Carmel "Chuck" Vella

Title

Carmel "Chuck" Vella

Description

In this interview, Vella discusses life in Detroit as an immigrant from Malta. He recounts his neighborhood in the Vernor-Springwells area of the city, his days at St. Gabriel High School, and his first impressions of Detroit. Vella also discusses the time he served in the National Guard, particularly during the events of the 1967 “riots”.

Publisher

Detroit Historical Society

Date

10/12/2018

Rights

Detroit Historical Society

Language

en-US

Narrator/Interviewee's Name

Carmel "Chuck" Vella

Brief Biography

Carmel “Chuck” Vella immigrated to Detroit from Malta in
1957, and proceeded to live in Detroit for the next twenty years. A veteran of the National Guard, and a state championship winning hockey coach, Chuck is a pillar of the Metro-Detroit Maltese community.

Interviewer's Name

Leah Buhagiar

Interview Place

Dearborn, Michigan

Date

10/12/2018

Transcriptionist

Leah Buhagiar

Transcription

LB: Hello, this is Leah Buhagiar, I’m at the Maltese American Community Club in Dearborn, Michigan. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society’s Neighborhoods Project. I’m sitting down with:

CV: Chuck Vella, otherwise known as Carmel Vella.

LB: Thank you so much for sitting down with me today. So, where and when were you born?

CV: I was born 1944, in Malta, in Europe.

LB: What city in Malta?

CV: I was born in Hamrun, but raised in Mellieha.

LB: And when did you come to Detroit?

CV: We came to Detroit in 1957. October 20th, 1957

LB: And why did you come?

CV: My father had preceded us here and came to join him.

LB: What had you heard about Detroit before coming here?

CV: It was all good. Not only about Detroit specifically, but the United States of America, it was very highly respected in Europe and it was everybody’s dream to someday go to the United States.

LB: And what was your first impression of Detroit?

CV: Oh god, well other than seeing my dad that I hadn’t seen in seven years. Just having a TV in our home for the first time, even though it was a small black and white. Just everything: cars, streets, big buildings, big stores, the downtown, it was just a total culture shock really for somebody that came from another country, especially after post World War II.

LB: And what neighborhood did you grow up in?

CV: We grew up in the Vernor-Springwells area, around St. Gabriel’s High School.

LB: And what was it like?

CV: It was a good neighborhood. All kinds of different nationalities. God I can, just on our block, we had Armenians, Hungarians, Greeks, Macedonians, Polish, Greek, Italians, Mexicans, Maltese, it was quite a mixture of, ethnically it was quite a mixture of people.

LB: Was it an integrated neighborhood?

CV: Ethnically integrated. Racially it wasn’t. At that time in the ‘60s as I remember it there were pockets throughout Detroit, there were pockets of African Americans, there were pockets of non-African American, non- whites, pockets of whites, pockets of mixed brown and white races, but the neighborhood itself, I would say it wasn’t very integrated at all.

LB: And what did you do for fun?

CV: For fun mostly we’d go to the schoolyard, play strikeout with rubber balls, and just that’s about it, I mean, you know.

LB: And where did your parents work?

CV: My mom was a stay at home mom, and my dad was a fruit packer as well as a mechanic and welder.

LB: Where did you go shopping?

CV: Oh god, well, of course at that time, Downtown Detroit was still the place to go shopping. You know, you had Hudson’s there and Woolworth’s, and all kinds of others, Federals and Kresge’s. But in the neighborhood where we were at, there was an A&P, and as far as our grocery we got a lot of it from small grocery store that was related to us. But usually on Vernor Highway.

LB: And where did you go to school?

CV: I went to St. Gabriel’s High School.

LB: Can you tell us a little-

CV: In Detroit, it’s located on the corner of Vernor and Inglis. It’s still there, I don’t know if it’s still known as St. Gabriel’s. I know the school is no longer operated by the parish. I believe it’s a charter school, Cesar Chavez Elementary.

LB: What was it like in school at the time?

