In this interview, Nick Sinacori talks about growing up in the Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood and its roots as the Village of Fairview.
Detroit Historical Society
Detroit Historical Society
Nick Sinacori is a lifelong Detroiter from the Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood.
WW: Can you please start by telling me where and when were you born? NS: Detroit, Michigan, July 30th, 1950. WW: Did you grow up in the city? NS: Yes. WW: What neighborhood did you grow up in? NS: This neighborhood. WW: Which is? NS: Which is Newport and Avondale, 400 Newport. WW: And this is the Jefferson Chalmers area? NS: This is what is called Jefferson Chalmers. WW: Is that what you refer to the neighborhood as? NS: That moniker became popular in the late 1960s, so up until that time “Eastside of Detroit” would be more applicable. “Jefferson Chalmers,” taking a logistical condition and identifying the area. So, that’s how that developed. WW: Do you remember why your family chose this area to move into? NS: My grandfather liked the proximity to the river, so after World War One he purchased this property and then built on it in the 1920s. WW: And your family has been here ever since? NS: Ever since. WW: So this – the house we’re in right now – is the house your grandfather had built? NS: Yes. WW: Awesome. Growing up in this area in the 1950s, what was it like? NS: Very ordered, I would say that it would be your typical, if you’re going to look at it from the standpoint of that era, Leave it to Beaver type of neighborhood. Everybody knew everybody, nothing of extremes, and uh, your basic middle class neighborhood. WW: Do you have any memories from the 1950s of being here that you’d like to share? NS: Other than spending a good deal of time at the local playground, attending the parochial school here, nothing that stands out to any great degree, pretty common and ordinary. WW: What schools did you go to? NS: Saint Martin of Tours, or Saint Martin on the Lake, it’s the Catholic school, and that was from first grade through high school, and attended the Joseph Gaitan Public School for kindergarten. So, between two schools located roughly in proximity, about six blocks either way. WW: What’d your parents do for a living? NS: My dad worked for U.S. Rubber, later to become Uniroyal, he was a tire builder, and my mother taught piano and played the church organ for the church, and a homemaker. WW: You were young going into the 1960s still, do you remember sensing any of the unrest or any of the quote unquote tension that was going on in the city during that time? NS: Not in this neighborhood. I don’t recall anything of any sort that lent itself to that, and my recollection in terms of any sort of condition as it were, of tension, not to me, [repeats for emphasis] not to me. Again, the racial mix was good, seemed harmonious to me, I didn’t notice anything that would’ve lent itself to anything otherwise. WW: What was the racial mix in the neighborhood? NS: In terms of what was going on, neighborhood wise, from Connor to just a few blocks west was predominantly black, and then, coming into this neighborhood, predominantly white with some homes that were black. WW: How was your school? NS: The Catholic school was predominantly white, there were black families though that had children attending the school. But again, going on a religious background, they had to be Catholic in order to attend the school, at that time, [repeats for emphasis] at that time. But, certainly open in terms of acceptance, again, I didn’t notice anything leaning one way or the other. WW: Going into the late sixties you’re growing up into a teenager, did you tend to stay in your own neighborhood or did you sort of venture around the city? NS: Well I attended high school from 1964 to 1967 at Sacred Heart Seminary, so that’s West Chicago and Linwood, so my introduction to the west side of the city came as a result of attending school from 1964 to my junior year, 1967, on the west side. So I became educated to the other side of town by virtue of the fact that I had to be mobile to go to high school, so that was my introduction to the west side of the city, and of course the racial mix was quite a bit different on the west side, in fact in that particular area. WW: When you first started going to high school was there like a culture shock or did you feel any different being on the west side than the east side? NS: Just getting acclimated to it because the east side had its own environment as it were, not quite as fast paced as the west side of town. Woodward has always been kind of a traditional marker from east side and west side, and people become a little parochial in terms of where they live, and it wasn’t any different then. WW: Do you have any memories of being in the city during that week in ’67, during the uprising? NS: In 1967 on that particular Sunday, I was with a friend and we went to see a movie in the New Center area, A Man for All Seasons, I remember that, very quiet, and it was a very humid day, that’s