In this interview, Tarnas discusses growing up in the city, in both the Boston-Edison neighborhood. She discusses what she and her siblings did growing up and what the neighborhood was like. She talks about how the neighborhood has changed from the time she lived there until the time she moved out.
Detroit Historical Society
Detroit Historical Society
: Karen Tarnas was born in September of 1965 in Detroit, Michigan. Tarnas grew up in the Boston-Edison neighborhood, where she lived with her parents and siblings until she moved out in 2014. Tarnas continues to work in the city today and lives nearby. Her parents lived in the house until 2016.
Saint Clair Shores, MI
Karen Tarnas: This is Karen Tarnas. Cassidy Capoferri: Okay. Um, so where and when were you born. KT: I was born in September of 1965, and I was born at, uh—it was at the time Grace Hospital, which was New Grace in Detroit as well. CC: Okay. Um, so you were born in Detroit? KT: Mm hmm. CC: Did you continue to live in Detroit? KT: Um yeah. I lived in Detroit until um 2014. CC: Okay. And then where in Detroit did you live. KT: I lived in uh Boston-Edison District at 1183 West Boston Boulevard. CC: Okay. Um. KT: From the day of my birth, that was my home. CC: So what was one of your first memories of Detroit, like living there. KT: Um, I think one of the first memories. There was always, there was five us in the family so five kids, two parents, and my grandfather lived with us. So I think um my first memory was always like um, the yard and doing things outside and doing Sunday family dinners and things like that. So I think that was probably what I remember from being that young. CC: Okay. Um what was the neighborhood like when you grew up in it? KT: It was to me a great neighborhood. We lived on a street that had a lot of families. And across the street was a famiy that also had five kids. And we had four girls and one boy and they had four girls and one boy. Um, so the two families we became really close. So all ten of us always did things together. We would play outside all summer long, my parents got along really well and they would call each other. We’d go to each other’s houses and we’d play inside and outside—winter, spring, summer and fall. We were, um, curfewed by when the street lights came on. We would do trips to like the zoo together, or Belle Isle together, so it was always like the ten of us kids did a ton together. CC: So was it an integrated neighborhood? KT: It became more integrated um when we were younger it was probably the diversity was very small. Um, the diversity grew as families moved in, so we did have at one, I remember younger, two African American families living—actually, three African American families—living on the street. And um to this day I know two of the families still are on the street as well, still are there. Um, and, uh, when they moved in, those families had out of the three families, there were three kids between them. Two, for one family, and one for the other, and, um, we would all play together. Um, they were more, um, affluent in the society so it was a doctor, um, I think it was two doctors and a teacher is who moved in. CC: Okay, um. So what would you do for fun like when you were growing up. KT: When we were growing up well we did a lot of the we would go to Belle Isle a lot. Um, we would go to a lot of the Metro Parks. We would do a lot of picnics in our yard. We would um, our summer vacation was up north. So we always stayed in Michigan. Um, I also, uh, went to school in Hamtramck which was a close community by to where we lived. And uh, we did a lot of things in Hamtramck through the school so field trips and things like that, but parks in Hamtramck, um, softball, um, I ran track, football games and things like that. That was always more of our entertainment. Parties at people’s homes and things like that. CC: Um, so where did your parents work when you were living in that area? KT: So my mom was a stay at home mom, and my dad, um, is, was in construction. So he, uh, is a licensed builder. So he had through the years he owned a company called Abbey Fence and Wire, and in the day what they would do is—it was um, they would do safety guards over windows and glass to prevent it from being broken. My parents lived in this home at the time of the Riots, and so the Boston-Edison street that we lived on—West Boston—is between Hamilton and the Lodge Freeway, um, not that far from Woodward either, so when the Riot happened, the tanks went up and down. There was a lot of destruction. So when my dad ran this company, um—Abbey Fence and Wire—it boomed after the Riots, because people were putting in protective window guards, and things like that, schools as well. So, um, my mom stayed home, my dad did that. And then my dad went on and became a licensed builder, started his own company called Better Built. And so, um, he did that, um, as we got older, my mom, who is from the East Coast, um, and has had a degree in um, uh, sociology—social work—became a social worker later on in life. CC: Okay. Um, so where would you guys go, where would you typically do your shopping? KT: So, we always had to go it was never anything close, even as long as I lived, it was always, um, you had to drive to where you needed to go. So we did shopping in, um, originally I can remember, Highland Park so it wasn’t that far—it was a couple miles away, and they had that A&P and we would shop there, and through the years, we went to school in Hamtramck, and they had a grocery store. So after my mom would pick us up from school, we would go shopping there, um, and they had a Great Scott’s, um, so those would be the two grocery stores I remember. We used to do the mall shopping was at Northland, um, or, um, in Southfield they had a mall called Tel-Twelve—through the years, Telegraph and