Arlene Niskar, August 4th, 2016
WW: Hello, today is August 4, 2016. My name is William Winkel. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society’s Detroit 67 Oral History Project. I am in Detroit, Michigan and I am sitting down with –
AN: Arlene Niskar.
WW: Thank you for sitting down with me today.
AN: Thank you.
WW: Can you please tell me where and when you were born?
AN: I was born in Detroit. I lived on Dexter Boulevard until I was 14 years old and then we moved to Oak Park.
WW: What year were you born?
AN: I was born in 1944.
WW: What was your Dexter neighborhood like before you moved away?
AN: Oh, it was lovely. It was just beautiful. You could walk anywhere to buy anything. There was bakeries and fish markets and fresh poultry stores where you could go in and pick out a chicken and there was the Dexter Show and dime stores where they give away goldfish on Saturdays. Half-dead goldfish to the kids that would come in. Oh, that was a big deal. There was a lot of drug stores. There was a malt shop called Danny’s. We hung out there when I got a little older. It was a lovely neighborhood.
WW: Was the neighborhood all white?
AN: Yes. Mostly Jewish.
WW: While you were still living there, did it integrate at all?
AN: When the first black family moved in to my neighborhood, everybody was in a panic. My father was so mad at the man that sold his house to the first black family. And everybody put up their signs and started moving and the whole neighborhood just changed in a short time. My junior high school, because I was on the Broad Street side of Dexter was already integrated. There were kids from Grand River and Elmhurst and farther down so it was all kinds of kids that I went to junior high school with.
WW: Do you know why your father and the other neighbors were so upset?
AN: I hate to say it but my parents were terribly prejudiced. I never realized it. They never said it to me until I brought a black girl home from school one day and my mother said to me after, “Don’t you ever bring that girl back into this house again. We’re trying to stay away from them.” It was terrible. It was just terrible. We had a black cleaning lady and, oh, my mother used to put her sandwich and drink on separate dishes and it was like the book The Help. That’s what it was like. It was unbelievable then.
WW: Did you witness any other signs of racism across the city?
AN: Did I witness any other sign of racism? Yeah, when I moved to Oak Park and they were going to move and it was all white again and then they were going to move people from Eight Mile on Meyers and integrate them, the kids, into the Oak Park High School and oh, everybody was all upset about that. Then, must have been in the Sixties where integration started and, yeah, to tell you the truth, I didn’t know what to think because you heard the news and it was all negative about integration. And then we had horrible governors in the United States, Wallace and — that were saying “We’re never going to integrate.” And then we started seeing on the news these poor kids. The Sixties was horrible. That’s all I can say. It brings back a lot of very bad memories. I’m so glad that my kids don’t feel that way and they were never raised that way.
WW: Going into the Sixties in Detroit, from moving around so much, did you sense any growing tension in the city?
AN: We moved in 1959. We moved –
WW: To Oak Park?
WW: So while you were living in Oak Park did you come to visit Detroit at all?
AN: Oh yeah, I used to come back and visit my friends that hadn’t moved yet that lived off of Twelfth Street and Linwood.
WW: How did your parents feel about you doing that?
AN: Well, I used to go on – I was about 14 and I got on the bus and came back here and stayed at my cousin’s house and we had all kinds of friends then.
WW: Going into 1967, were you still living in Oak Park then?
WW: And how did you interact with what was going on?
AN: You mean when I was downtown here?
AN: In shock. I mean, really, talking about the day of my wedding.
WW: You can tell the story of your wedding.
AN: Okay. I moved in 19 – I believe ‘58 or ‘59 to Oak Park and graduated from Oak Park High School in ‘62. People stopped going downtown. They just stopped going downtown and we always would go down to Hudson’s and it was wonderful. I maybe was too young in my teen years to realize what was going on but the city was getting more and more integrated because my uncle lived on Glendale and nobody could understand – he lived there until the day he died and that was years later after everybody else moved and he loved his neighbors. But everybody out in the suburbs thought he was crazy and that was the mindset at that time. Thank God, it’s changed, I hope.
WW: What were doing on that Sunday the first day?
AN: Oh, that’s the day I got married. We were at the Book Cadillac. I was married at noon and everybody got downtown just fine but about 2:30, after the ceremony and the lunch, I went up to change and I came back down with my bouquet to throw it out to people and there wasn’t anybody left there. [laughs] It was crazy because my brother-in-law was running around telling everybody, “You’ve got to go! The whole city is burning down.” And then when we were driving out to Chicago and we were driving past Grand River in the downtown area, everything was in flames. And we just couldn’t believe that it could possibly be happening. It was just a shock and then driving to Chicago there were all kinds of National Guard trucks coming, racing to Detroit with State Police and we kept saying to ourselves, “Oh, it can’t be. It just can’t be.” But we had a lot of Canadian relatives that were just terrified because some had to come back through the city to go across the tunnel and people were in such panic going across the tunnel, my sister said they were driving on the sidewalks and cutting each other off to get in front of other people to get out of Detroit and you could go over to Canada but you had to be born in the United States to get back. They heard gunshots. She said it was so loud, the noise level was so loud driving down to the tunnel that they couldn’t believe it. My cousins were all crying. There was fire everywhere and screaming. And she said it was like being in a war zone. That’s basically what she said. And then my other relatives they wouldn’t even let them through the tunnel. They had driven so they drove through the Blue Water Bridge up in Port Huron.
WW: How do you identify what happened in the city? What do you call it? Do you call it a riot, do you call it a rebellion?
AN: It was riots. It was riots because my husband’s grandparents lived on Seven Mile and Livernois in a small bungalow and they could not believe their neighbors that were looting and bringing all this stuff into their houses. They just kept saying to us, “They’re schlepping things into their homes.” And they loved their neighbors and couldn’t believe they were a part of this. Nobody had a mindset like this. We couldn’t believe it was happening in Detroit. But then I found out that there was a previous riot that was horrible in 1920s?
AN: ‘43? Oh. Okay, yeah. So, I just hope it never happens again.
WW: Did this event change the way you look at the city of Detroit?
AN: We were all terrified to come back down here. And we didn’t come down for years.
WW: Did it make you want to move away?
AN: Well, I felt safe in Oak Park. And then they integrated the Oak Park schools from Meyers and Eight Mile there was a group of homes where the kids went to Detroit schools but then they brought them to the Oak Park schools.
WW: Is there anything else you’d like to share today?
AN: I think that’s exciting enough for me.
WW: Then, final question, how do you see the city today?
AN: Oh, it’s fantastic. It’s fantastic and I just wish that people would learn to get along and I think eventually, hopefully, when the crime level starts to go down –it’s still frightening. It’s still frightening to think that if you’re not in the downtown area where you feel rather safe, that there’s still all these things happening with gangs. Like, I think of that little girl that was with her friends and just drove down near I think it was Eastern Market and somebody shot them. He was never caught. This was a couple years ago. She was supposed to go away with her brother and decided to come with her friend and these miscellaneous shootings, you hear about them all the time and it’s very scary. And until people get educated, I don’t think things are going to change that much until the schools become better and the economy becomes better.
WW: Well, thank you so much for sitting down with me today.
AN: You’re very welcome.