD: Yes. Nothing – I don’t know how you’re asking – nothing threatening.
HS: We just – whatever stories you have, just go for it.
FD: That’s the one I think Megan – we were at a meeting and I just happened to – the thing was, Monday was bad. It was another bad day and between the National Guard coming in and finally President Johnson sending in the federal troops, it was very bad but my brother had continued concern about his stuff being down at the bar and of course Sunday they didn’t play. There was a curfew and the leader of the group, it was a pick-up group. They played at bars all around. Said that was it, he wasn’t going to go back again. And all he did was play the trumpet so he’d have no problems. But all the equipment was down at Grand River so my brother called. It got a little quiet. By Wednesday it was pretty quiet and it was like a little break. So my brother called and I had a truck because we were in business and I had a big truck. He said, "Can I borrow the truck?" and I used to help him on a lot of his jobs. I was like the roadie for him. I says, “You’re kidding, we’re going to go down there?” [laughs] I couldn’t believe it. So I says, “How are we going to get down there?” because I figure there’s no way you’re going to get downtown. But anyway, we go over to the business, pick up the truck, and I’m going to say we’re at Kelly and Morang. East side. Far east side. We’re leaving with the truck and all of a sudden this tank comes by. Oh, this is a good start. We’re on a roll now. And a couple of jeeps with guys with rifles and machine guns. I says, “You sure you want to go downtown?” He says, “I gotta get that stuff!” [laughs] So we went down there. I thought we would be stopped every two minutes and I had something I’d imagine going through a security point. Maybe movies or whatever the case may be. But it wasn’t that way. But it was empty. I mean there was nobody. Doing nothing. And that was very unusual for downtown at that time because downtown was a very vibrant area downtown. There was still a lot of stores and everything else. And it was empty. But needless to say, we got on Grand River. Made a left and got onto Grand River and the bar was on the right. Here in front of the bar as we pull up in the owner of the bar. He’s sitting on the chair leaning back like this with a shotgun.
HS: Oh, geeze.
FD: With a shotgun in his lap and he saw us and so we stopped and he said, he’s probably was talking to my brother because he knew my brother more than he did me. He says, “You didn’t have to worry about anything, Doug. I’m protecting my business and nobody is going to get in my business.” And even though it was a gay bar, the owner was a rough son of a gun. He was a rough guy, but he was staunchly there and he was upset about the fact that we were going to pick up and the group didn’t have any intentions of coming back. So we lug all of that stuff out of the bar, got it in without any – I didn’t hear no shooting, no fires were in that general area. In fact, that was the problem. We saw on TV that the city was burning but when we really got out there, it was down at Twelfth Street and that. We weren’t by there.
HS: Remind me once again where this bar was, cross street wise?
FD: Oh my god, cross street —
HS: Closest approximation that you can.
FD: I would say you’re within the sight of Penobscot Building. Maybe the Penobscot Building was a half a mile away?
HS: So, like, really, really downtown?
FD: Yeah, and going north, Grand River I believe goes northwest? I think the Lodge [Freeway] was there. Yeah, the Lodge was there. We took the Lodge. I think the Lodge was there at that time. We took the Lodge and we made a left onto Grand River and we were there. So in that general area. Even at that time I don’t think I could tell you what the cross streets were let alone 50 years later.
HS: Oh that’s fine.
FD: It was the downtown area. It was right downtown. And the National Guard was given the assignment of protecting the west side and the federal government was protecting the east side, our side. And what made us nervous, the problems were on the west side with the National Guard. But, like I said, thankfully, nobody in the family could believe it. I said nobody stopped us I once. In fact, we went by the troops and things like that it was strange because, again, downtown was empty and that was unusual at that time to see nobody on the road. But we went in and got his equipment and got it out safely and we were safe. We were never in any situation that I would say was any problem.
Later on I had another, it wasn’t an incident. After the fires and after the riot was over, there was an import business down on Michigan Avenue and I was in interior design and this building was burned but one part wasn’t and he imported raw furniture frames. Very carved, very ornate furniture frames. We bought out the stock and he was going up so we bought up the stock and again I found myself going on Michigan Avenue but we got all that out and after that, that was no problem either. We got that out without any situation. The only other thing I have any connection with is my cousin was in the National Guard and he served in downtown Detroit and that’s a whole different story for him because that was an experience, he said. It was a terrible experience for him. Very bad. But he’d have to talk to that.
HS: So looking back on the events, would you classify them as a riot or would you call it a rebellion or an uprising?