my recollection. But, other than what came on the news later on in the day, had no idea of what was going on, and being in the New Center area, we weren’t too far from the epicenter of where that uprising started. WW: So you see the movie and then you get all the way home, and then you find out? NS: I watch the news that night and there’s tanks going up East Grand Boulevard [excitedly, said as if in shock], and I had no idea that all that was building up to what was going on that was covered by the news that night. WW: After you graduated high school in ’67 – NS: Sixty-eight, I graduated in ’68. That was my junior year in ’67. WW: Oh, pardon, in ’68, what’d you do next? NS: After I graduated from high school, I attended the University of Detroit. So my freshman year at U of D was September of 1968, and it was U. D. then, not U. D. M. as it is now. WW: What was it like continuing your education on the west side? NS: The campus was pretty quiet in contrast to what was going on at other colleges, and that was during of the Vietnam War as well, so U. D. was pretty much ordered and chaos-free. WW: Did you join any of the student movements that were going on in the city then? NS: I did not. WW: Okay. As you’re growing up and as attending school, did you move to a different neighborhood or did you stay centered over in the east side? NS: I was a day student, I stayed home and commuted. WW: What was this area [Jefferson Chalmers] like, now going into the 1970s, was it still “Leave to Beaver?” NS: Well no, “Leave it to Beaver” was being left behind, at that point it started changing. Given that the area had schools as anchors and the churches as anchors, and we had commerce on Jefferson that was pretty decent, as the backwash of what happened with the urban disturbance in 1967, changes started happening in the neighborhood. So, for whatever their reasons were, they started relocating, and this brought in the dramatic changes that happened in the demographics of the neighborhood. WW: Do you remember conversations, either with your parents or some of your friends parents, as to why people were moving out? NS: Some of those conversations had fear as the reason. Anxiety. Not knowing what was going to happen. Not really being secure. Feeling that things had changed dramatically, and that was served as reason for the exodus from the area. WW: As people are moving out, who are some of the new people moving in? NS: People that had an opportunity of buying homes in the area, African American, a good many. So that started in the mid-1970s, so we saw changes in that. It also affected being a member of the Catholic church, and this parish, there were changes that affected that parish, so at the height of the parish something like 2,000 families were attending the church, and that changed dramatically. The end result is that the catholic school, first the high school, closed in the 1970s, then the grade school, and finally the church itself in the eighties. WW: How did you see that affecting the people who stayed? Did you see a greater number of people wanting to leave because they lost those cultural touchstones? NS: There was a disconnect. People had to look for someplace else to attach. The church being significant in their life, people started looking for other areas where they would feel that continuity, that feeling of predictability, and that’s a part of that exodus. WW: Did you or your parents think about leaving? Or talk about it? NS: My dad was still working, and for him, the location of being close to the factory, it was a lot more convenient to stay then to leave. My dad used public transportation, he came from New York, and it was pretty much something of his background to rely on public transportation rather than drive. So, for him it was the convenience of being able to go to work. My grandfather, since we’re an extended family here, he built this house, felt comfortable in it, and was reluctant to leave under any circumstance. So, in that old cliché, this is his castle and he was prepared to take whatever measure he needed to do to protect it. He had no desire to leave. WW: What about you? NS: I can say that probably at one point I felt there was an issue of security, and being that I had two younger sisters and a mother and grandmother, not knowing what was going to happen, that led to some spirited debates with my grandfather. Again, this is his house, and my grandfather said “You can always go, nothing’s stopping you.” So, when you put it in that context and seeing where he was coming from on that argument? I opted, “Well, if it’s good enough for him it’s good enough for me.” So that was my decision on that. WW: So as your family is staying in the neighborhood and some things are changing, what are some things that aren’t changing? NS: I can say that the environment in the house isn’t changing, that’s pretty constant, because we’re talking three generations that are living compatibly, which is kind of a stretch given that there’s different attitudes to judge life by, but, nonetheless, we