CV: Again, culture shock. For me personally, I was only thirteen years old when I came and because of my education in Malta, they, I was with older kids. And they were co-ed for the first time. That for me was culture shock cause in Malta they were either all boys or all girls all throughout, you know, the education system. And I was with older classmates. I was fortunate enough to graduate when I was still sixteen, not quite seventeen yet. The language was tough for me, but I did all right. Being the youngest in the class, also the smallest in size. Didn’t speak fluent English but, we did all right.

LB: Are there any stories from your childhood about your neighborhood that you’d like to share?

CV: Nothing really extraordinary, I mean it was where everybody played together, everybody looked out after each other’s kids. All the time I was growing up I had a job after school, working at the corner grocery store, putting away groceries, pop bottles and things like that. So, I didn’t have a lot of time for playing, playing, but when we did play in the summer, in the neighborhood, just hanging around or at the schoolyard playing baseball.

LB: Did you ever venture around the city growing up or did you tend to stay in your own neighborhood?

CV: Not really, when I was growing up I pretty well stayed to, in my neighborhood. The first two years we were here I did have a Saturday job, down by Tiger Stadium at my uncle’s grocery store. Again, just clerking. It was great for me there cause I get to learn how to speak English, be a little bit more outgoing, rather than just stay at home. And I made the grand sum of one dollar a day, for eight in the morning until eight at night. And all I could eat. [Laughter]

LB: Well that’s a perk! Did you feel comfortable in the city?

CV: Within the city itself?

LB: Yeah.

CV: I would say so, yeah. I felt safe, until about, there was a lot of, I don’t know how can I say that, a lot of pressure building up in Detroit with the civil rights movement. That was one thing. But as far as being safe, in our neighborhood, we felt safe. We really didn’t have much reason to go way out of our neighborhood, and when we did it was usually with one of our parents. My dad drove us there or whatever. But there was no, we pretty well stayed within the neighborhood.

LB: So what you said there kind of leads into the next question, so the decades you grew up in, in Detroit, what’s the differences you see between the decades? Like, the ‘50s when you came, and then the ‘60s?

CV: Well, when we first came it was, you know everything was brand new. Not knowing much about the history of the United States, everything was new, again. The ‘60s, the racial tension started to kind of surface, maybe it was there that I wasn’t aware of it because again, I was new to this country. But, it was basically an all white police force just about, and it was, I would say, I won’t say unrest, but definitely some discomfort brewing in the city. Like I said, up to that point, the only thing I knew is what I learned in my high school years about American history. And my dad worked with African Americans and sometime they would come to our house, so they weren't strangers. And we just looked at them as just other human beings.

LB: Are there any other stories you’d like to share from your childhood?

CV: yeah, and then back in the ‘60s I think, it seemed like everything was working against Detroit. The baby boomers started to mature and reach adulthood in the ‘60s. The expressway- the interstate highway system was being completed about that time or at least in full gear. So that made Detroit, would becoming an aging city. Like a lot of the people who served in the wars and everything aged and all their young, youngsters because of the ease of movement and everything else looked to the suburbs. The other thing that came about in the ‘60s if I remember correctly, the, because of the fact you had a lot of pockets that were all African-Americans in Detroit, and you had other pockets that were basically white or Latinos that it was felt that maybe the education in the black community wasn’t up to par with the white area. So decided they were going to have cross district bussing so that white kids from a white neighborhood would be bussed into a black neighborhood and vice versa so they would reach a, kind of a balanced ratio of blacks and whites. That didn't go over very well, I think for both races because then you lost the effect and the safety of having a neighborhood school. So, I really think that had a big issue because when you use kids, people’s kids as a tool to achieve a grown up problem, I think a lot of people felt they didn’t want to see their kids going ten, fifteen, twenty miles on a bus, not being within the neighborhood where you could go get them if they got sick or this or that. So I think that had very, very negative effect on the, it might have cost some of the white migration. But I also think that besides racial, I think that there was work, there were highways being, expressways being built all over so that the suburbs kind of flourished because it was easy to get in and out of the city. The other thing that happened too, that I think contributed to it was the first shopping mall in America opened up in Southfield, Northland Shopping Center, which was the biggest indoor mall in the united states at that time, the first one. And that took a lot of business from Hudson’s and I think it started the demise of all the businesses in downtown Detroit. And a lot of people started going shopping in the suburbs instead of Detroit. And I think a lot of the business started going, as more malls opened, they opened up in malls rather than downtown Detroit. Those are, I mean, I think some of the contributing factors to it. I don’t think the race thing was all encompassing, that I don't think the biggest reason that people moved out, I think it was accumulation, a conglomeration of things that were just kind of working against Detroit at that time.

