In this interview, Kirk talks about growing up in Warrendale, the lack of integration at the time, and the later Copper Canyon aspect of the neighborhood.
Detroit Historical Society
Detroit Historical Society
West Bloomfield, MI
CT: All right. My name is Corey Taylor and I'm interviewing Kurt McVittie at the West Bloomfield Township Public Library on November 28, 2018 for the Detroit Historical Museum's Neighborhood Project. All right. KM: Excellent. CT: So let's start out where and when were you born? KM: I was born on May 21st, 1954 at Harper Hospital in Detroit. CT: And what neighborhood did you grow up in? KM: Well when I was born, my parents were living in Southwest Detroit on Central Avenue. But before I turned 1, I moved on to Asbury Park which is in the Warrendale neighborhood. CT: What was it like? KM: It was great. We had-and we're talking now in the late 50s and the 60s. What was it like? It was like home. It was like neighborhood. People did front porch things. The kids all played every day out on the streets. It was great. CT: Was it an integrated neighborhood? KM: No absolutely not. If you mean integrated by African-American or Hispanic there was no one other than predominantly white. Primarily Polish background. CT: Really? KM: I never, I personally never met an African-American man or woman until I was in junior high. Which is of course middle school now but yes. CT: Wow. OK. So even in elementary school there were no-that wasn't integrated or anything? KM: Not even. CT: No? Wow, all right. And what did you do for fun in your neighborhood or at school or? KM: In the neighborhood we rode bikes a lot. Before I left, my mother would make sure she told me that I should only stay on the block. And of course I said that I would only stay on the block and then we just rode wherever we wanted to. [laughs] We we played a lot of baseball and we played what we had then it was called strike out. There was a place called Carpenters Hall at our corner, we were 13 houses off west Warren and we would go up and play baseball up against the wall. Hours on end, day after day. There were scouting troops, I was in the Cub Scouts and the Webelos and the Boy Scouts. My father was the scout leader. A lot of-just normal things and never, never worried about crime. Never worried about gangs. Never worried about really any problems. There were bullies right, I mean. But it was uneventful. CT: So it felt safe. KM: It was very safe. Not only did it feel safe, it was in fact safe. CT: Really? OK. Why do you say that? KM: Because you can feel safe and really not be safe. But it was-there were no-I don't know. Thinking back to the entire time that I lived in Warrendale which spanned 1954 and 1955 to well into the 70s later into the 80s actually, I don't think I knew anyone who was a victim of any sort of residential robbery or crime or anything like that. I mean there was no reason not to feel safe. CT: Did you stay in your own neighborhood growing up? Like when you went out and did activities after school or on the weekends or did you venture more into the city? KM: No. No I. Well as as an elementary school student and a middle school student it was almost exclusively in the neighborhood riding bikes and stuff like that. As I got older into high school, there was more you know we'd jump on the bus and go to North land or jump on the bus and go to West Land or Grand River and Greenfield was another shopping center in another part of Detroit. But up until that time it was exclusively in the Warrendale area. CT: Ok. How do you feel about the state of Detroit today? Has it- KM: I am pumped about the state of Detroit today. I think in many ways it's going to surpass the way it was before. I think the exciting things that are reaching across all kinds of cultural and racial lines today that were not that way in the 50s and 60s and 70s it was very much a segregated city. So I'm pumped about this. CT: Good good. So you feel that it's less segregated now, it's more diverse? KM: Yes, absolutely more diverse. When I. In terms of diversity and certainly stop me if you'd like, I made my first African-American friend in middle school, in junior high, and I went to Redmond Junior High which became Redmond Middle School which is now boarded up. But it was unusual in our neighborhood to have African-American friends. And so while my parents weren't totally forbidding about it, they weren't particularly happy about it. So that was my first experience because, as I said earlier, I never knew a black or African-American person at all up until that point. And in my own mind, I couldn't figure out, you know, what's the big deal it's just another kid right. So. CT: All right. And you said before that in a lot of ways you feel that the city would surpass what it was-. KM: Now? Absolutely. CT: In what ways? KM: Well I think it's going to be a city that is open to all and I'm sure in your studies of the city you know that there were many parts of the city where African-Americans couldn't live there were property deed restrictions. There was a wall up. I think it's around six mile or Wyoming area. There was actually a wall that separated the white neighborhoods