FD: I would only go, being a young man at the time, I would have to go with what they were calling it: a riot. They were comparing it to the ‘43 Riots and some compared it that it was worse and some said, no the ‘43 at Belle Isle was worse than that and I thought about. I was alive for both of them even though a lot people [unintelligible]. I was eleven months old when the ‘43 one [laughs]. So I got two of them but I would say, my opinion it was a riot. I don’t think it was insurrection. I don’t think so. It’s just like, unfortunately, some circumstances today, I always contribute it to unfortunately when three young men were killed at the motel –
FD: I think that really, things just escalated. Then, yes, was there tension? From then on, up to that point there was none but, unfortunately, I hate to say, but from them on there has been.
HS: Have you seen the city change at all since then?
FD: Oh yeah. Why sure, after the riots the downtown area started deteriorating fast and the retail businesses like Crawley’s, where I got my first job, Hudson’s, Lane Bryant which I worked for for a while, all closed. And the retail just fell apart. If it wasn’t for the cultural area I don’t think anybody would be down there. That’s as far as they went, probably, I don’t know. There was nothing. My memory, because the Ren Cen [Renaissance Center] was built. That was supposed to bring us back in the Seventies?
HS: I believe so.
FD: I don’t know either.
HS: It was definitely after the riots.
FD: Oh yeah, no, it was after the riots. They weren’t down there. Because that was supposed to be the catalyst to get downtown going again but it didn’t. It failed. But yes, we went through that whole process and of course there was back and forth for everybody about why or when or whatever the case may be about how downtown deteriorated. And of course they blamed the shopping malls, too, that opened up in the suburbs so now the people in the suburbs didn’t have to go downtown to get anything unusual for a gift or anything. When the necessity of going downtown became, outside of the Fisher Theater there was really no reason to go down there.
HS: Are you optimistic about the future of Detroit?
FD: The last few years, yes. I think under Mayor Duggan things have progressed tremendously. I think the last three years have outdone the last three decades because things are looking real good. In fact my grandson, one goes to U of D [University of Detroit] and the other goes to Wayne State University and they live downtown. Downtown is their playground so that’s a very good sign because that’s exactly what you need is young people. The neighborhoods, I don’t know. Every city, even where I live now in Sterling Heights, we need young families moving in and that’s one of our problems. Our population is getting older. More and more retirees are staying there, which is wonderful. We need young families to be your base. A strong base.
HS: To repopulate the city.
FD: Exactly. I think the future is good. I think they’re trying to solve the neighborhood problems. Every day you hear about some organization trying to help the neighborhoods. I think it’s a tall project to do but I don’t know. I hope they can build, I don’t know what it would be. Some professionals are moving down there and I wouldn’t be surprised if after my grandsons graduate saying that they’re moving. But they would be moving into an apartment. They won’t be moving probably into a home. And who knows about family, you never know about that. I don’t know, there’s these new areas where families can get their education and everything. Typically family. That’s my only problem where they’ve still got a little ways to go but the last three years have been phenomenal but unfortunately for our age group, remembering, talking about ‘67, my peers still have a heck of a time trying to go downtown. And some I’m surprised say absolutely not. Yet, I’ve been down there for the jazz festival myself and I think it’s great, but I even have to drag my wife. She don’t want to go down there. It’s unfortunate because I think of it as nice and when we went down there last year for the jazz festival, we had a very good time. It was really nice and everything was clean and fine and I thought it was a nice place to be. I was really impressed. The buildings were clean. It looked like they cleaned up a few of the other older buildings. I was very impressed so I hope it continues. And I hope for my grandchildren that Detroit will be a place to maybe come back to and, if they have a family, raise a family there like I did. Because I was there until ‘74. I tried to stay. But it wasn’t the riots that sent me out of Detroit. That wasn’t the catalyst that sent me. There was another matter that sent me out of Detroit. A whole different problem that came up. And same with the business at that very time, too, that’s when we went into Grosse Pointe Woods and I felt bad about giving up on Detroit. And I give a lot of the business people that are trying to have businesses in Detroit a lot of credit because I couldn’t put up with it. I just couldn’t put up with it. It was just too much for me. Raising a family and that, I just couldn’t do it.
HS: Is there anything else you wanted to share today?
FD: No, I think that’s it as far as that subject is concerned. That was my couple of little incidents down there so that was the completion of that. And it’s funny how you read the history afterwards like any situation, it comes out the mistakes that were made, but everybody could figure that out ten or fifteen years later. I wish they would have figured it out then. It didn’t have to happen that way. It did not have to happen that way at all. It could have been a whole different story, but that’s true with every historical thing. We look back and say, we should have done that.
HS: Well, Frank, thank you so much for coming in today.
FD: Well thank you for having me. I hope I helped.