Twelve Mile. So those would be like the mall places we went. Oakland Mall was a mall that we went to once in a while, but didn’t frequent as much. So most of our shopping, you always had to drive to. There was nothing close by. I think even to this day, um, there’s nothing close by. I was always jealous of my friends that lived in the suburbs, because they could do all of it on the way home, and I would always have to drive and pass my home to do everything, like to the simplest of dry cleaning, to a Rite Aid, to things like that. So we always had to drive. But it was Highland Park or Hamtramck. CC: Okay, um, so you said you went to school in Hamtramck. So where exactly did you go to school. KT: So I went to St. Ladislaus, um, from grades one through eleven, and then St. Lads closed down, and I went to St. Florians for my senior year. CC: Okay, um, so it was a private school? KT: Yeah, it was private Catholic school. CC: Okay, so tell me a little bit about the school, like the, um? KT: The makeup? CC: The type of people? KT: So, um, the people were—it was the diversity was very small, but I did through the years, my grade school years there was very little diversity. Um, but in high school, it definitely grew, and one of my good friends through high school was African American girl, named Nimere Hall, and um, they lived—they actually lived on the edge of Hamtramck, and we actually became friends. So there wasn’t you know, you didn’t really realize that there was any difference. I think for me, what I call my “Ah-ha” moment was, was seeing in high school, becoming friends with an African America, um, and going to her home, um, that hurt their lives—were different, and that they were treated differently, and I think that’s when I first realized that like, I don’t know if I want to use the word as strong as “racism” existed, but you knew that something was different, and you knew that people treated you different. Um, and I would say that probably that was probably in like 1979 or so when things started to become more reality for me about so much, um, racism. CC: Okay, um, so are there any, like stories you can remember from your childhood, that like stick out in your mind, or? KT: Um, I always think I had a great childhood. Um, and I would say that like, going to school, um, when I was younger I hated wearing the uniform everday. I thought it was so crazy, but as I grew older, I realize now like, I think that is why it took me so long to realize so much about difference in diversity and how people were treated differently, because when you went to school, you didn’t know if somebody was—for lack of better words—rich or poor, or well-off or not, and because you wore uniforms, and because your day was so regimented, and because your homework and you had, had to do at home, you never realized that there was so much of a difference between the people you went to school with as opposed to now where I think society really has stronger visual definitions. Um, to the young kids, that their, they realize that these, you know, unknown biases are developed so early, and you don’t realize. For me, I think that I had it really well going to a school that, that seemed to be so monochrome, and didn’t really have the racism aspect. But I do remember just having fun. Like I remember like having friends and I remember that you didn’t know who was well-off or not, but I do remember when I had birthday parties or whatever, my parents would have to bring—drive—the kids to our home, as opposed to those who lived in Hamtramck, everybody lived so close, you could walk to the home, or the houses were very close together, so I think I realized when kids would come to my home that I had a larger home than average, or what, what everybody was used to in Hamtramck, versus where the size home where I grew up. Um, and I noticed then that we had a large home, but there was always a part of me that was almost embarrassed that I had a larger home than everybody else, and when people realize you had something different than them, or larger than them, you know, they would treat you a little different, because it would be like, they would assume you guys had money; they would assume that you were rich, but with five kids and my grandfather living with us, we still struggled, you know, I didn’t know of the struggle, but we still weren’t, in by any means, rich. CC: Um, so you said you guys would go to Belle Isle a lot. KT: Yeah, we would go there almost every Sunday in the summer. Um, my dad—we would drive there, and we’d get out and we could get in the water. And then we would be done, and then we would drive all the way down to Wyandotte, because they had a Stroh’s Ice Cream Parlor, and we would have ice cream, and then we would drive back home, and always do the water side—always do Jefferson up and down. CC: Um, was there anywhere else in the city you would go around to hang out in or? KT: Not really. CC: Not really? KT: It was between, yeah we didn’t have a lot of city experiences other than like Belle Isle, um, and Hamtramck, ’cause Hamtramck was so close. Um, I guess part of me wishes we did, or I can’t remember right now. Um, ’cause a lot of it was between, you know, you’d play on your block and then everybody’s back yards, or in the, in the houses. And, there wasn’t really a lot of play time that we were—that my parents went to in Hamtramck, you know? All our ball parks and stuff were through Hamtramck. We did have—I do remember a YMCA. That’s where we went to have, um, swimming lessons, and karate lessons, um, and that was in Highland Park as well. So I guess it’s considered part of the city. But as far as entertainment, we always had to drive—movies, everything was always driving. So. CC: Um, did you feel comfortable living in the city? KT: Yep. I always did. Um, I would say not until much