seem to be a good compatibility with all of that. So, I can say personally, from the standpoint of the home, we’re okay. We’re dealing with external changes, but that’s outside. Outside takes care of itself. You have to go outside, you have to work, you have to go to school, you have to do different things, you have to shop, but that’s away from the house. However the house operates is its own world, it takes on a different condition in the home. WW: So you mentioned there was fear and anxiety about the new neighbors moving in, what were some of your interactions with your new neighbors? NS: On the whole, good. On the whole, good [repeats for emphasis]. I look at it like this, if everybody’s looking for their own way to deal with life and nothing is going to threaten you, then what’s the problem? Everybody is pretty much at a point where they’re looking out for themselves, they want the best for what’s good for them, so there is no problem. It becomes a problem when you’re threatened in some way, either verbally or physically, and none of that really happened. So, things were okay, and we didn’t have something that we could say, “We have to look for another place to live because we really don’t fit too well here, it’s become uncomfortable,” but I can’t say that. It became a challenge because the businesses that left, the grocery stores, the different stores that had services that we enjoyed through the 1950s and early 1960s were disappearing. We had a corner grocery store at the end of the block, so if you needed a loaf of bread or a gallon of milk all you had to do was walk down the street to get it, that was gone. So it became more of a challenge to get those common necessities that we always took for granted back when, so that became different. WW: When would you say most of those stores were gone by? NS: Those stores were gone by the end of the 1970s, they kept disappearing. So, it meant that you had to go farther and farther out. So, whereas it was just a walk to the corner grocery store here, or maybe down another block to another corner grocery, as those stores departed you had to go a little farther out. Along Jefferson Avenue, when those supermarkets disappeared it meant you had to go farther out. So, Kroger left the city, whereas we had a Kroger and an A&P in the neighborhood, they no longer existed. So, you have to eat, you have to do grocery shopping, and that’s a necessity. Things such as clothing stores or a dime store that we always enjoyed, as they departed, then you had to go farther out to find those things as well. WW: Growing in your later teenage years and while you were in college, did you ever go to the Vanity Ballroom? NS: The Vanity Ballroom, I happened to work at a hardware store that was located just below the Vanity, [unintelligible, Frohm’s ? Brahm’s ?] Hardware, I was working there as a stock boy. And I had a chance to go into the Vanity on occasion, and I was very impressed with the way it was designed. It had a Mayan motif, Charles Agree, he was the designer, and it had that unique quality to it. Heard about the reputation of the Vanity because my mother, growing up, graduated from Saint Martin High School in 1942, was more familiar with it, and it had been the attraction for a lot of big bands. They didn’t serve alcohol there by the way, but they had that social atmosphere, if you enjoyed the music of the big band era, that was one of the gems in the city that you could go and enjoy that music. WW: What was the reputation that you heard from your mom? NS: Very good, [repeats for emphasis] very good. If you knew of an artist coming into the city, let’s say the Dorsey Brothers or Glenn Miller, or Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, they all loved the Vanity because of the way it was set up. It had a floating dance floor, there were springs in the floor that gave you that feeling of movement, it lent itself to an enjoyable evening, especially when you were out to take in some of those entertainers. WW: Did you ever get a chance to see a live band there? NS: I did not, [repeats for emphasis] I did not. By that time most of the big bands had stopped touring and there was one house band, we had a gentleman that lived in the neighborhood, a Carlos Rivera, and his band, they were featured always on the weekends, and my dad served as a security guard at one point for those evenings, and it was always a Friday and a Saturday night that attracted a lot of people who enjoyed big band music. WW: As the eighties progresses, how does the neighborhood change? NS: It becomes less and less white and more African American until the demographics showed a lean of like ninety-nine percent African American and the white families definitely as a minority in the area. And other than ourselves there were a few other families that did stay, but it did take on a dramatic change. WW: Same question for the 1990s, have you seen this neighborhood stay relatively stable compared to other neighborhoods in the city? Or has this neighborhood faced any particular