from the black neighborhoods and parts of that wall is still there. But I think now it's my feeling that the city is just there for everyone. And black, white. The southwest Detroit Hispanic section is booming. We have gay and LGBT communities that are feeling safe and secure. So yeah I truly believe it's gonna be better than it was. CT: Are there any other stories you'd like to share about Warrendale? KM: Yes, sure. CT: Go ahead. KM: On our street, as I said, we had no black neighbors no African-Americans. The very first African-American family to move into the entire neighborhood that we lived in, I was probably, it was in the 60s and I don't know, 13 something like that, 14. And the neighborhood was in an uproar. It was two doors down from my parents house and the neighborhood was in an uproar. And, as I said, my parents were not the most open minded people. However, many of the neighbors wanted to do really negative kinds of things to prevent this black family from moving in to our neighborhood and because the neighbors truly felt it was our neighborhood, right? And so, my father in a rare act of courage and open mindedness and he was, again he was not a very open minded guy, but had all the neighbors over to our basement and they had a neighborhood meeting. And again the other neighbors they wanted to do all these crazy stuff and collect money to buy this family out and negative things that you see in the news. My father said, this is a working family. The dad was a General Motors guy. The mom was a postal service person. Why don't we just wait. Not act crazy. Let's just wait and see what happens. This is getting emotional. The neighbors actually went for that and they did that. And to this day, we're in 2018, these neighbors are good friends of mine still. They still live in the same house. Well, the kids are grown, they have kids and blah blah. But parts of the family still live in that house on Asbury Park to this day and we're talking what, 50 years ago now if 1968 is 50 years go right. But. It's. Wow that's emotional. So anyhow. The rest of the neighborhood was pretty ugly about it but my father was able to talk them back from the edge. CT: That's good. KM: Yes. And, like I say, even though I'm an old guy, I'm a Facebooker. And most of this family is on Facebook and we communicate like every other day. CT: Oh that's amazing. KM: All these years later. CT: Yeah that's great. KM: So anyway ask me another question so I can get focused again.[laughs] CT: OK. KM: Please. CT: All right. So I guess to switch gears a little bit, I wanted to kind of talk about more of that Copper Canyon aspect of the neighborhood. And I know that you worked for the Department of Corrections. KM: For 37 years. CT: OK. And can you talk a little bit about your career there? KM: Well I can, but in terms of the Copper Canyon piece, those came into existence primarily because of the residency requirement. I with the Michigan Department corrections was not under any resident, there was no residency requirement, other than that I live in Michigan. But the neighborhood that I grew up in, that part of Warrendale, there was no, in the 50s and the 60s there was not really Copper Canyon. It was an all white neighborhood. Yes most neighborhoods were on the west side. So there was really and there was a smattering of police officers and in my early neighborhood in Warrendale. But it was mostly a blue collar Ford, General Motors, Chrysler auto plant kind of neighborhood. My dad was the salesman. He was he was an aberration. Most of my friends dads, grandfathers worked in the plant. When I was married, I just moved a block over from Asbury Park to Woodmont and rented a flat there. And the neighborhood was beginning, and that was in 1974, and things were- the busing issue was going on in the schools. And people were starting to move and people were getting worried over things that they believed were going to be. There was no basis, in fact, in my opinion for many of these things. And then my first wife and I purchased a house, also on Warrendale, but further down West Warren by Rouge Park. And that was the for real Copper Canyon. Almost all of my neighbors were either Detroit firemen or Detroit police officers that were bound by the residency requirement. And these folks, you know, they couldn't move out of the city, they felt they needed to move out of the city, but they couldn't move out of the city, so they moved into an area with similar people. CT: Why do you think they felt the need to move out? KM: Because they were white and they didn't want to be in the neighborhood with black folks. And the real estate companies,and I'm sure you've done reading on the same thing and you've studied the same thing, the real estate companies would just scare people to death to sell their houses and those that didn't have the residency requirement they were moving too. They were just selling their houses for nothing. And the real estate companies were making a killing because they real estate companies would circulate paperwork, I'd see it come into my parents house, that oh you know crime's coming. Two blocks over you have an African-American family