later in life—I would say, probably into the late 90s is when I think I realized the um, crime element started to increase. Um, but I always felt safe because we had a backyard that seemed to be separated from the street, um, and we had neighbors, and everybody knew each other. So I think that was part of it too. I didn’t have—I don’t think I really had fear. CC: Okay. Um, so how do you think the neighborhood has changed over the years, or do you think it’s stayed mostly the same, or? KT: Well, I would say definitely over the years, even when I lived there, there tended to be more, um, uh, homosexuals couples moving in. So they were double incomes with no kids. So we would call them “Dinks,” is what we would say. So, um, and they, uh, they moved in, and what they did—we had um, a gay couple bought the house right next door to us. We got along really well. And they ended up pretty much gutting the house and redoing everything. Um, and making it more modern and uh, so I think there are people that—one, buy those homes to keep the historical alive. And two, those that buy the home and adjust it. But I think there are, because of the size, and because it’s in the city, your square footage of real estate, because of the crime element, is less than in the suburbs. So you can get a bigger home in the city, than what you would pay in the suburbs. And be able to accommodate it to your needs. I would say so that, I think definitely diversity came in. I do know that we just sold our family home um, two years ago. So I do drive by, I drive by every once in a while, and I see like the person that bought it just ripped off our front porch, and is redoing that, and I mean, the improvements, some are really good, and some make me think that they’re damaging the historical value and the memories, um, but there’s definitely still diversity. The gay couple still lives next door to where we live, and where I’m still in contact with them, um, so I would say the neighborhood is still diverse, and still really good diversity very mixed, and um, and still there’s the people that love the city and want to, you know, um, encourage and empower the entrepreneurs in the city. And always talk super fondly of the city. CC: Um, let’s see. So you said you stayed in that neighborhood? KT: Mm hmm. CC: All through growing up? KT: Yeah, yeah, um, I moved away briefly when I was in college, but I don’t know if you would say moved, you know, for a period of time I would um, I rented a home with some girlfriends in Farmington. And I was working in the city, and the drive killed me. and I told my parents, I was like, “I don’t want to drive back and forth.” So my mom was like, “Move back in.” I think because we grew up in a larger home, I think, we all stayed home like all of us kids. None of us really moved out until we were well done with college, and my mom being like the Polish-Catholic mom, and doing the Sunday dinners. Family was super important, and we were all super tight. Um, and we would all, we would probably sprinkle in and out of that home. Like we would move out and move back in. My brother got a job, and he ended up moving to Chicago for two years, came back, bought a house in the suburbs, and then moved back home, and my brother lived in that house for all but five years of his life, until my parents sold it. So he lived in that house until he was like fifty-nine. So, um, so it was really like this—the home was family. So, moving away—like when I moved to Farmington—one, I liked the freedom of not living with my mom and dad, you know, and being on my own, and like, finally feeling like I was an adult. But then I think, um, the drive and knowing how convenient and growing up in that neighborhood knowing where everything was, and then moving to a suburb having to find all those places again was a little crazy. And the gas of driving back and forth and the mileage. I was like, “Oh my God.” When I lived in Detroit, I lived right near the Lodge Freeway, and the Lodge Freeway runs north and south, so within five minutes of my house, I could be on any freeway through the Lodge. The Lodge would take you to Davison, it would go to 75. The Lodge would take me to 96. I could go east or west. I could go and it would take you to 94, um. Woodward and 8 Mile were what we would call “Secret Freeways,” because they ran the length of Michigan, but—and you could jump on there without being on the freeway, sometimes less traffic, not as congested in the morning. Um, so I think it was that, and now that the home is sold, there’s like a little piece of me that’s really sad about it. Like, my, my family doesn’t know, you know, like what it was like. my niece and nephew do, but like—so being with Mike, and knowing that Mike’s brothers and—they’ve never been to that home. They don’t know how I grew up, and I think that’s part of the piece. Um, and before they sold the house, we did pictures of, my dad used to measure us on the wall with our height, and we literally removed a frame from a door, and took the door frame off, and underneath is where my dad would measure us, through the years, and then put the doorframe back, and that was one piece of wood I wish we could have cut out of the house and take with us other than a picture of like, through the years our little height measurements. Um, so. But I, I still love the house. I love growing up the way we did. I love that we all had our own rooms, which is something that not everybody had. Um, when we were super little, we shared, but as soon as you got into high school, everybody broke and could have their own bedroom. Um, and I you know, my parents really let us be adults and gave us the freedom to come and go, and things like that. CC: Um, so if I had to ask you, like what your definition of a neighborhood would be, what would you say, based on your