LB: The neighborhood that you grew up in, has it changed over the years or has it stayed the same?

CV: it changed a lot. Mainly because the people that I knew, that were my neighbors, as they grew old, there were no young families willing to come into Detroit. So, what happened was there were a lot of houses that they couldn't sell, so the people just left them, passed away. Their kids didn't want to come into Detroit. They had their own careers, professions, whatever and a lot of those houses became empty, and they were easy targets for firebombing and whatever else. So a lot of the, unfortunately, the street that I grew up on became by no doubt, the worst block in the city of Detroit, for gang activity, burned out houses and just, just total mayhem. They burnt our probably fifty percent of the houses on our block, two blocks, however they, there have been some housing, I think government subsidized affordable housing, I want to say maybe five or six or units on our block. Our house is still there, so some of the houses survived it.

LB: And when did you move away from the area?

CV: Well I didn’t move away until I was actually thirty-three years old when I got married. I lived and stayed in Detroit until I got married. And then we bought a house in Dearborn.

LB: And growing up, you stayed in the same neighborhood?

CV: Growing up, yeah, I stayed in the same neighborhood basically.

LB: And then you said that you bought a house in Dearborn, that was what prompted your move was getting married?

CV: yeah, getting married and we found a house that was a two family, with two flats, one above the other and for being first time homeowners, we thought that was a good way to do it cause we could live downstairs and rent the upstairs. It helps with the income.

LB: When someone says “the neighborhoods”-

CV: Uh-hmm.

LB: What does that mean to you?

CV: To me, my neighborhood I would in my own mind I would refer to it between 4th Street and Patton Park, Dix and from Waterman to the western limits of the city of Detroit which borders Dearborn, which would be Woodmere cemetery. That to me, all of basically the area around St. Gabriel’s high school which covers quite a bit, quite an area. That to me was the neighborhood.

LB: And I know you touched on it a little before, how do you feel about the state of your neighborhood today?

CV: The state of the neighborhood that I grew up in, in Detroit?

LB: Yeah.

CV: Still on the rough side. I don’t go down there very often, but when I get a chance I go by there on purpose to just reminisce. I think there’s still some, you know, gang activity. If anything maybe it’s stabilized a little bit, but most of the rundown housing were, have basically been demolished. The one good thing about it is a lot of Latin, Latin Americans have moved in and they do a pretty good job of fixing up some of these houses.

LB: What would you like to see happen with your neighborhood?

CV: Oh god, clean it up. Get rid of the houses that are not productive. Raze them. If a house sits for a long time I think that it becomes an eyesore, it turns people off, it becomes a breeding ground for bad things, and clean it up and more than anything you have to have pride in a neighborhood. If you don't have, if the neighbors are not proud of a neighborhood they don’t take care of it, you know the city can only do so much. I believe it, again, I’m a believer of small government, That we should do for ourselves what we can, not depend on the government to do it so, I’m all for you know if you have a house anywhere, it doesn’t matter Detroit or anywhere, clean up around it. Your government can’t be there to sweep the street in front of your house, sweep it yourself, pick up your own leaves, don’t leave trash around, just be the best neighbor you can be. And if everybody did that, there’d be no bad neighborhoods.