and blah blah. And people instead of, even if they were like my parents and weren't particularly open minded. Instead of sitting back and saying OK let's see, is this true? Or to use a famous word today, os this fake news that we're getting? They didn't do that. They were scared. Not legitimately scared. I mean not for good reason, in my opinion. And so off they went, they just sell their house for nothing and moved to Canton or move to Livonia and just go. And so what would happen was many of the houses didn't get lived in. They started falling in disrepair. Other houses were available at such a cheap price that sometimes people that weren't interested in taking care of them purchased them and so whole neighborhoods that for several generations had been relatively solid, not to be confused with the relatively white, just for the record, just relatively solid neighborhoods. The care and concern was gone because people were running. That's my opinion now and that's what I saw. CT: And that was more than just police officers and firefighters? KM: Oh oh no, the police officers and the firefighters, until the residency requirement was changed, stayed in the city because they had to. And so they found those Copper Canyons and, I'm not as familiar with East side, but there were similar neighborhoods on the East Side. And in the ones on the West Side along Warrendale and maybe a little bit of Rosedale and places like that. They moved their families there. The kids then started going to private schools. The public schools started changing. I graduated from Cody High Detroit Public School in 1971. And that whole busing thing that was another thing that the realtors used and other people used to scare parents that here you go, now your kids they shouldn't go to your neighborhood schools, they're going to bus them to McKenzie. They're going to bus them to another black school. And so the parents that couldn't move would send their kids to private schools, to religious schools, to parochial schools, if you will, including my parents. I went to all public schools. My two younger brothers, I'm the oldest of three, my two younger brothers started out at public school. Then when the whole busing thing started. Well then suddenly my one brother was going to St. Alphonsus in Dearborn and my other brother was going to some Lutheran School. Primarily and exclusively because the schools were changing which was horrible, horrible. CT: So was there any other reason besides you know officers or firefighters feeling threatened quote unquote. Was there any other reason why they resisted the law, the residency law? KM: Well I don't know. I don't know. I mean I had a lot of friends that were police officers and firefighters and they felt that it was unfair that where you and I might be able to move anywhere we want, that they were restricted and they couldn't move wherever they wanted. So I would imagine that certainly was cause of some consternation but I think, I really think, the bottom line was, and you'll talk to many police officers that'll say well, how would you like to police a neighborhood where you have to live and stuff like that. Right. And I get that, I get that. But that wasn't what was going on then. What was going on then was folks just wanted to move out of the city and they couldn't. And they were prohibited by law by their contracts. They could not do that. And I don't know how at once that did change. I know you mentioned to me what year it did change. I don't know how many actually up and immediately moved or not. I know a lot did because the neighborhood that I did live in that Copper Canyon by Rogue Park there off of West Warren, that neighborhood started changing from city employees to just regular folks pretty quickly. But again, it played into the hands of those that would profit from that. The unscrupulous realtor is the-it just, I think history is going to look very negatively on that time and the people that caused it to be so. Whereas if you look around the country, I mean there's some communities where maybe your grandfather went to this elementary school and your father went to this elementary and you did because people kind of stayed in neighborhoods. This just tore the neighborhoods up. And so there was no feeling of home because you're just running away from something you think you're supposed to be afraid of, or people that you're supposed to be afraid of. And and so I mean you're doing yourself a disservice and those folks that are moving into your neighborhood ultimately they start feeling, wait where's the neighbors, where's the people, where's the history? But in the neighborhood that I actually grew up in, there's still a handful of people that I grew up with and their families that are still there but mostly folks are all thrown all over the place because their parents had chosen to. And it was a choice, no one made all those people move. They chose to believe the stuff that was being laid out there and thought they were protecting themselves and their family by just giving up what they'd worked so hard for and moving out. So I do feel kind of strongly about this. CT: So the residency requirement, where