experiences? KT: My experience. So what I liked was that everybody knew everybody, so there was, only, there was probably about. I’m trying to think. I think there was only, like, twelve houses on our block, on each side—six and six. And at, we knew everybody in those homes. And they would do Christmas parties, all the kids knew each other, all the adults knew each other, um, everybody would watch out for each other. If you ever needed help, um, the neighbors were there, and you knew you could go to them. Um, so for me the neighborhood was our mini community within a larger neighborhood. So, although Boston-Edison, everybody—my parents knew more of the folks that lived in Boston-Edison because it spanned so many blocks, and we knew some of the families that lived not just on our direct block. But our direct block we knew each other. So I would say neighborhood to me is like—one, the community of everybody knowing each other, um, being friends, watching out for each other, socializing, sharing, entertaining, all of that was together. You know? Um, so and, and the diversity and knowing what other people did, um, and opportunities that it gave us just knowing people too. You know, we had a doctor that lived across the street, so if there was something major my mom would call and say, “Do you think I need to take her in?” or whatever, you know? When, then we had a professor move in and who worked at a university, my dad would have them come over and talk to us about career planning. Um, and you know, it was just fun things like that. So I, I think it’s like just the comradery of the neighborhood, diversity of the neighborhood, and the relationships that last a life time. CC: So, how do you feel about, um, the state of your neighborhood today, are you happy with how it is, or? KT: I am now, um, I would say through the years some of it was, um, downtrodden for, uh, lack of a better word. That people because the homes started to go up in value, and there was a lot of caretaking. These homes, you know, there was always something. There was always something that needed to be fixed, or you had to shut off part of the house because the heat was so expensive. Or the water was so expensive, or watering your lawn, or getting snow removal and things. So I think, um, for a period of time, people, um, some of the homes weren’t kept up, and some of the homes, people lived in forever, so they became too old to take care of everything. Um, now I see more of a rejuvenation, um, through the neighborhood and people that did buy the homes are definitely repairing them, and upgrading them, and some like I said previously are keeping the historical value true to being, and some are modernizing. Um, there is still, from what I understand, the historical district that, you have to have permits to maintain things. And I know that they do their best to try to maintain the color of the homes and the style of the homes so that things aren’t changing so drastically. That they still keep the historical value, um, so I see that. So I would say that, through the years, in the beginning I was super super proud through the middle of the you know, years, you could see the homes starting to fall apart, but now I think there’s more of a rejuvenation. People are moving in, people are starting to, to move closer to the city. I think with Dan Gilbert and with, um, Illitches increasing more city and the sports coming in, that people are now buying up these properties and, and bringing them back to life, and also empowering the city. CC: Um, so I guess just one more question then. KT: Mm hmm. CC: So, how do you feel about the overall state of the city today? KT: So I think it’s mixed, because I still feel that crime is definitely a major, major problem for the city across the board. I think it has a super bad rep, even when we would travel to other states, um, you would tell people that you’re from Detroit and they would gasp in horror and they would all be like, “Oh my gosh! Do you own guns?” And you know, they, you know, think people are walking the streets with rifles and robbing people blind. But, um, you know, so I would say that I still feel that’s an issue, and I still think it’s a stigma. But knowing and growing up there, I am proud of it. And I would always be, when people would say—you’d say, “Oh where are you from?” and they’d say, “Detroit.” And then you’d ask, “Where?” And the next thing out of their mouth would be, uh, someplace in, in the suburbs of Saint Clair Shores, or Macomb County, or Oakland County, and I’d be, “Okay, wait. That’s not Detroit, you can’t say Detroit, ’cause that’s not—you didn’t grow up there, you can’t own it. You can’t now pretend it’s so great, you want to say you grew up there and didn’t.” I think that’s the pride that I feel too, because Detroit it’s, you know, we lived there from, you know, my parents moved in the day Kennedy got shot in 63, and didn’t sell until 2016, I want to say. Um, and lived there the whole time. So they were through the, the city’s ups and downs, the mayors, and the politics, and, you know, um, but I still think it’s, it’s going to come back. I think when my parents first moved in, I think it was, you know, a, a really, um, I don’t want to say, I would say more, uh, economical, you know. It was more of the highbrow, I would say. Um, but then through the years it became more of the everyday America. And then it became everybody was moving out because of the crime and because of the politics in the city, um, and the expensive caring for the homes. Now I think it’s, it’s back on track, and people are proud to live there, and I think it came full circle, and I think it’s only going to get better.
“Karen Tarnas,” Detroit Historical Society Oral History Archive, accessed October 25, 2020, https://detroit1967.detroithistorical.org/items/show/726.