issues? NS: I would say the condition of change in respect to the demographics became a constant. I have not seen, maybe up until the last few years, whites become more attracted to the area, but I would have to say that maybe developments like Greyhaven being an attraction to bring more of a diversity into the neighborhood but remaining predominantly African American. WW: What is the state of the neighborhood today? NS: I would say it’s in flux, because there is a desire for change for the better, to redevelop the area, to take out homes that have become derelict and attracting squatters, trying to upgrade and work with a platform that the city has initiated to make neighborhoods more livable and more attractive, and bringing back commerce. So organizations such as Jefferson East Business and local groups, Creekside, the community organization, that are intent on helping neighbors become more a constant with what their wants and needs are. There’s a campaign, all out campaign, to bring things back into the neighborhood, to hold people to the neighborhood, to make people look at the neighborhood to locate here, to give them something that serves as a purpose a better life. WW: Before I ask my final few wrap up questions are there any stories that you’d like to share that I didn’t ask you about or you didn’t get to touch on? NS: Only about the history of the area, can I go back that far? WW: Sure. NS: Okay. I like to look at this neighborhood as having a legacy of sorts, and I claim that I’ve developed, and I did this in a book that I wrote, Horsepower, Men, and Machines, that this neighborhood served as the venue for Henry Ford, on October tenth of 1901, for his race against Alexander Whitten. The racetrack existed at Algonquin and Jefferson called the Detroit Driving Club. Now this was the first automobile race in Michigan and the Detroit area, and at that time this was part of Grosse Point, much different a hundred years ago than today. And that race essentially launched Henry Ford and what became the Ford Motor company after he won against Alexander Whitten. I think this is a prize treasure that not too many people know about, and even before that, when that race track existed and was dedicated to horse racing, the jockeys of that era were predominantly African American, I don’t think very many people know that. And one particular jockey, Isaac Murphey, launched his career here on July fourth of 1879 and won consecutive races, which not too many people know about, not even the Charles Wright museum has anything dedicated to Isaac Murphey and the jockeys of that era, and it all happened in this neighborhood. So, I want to make that kind of a lynchpin as to a history of this neighborhood, and eventually what followed, the automobile companies developing Jefferson Avenue and using that as their automotive row so to speak, the Thomas Motorcar Company, Chalmers, Chrysler, Hudson. People made a good living by working in the factories along Jefferson Avenue, and that all lent itself to the economic boom that took place here between World War One into World War Two and post World War Two. The economics of it, people enjoyed a good living, so I want to make that as part of the background too. My dad worked at U.S. Rubber, which was a supplier with tires, later to become Uniroyal. My grandfather worked for Plymouth Motorcar, part of Chrysler Corporation, so we’re an auto and a UAW family okay, so people owed that good middle class living to what came with the automobile companies that located along Jefferson Avenue. WW: Thank you. Just a couple of quick wrap up questions. When you hear the word neighborhood, what does it mean to you? NS: It means your universe, your personal universe, and everything that extends out from that [Nicholas says this after a brief pause, and emphasizes each part of the sentence]. Your neighbors, no matter who they are, are part of your universe, and you’re a part of that body. So, neighborhood encompasses everything where you live immediately, but it really extends beyond that, because we’re all neighbors in a sense. Anytime you have a personal relationship you become a neighbor, so it’s broader. I like to use Mr. Rogers as part of that because you’re welcome to that neighborhood and hopefully everything that’s good about that neighborhood, and we all look out and protect each other. WW: And if you could see one thing happen in your neighborhood what would you like it to be? NS: Growth. Life. Bring life back, in all manner and form. Schools, so children can be educated, so they can learn from a generation before everything that’s good, that sets a standard for development, and for something that’s going to be self gratifying and not negative in any sense. So, in that broad whole, that everybody gets a chance to enjoy a life, a good life. WW: Alright, thank you so much for sitting down with me today. NS: My pleasure.
“Nick Sinacori,” Detroit Historical Society Oral History Archive, accessed October 30, 2020, https://detroit1967.detroithistorical.org/items/show/713.