when it was enacted it was meant to bring the community together and make it feel like you had the police officer next door that you could call upon instead it really didn't. KM: I think so. I think so. And I think that was not a bad idea. I mean I don't know if forcing somebody to live in a community is a good idea or a bad idea. I think if the mental state of the population was such that everybody was working towards a common goal, I think that you wouldn't need a residency requirement because, going back to the beginning of our interview, did I think Detroit was becoming a better place. I think now there is not going to be any need for a residency requirement because Detroit and its various neighborhoods are going to be places where people want to live. And whether you be a cop or whether you be a firefighter or another city employee. You're going to want to live in these new neighborhoods, in these revitalized neighborhoods and you won't need it. But back in those days, it was very very separated and the white police officers were no different than the other white citizenry. Didn't want to live with the black police. The black police officers were real, you know, that was a real tough sell because they didn't want to live in high crime neighborhoods either, but they weren't welcome in the white neighborhoods either. So I think when we go back and look at those whole questions and neighborhoods in the future I think we're gonna be embarrassed. What we did. If I'm getting far off-field, I apologize. CT: No not at all. This is great. So I guess, one last question and you might have already answered it. Do you think that version or Copper Canyons still exist today? In Detroit or otherwise. KM: Well I. I do. I do. But again for different reasons. Perhaps there is some feeling of camaraderie, and so maybe you'd want to live in an area with other police officers. So I think there may be some areas like that. But I think that all works against diversity, which I think is a good thing, right. I guess if you don't think diversity is a good thing, I guess then you would want librarians and social workers and police officers to live in their own little areas. But I think there may be. Maybe if you're a police officer and you know that a friend of your police officer who's got a house for sale next door or maybe you want to live next door to him because he's your friend maybe not because he's a police officer. So I think the whole Copper Canyon and the reason that I think we had those Copper Canyons I don't know that that exists anymore. I mean and I know well having lived in one and having grown up in that era. I know that they existed and I know why they existed, right. And I know why they were nice areas to live in, because they were full of cops and city employees and they were safe, right. So I understand that whole mentality, but the reason that they existed was a really bad reason. CT: Were there any other thoughts on Copper Canyons or Warrendale that you wanted to share today? KM: Yeah, well I. Please don't. Don't get the idea that I'm against that whole concept of Copper Canyons. I mean I guess you know, the police officers did and firefighters did what they thought they had to do. And I get that. But the whole Warrendale thing, I think the whole neighborhood of Warrendale and not only will not only Warrendale. I mean Grandmont subdivision and Rosedale and some of the other neighborhoods because of that whole business of scaring people and making people think that they had to move. It ruined the continuity of those neighborhoods. I would be hard pressed. I know a few people that are still in Warrendale still living in Warrendale that were there when when I was a kid. But it's not at all like some of the other communities that I mentioned in other parts of the country where there's still family members, aunts and uncles that still live in the old neighborhood in Pittsburgh. I had a friend who lived in Pittsburgh. The neighborhoods in Pittsburgh are like that still. I mean if you choose to move you choose to move and if a job opportunities take you across country so be it. But you're moving for a good reason, you're not moving out of fear, you're not giving away your house because you- and that's how the real estate people made all their money is because you would give away your house, they would they would get there and then sell your house to somebody who wants to move into that desirable neighborhood even though they've chased all the other people out. Not everybody bought into it. I did not grow up knowing very many open minded people. But, as I say, until I went to junior high I knew no one different than me. I knew. I mean there were Catholic kids and there were Protestant kids, but there were no black kids. It was just an odd scenario. Looking at it from 2018. To me it was an odd scenario. CT: Okay, alright. KM: I'm not sure I answered all your questions right. I kind of rambled and I apologize. CT: No no no you did everything. Everything was great. All right.
“Kirk McVittie,” Detroit Historical Society Oral History Archive, accessed October 30, 2020, https://detroit1967.detroithistorical.org/items/show/715.