In this interview, John discusses his family’s move to Detroit, his experience of the 1967 uprising, what he thinks of Detroit today, and his involvement with the Jay Hawkers Motorcycle Club.
Detroit Historical Society
Detroit Historical Society
John Brooks was born in Kentucky in 1934 and moved to the Livernois area in Detroit in 1941 with his family
WW: Hello, my name is William Winkel. Today is September 8th, 2018 I'm in Detroit, Michigan. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Societies Neighborhoods Oral History Project, and I am sitting down with: JB: John Brooks. WW: Thank you so much for sitting down with me today. Can you please start by telling me where and when were you born? JB: 1934 in Paris, Kentucky. WW: And when did you come to Detroit? JB: 1941 WW: What brought your family to the city? JB: For the jobs, more or less. And father came up to get a factory job. WW: What was he before that? JB: He was a farm hand. Yes, a farm hand. Work seven days a week. [laughs] WW: Before you came up to Detroit, had you heard about the city? JB: No, I was a little bitty fella. I was just five when I got here in the city. Five years old, yeah. So I did everything in the city, don't know too much about the south at all. WW: Do you remember what your first impression of Detroit was? JB: [inaudible] WW: Do you remember what neighborhood you moved into? JB: I think the Livernois area and we stayed there most of the time. Grew up there, went to school at Central High, which was all Jewish at the time and graduated from there and didn't go to college and went, got drafted in the service. And when I was 19, 22 I got drafted. And you had to stay two years, two years in service. And I got married and the rest is all downhill. WW: What was it like growing up in this area? JB: Uh, if you wanted something you could get something cause there was jobs and the money that you made, if you wanted to have something you could, it was there for you. Opportunity was pretty good. A job advance was pretty cool. Better job advancement. It's just what you wanted if you want it, you know, WW: Growing up, did you stay in the neighborhood or did you go into the city? JB: No, I stayed in the neighborhood. I would go downtown just to go downtown and see these big, huge buildings. Never seen- they had a [inaudible] WW: You had just arrived in the city and you were still pretty young. Did you have any memories of the 43 race riot? JB: No. Uh, just vaguely, I didn't know what they was, what they were fighting for, what they were doing, just vaguely. And we had to stay in the house. Yeah, mother made us stay in the house, stay off the streets. So yeah. That's, hm. WW: After you got out of the military. Can you talk about why you stayed in Detroit? JB: I was working at Ford Motor Car company. I got hired at Ford Motor car company in 1955 and I got drafted in 1957 which was, they had the draft then, which drafted for two years automatically anybody goes. Married, single, what, the two years, so I was 23 when they drafted me and a witness service and stayed here in the states. Didn't go out, didn't go with it. It was peace time in between the career and the Vietnam War. I went in and got married and came back home and got the wife and went to Fort Riley, Kansas where my oldest daughter was born. So when I came out of the service, I come home with a wife and a baby. [laughs] And now I've got four girls and uh, put them all through college. The oldest one is done, retired, believe it or not, worked for Michigan bail and nice income and she's enjoying herself. Yeah. WW: When you came back to Detroit to raise your family, did you settle on the same neighborhood? JB: Yes, and I stayed in the same area until a couple of years and then I moved from there down to Livernois, Warren area. That's where I bought my first house. Uh, that time of the year. At that time of the years you could buy hood houses and they fixed them up and you live in them, you know? Yeah. So I got one of those and I stayed there three, five years and then I started buying houses. So I bought houses and still working at Fords. Had that there and yes, one thing from another. WW: As you've stayed in the city, how have you seen the city change? JB: From the downtown section? They started tearing down downtown. They, they suburban areas built up with malls and stuff where that you didn't have to go downtown to get to stores that you wanted to get the areas had they suburbans area had. And so the city just went down. And employment went down because nobody was hiring or doing anything in the city. Everything was in the suburbs and it's, it, it started changing. People started losing their jobs because there was no work and that brought the blight that we have now, all the vacant houses, everything is kind of pitiful. But the way life goes, you know? Yeah. WW: Were you in this city for the 67 uprising? JB: Yeah. I stayed here, yeah. WW: Do you remember how you first heard about it? JB: No. I can't remember how I did it, no. Long time ago [laughs] WW: Did you experience it firsthand? Or did you stay hunkered down in your home? JB: I stayed, I didn't, didn't do too much and you know, I just looked at it on TV more or less. Didn't go too much. Uh, working at Fords, they closed the plants down. They didn't let nobody come there because going or coming you might get hurt, you know. So it didn't last but a couple of weeks at the most. I, I'm not sure. WW: About five days. JB: Yeah. See it didn't last that long, so you know. Yeah. Well just one less- you uh, you've seen it on TV. That's all. WW: Did it impact your neighborhood? JB: Yes. More or less it did. Whole lot of people in the neighborhood, older people, took and sold their houses and went to senior citizens apartments and stuff cause they didn't want, you know, and that helped make the housing, everything vacant like we have now, vacancy. WW: When you think of the word neighborhoods, what does that bring to mind? JB: People with families more or less. Uh, back in the sixties and seventies, the neighborhoods had more families, more people stuck together and then as time went on, seventies, eighties, neighborhoods changed. People you can live next door to somebody with no, would never know anything about him. People just wasn't friendly. Now they didn't, nobody trusted anybody. [inaudible] That’s the way life is, you learn to live with it. It's changing now gradually. Very gradually now. And I say gradually, very gradually, you know, just like, just like you here interviewing with me now. Five years, six years ago, you think about that, you won’t tell them none of my business. But you are here to inform people and put it out so people can know that things can change if wanted to, WW: If you could see one thing done in the neighborhoods, what would it be? JB: More people with jobs coming back. They have a whole lot of vacant places now. Vacant lots now where if you buy two lots and have a house built you, you can’t live no cheaper than that. And they got companies now that build houses, but nobody's taking advantage of it. [inaudible]. Uh, downtown section is building up, but nothing in the suburbs out here, you know, just takes time. Got a whole lot of vacancy and if you come through this area now you’d swear a bomb went off or something [laughs]. WW: [inaudible] JB: Things are moving forward, but it's a slow pace. Very slow. Very slow. When I say very slow, I probably won't be here when it’s up to par. Cause I'm up there in age, but my kids will enjoy it and I brought them up, going to school and going into college with the understanding you will be here to see the change. [inaudible] It's changing. Uh, I heard on the radio the other day where the more people are employed in the Detroit area then there have ever been, you know, so things are picking up and there’s vacancies for jobs all over it, but they're not paying that much. But it's still a job. You know, if you want a job you can get something and then you go from there. WW: Is there anything you would like to talk about that I didn’t ask about? JB: Talk about, not too much to talk about. Except you see the change. You see things changing. Uh, like this club that we are in now, most of our club members are in their fifties or up. Jay Hawkers Motorcycle Club Association, and I ride a three wheeler, I don’t ride a two wheeler anymore, I ride a three wheeler because I'm getting old. And most of the members of our club are in their fifties up and not too much wildness, nothing like that. You know, we get together and ride as a group, go different places and everybody in the city of Detroit knows about the Jay Hawkers. [laughs] WW: Yeah. Thank you so much for sitting down with me today. JB: Okay, glad I could help you a little bit. WW: I really appreciate it.
“John Brooks,” Detroit Historical Society Oral History Archive, accessed October 30, 2020, https://detroit1967.detroithistorical.org/items/show/711.