LB: And I know you kind of touched on it there, if you could get a project done in your neighborhood, what would it be?

CV: Oh god, it would definitely be the clean up. Clean up, get rid of the graffiti. If a house is torn down- I mean if a house is not worthy to live in call it what it is, get rid of it. Do whatever you can. Better to have ten good-looking houses than twenty-five half run down houses.

LB: And overall, how do you feel about the state of the city of Detroit today?

CV: I think it’s on a comeback. So much so that our middle son and his wife they live in Detroit. They work in Detroit, they love it. They have a beautiful house in Rosedale Park. I go over there. I do work on their yard outside the house. I converse with all the neighbors. They're awesome. They’re all African American, but who cares. They're friendly people, we go back and forth and I have no problem with that at all. You’ve just got to be aware of your surroundings, but that’s everywhere, not just in Detroit.

LB; I know you touched on it before we started the interview exactly- I know you mentioned you were part of the National Guard at one point-

CV: Oh yeah!

LB: Could you touch on that just a little?

CV: Yeah, in the ‘60s, because I was fortunate enough to graduate at the age of sixteen, not quite seventeen, by the time I was draft age, I was working, had a job. And at that time, there was a military draft and Vietnam hadn’t broken out yet but, I just looked at myself that hey, I can join the National Guard, its for eight years, still serve my country and so I joined the national guard and a few years after I joined unfortunately the riots broke out in Detroit on July 24th, 1967. Which happened to be my birthday. And at that time we were on our two weeks summer camp at camp Grayling in upper, northern Michigan and we came down here in convoy and we were, it wasn't pleasant duty but I was assigned downtown. For a few days, I was guarding the revolving door at police headquarters at 1300 Beaubien. Since I was in communications, we were also, we also had to put in a backup telephone system in police headquarters in case the, what we called at that time, the MauBell [?] system went down. That we had a communication system between the military and the police. I also got to do curfew duty on the corner of I want to say Gratiot and oh god, maybe Clinton. I got to see a lot of bad things during the riot, I don’t know if you want me to elaborate on that or not?

LB: If you want to, you’re more than welcome, but-

CV: One thing I do want to say, I did lose a friend of mine, a fellow coworker that I used to work with. His name was Herman Ector, and he was an African American and he was one of the victims during the riot. He came into the city to check up on his mother and somehow he was murdered. I think we were activated for three, four weeks.

LB: And is there anything else you'd like to share?

CV: On the funny part, when I was on guard duty at police headquarters, this little maybe ten, eleven, twelve year old kid comes with his brand new bike in the middle of the riot, insisted that he gets a bicycle license cause he didn't want anybody to steal it from him. And I tried to convince him they were not giving licenses out during the riot. That was the funny part. The sad part was on the same duty, an elder African American lady and a young, younger African American lady both came and they wanted passes to go visit a relative of theirs that was gravely injured who was in Receiving Hospital. At that time Receiving Hospital was right behind Police Headquarters and I tried to tell them that I can’t, number one let anybody in through that door and number two that I couldn't do anything for them. That was sad, that made me feel really, really helpless that I couldn't help other human being. They were crying and they were you know they were in bad shape. The only thing I could do was direct them to the first precinct to see if they could give them a pass, escort them to the hospital. That was probably, the good and the bad of the riot.

LB: And just in general, about your neighborhood or anything like that, anything else you'd want to share?

CV: No, I mean we had a good upbringing. It was all families. Everybody had three, four, five kids. We’d go to Patton Park to play and on the street, just play hide and seek, no troublemakers, everybody felt safe and we looked after each other. It’d be nice I think if everybody grew up in a neighborhood like we did at that time, regardless of what the racial makeup is, I think that it kind of starts with yourself. You want to be the best neighbor you can be, and hopefully that rubs off on other people. You’ve got to have pride in what you own and what you are.

LB: well thank you so much for sitting down today-

CV: Right! It starts by doing what you can do for yourself and for your neighborhood. Don’t depend on other people to come and do it for you. I’m a firm believer that god, why depend on the government or anybody else if its something that you can do for yourself. You’re it; you’re your own government.

LB: was there anything else?

CV: no I mean it was good, the only thing I can say is I want to thank the United States for welcoming me here from another country and making this my home. I consider United States my home, I’m proud of it and I love it and I’m thankful for, that I’m twice blessed that I can call Malta my home of my birth but United States is my home of choice. So, yeah.

LB: That’s really great. Well, thank you so much for sitting down today Chuck-

CV: Oh you’re welcome.

LB: I really appreciate it!

CV: Thank you for asking me.

LB: Of course.

CV: it’s my pleasure, I’m proud to do it.

LB: Okay, so we are just turning the recorder back on for a moment, Chuck had another story that he wanted to share.

CV: Sure, ready? Okay, so when I was seventeen, not quite eighteen, I had a cousin of mine that used to work for one of the major newspapers downtown, at that time we had the Free Press, the News and the Times. I don’t remember which one it was. And he used to ride on the back of a pickup truck and distribute newspapers throughout all the drop boxes throughout the city. And those guys worked on incentive basis so they made good money. Anyway, they were having some opening to, for that same, for that job and I went to apply at one of the, whichever newspaper it was. I don’t even remember, it wasn’t that important. And at that time they used to give everybody aptitude tests and so I did very well on the aptitude test and when it came to the interview, the gentleman who was interviewing me tells me I did very well, that the job was mine, but then at the end came the “except for” and he was very upfront and said from that position the promotion from that position would be to be a station manager for neighborhood delivery. At that time I had only been here maybe for four years from Malta, I still had an accent. And he says he wouldn’t give me that job because I had an accent. And he told me: “now we wouldn't want our American kids taking directions from somebody with a foreign accent, now would we?” And he looked me straight in the eye and I says, I kind of nodded my head, there wasn’t much I could say. So he didn't give me that job for that reason and that reason only and he offered me a lesser job which I thanked him but I refused it because I said if that's the only reason you won't hire me, then I really don’t want to work there. So, at the end of that interview, I went downstairs on, oh god I believe it was either, I want to say maybe Lafayette, and I went to a Cunningham's Drug Stores where they have the fountain, soda fountain bar, counter and I had me a nice strawberry milkshake and I thought about it and I just had a good talk with myself and I said “the man is right, I’m in his country, English is the language of business and if I’m going to make anything of myself, I better learn his language.” From that point forward, I didn't hang around any Maltese, I spoke only English, I listened to as much radio- not so much television, but as much radio as I could and I tried to learn as much English and vocabulary as I could and try to lose my accent. And the fortunate part about it is- the funny part about it is a few years later I was recognized by the Detroit Free Press as the outstanding national guardsman of the year, and I was given an award by one of the same newspapers. And, the man was afraid that I wouldn't be able to lead fifteen, sixteen, twenty kids for the newspaper route, but it so turn out that I coached hockey for thirty years and won two state championships and so he was my motivation that all my life, to this day, that I’m in his country, although it is now my country too, and I needed to speak the language of the land. That it was up to me to learn, not for him to teach me or have to make accommodations for me. So I agreed with him, but that negative turned to be the biggest positive in my life and so yeah, I think that to me, I still thank that man for doing that for me cause if he hadn't done that I’d probably still be speaking with a Maltese accent. It’s kind of funny but at the same time for me it was, he was my motivation all my life, that I wanted to teach kids, teamwork, how to play, and we did, like I said coached hockey for thirty years, thirty, thirty-one years, proud of it and I enjoyed it and I thought that would be a funny story- not funny but that's a fact of life.

LB: Well thank you very much.

CV: Thanks.

LB: Was there anything else that you wanted to share?

CV: No that’s it, I thought that was kind of funny.

LB: Well thank you again.

Search Terms

Maltese, Immigration, Detroit, National Guard, 1967 Riot,

Citation

“Carmel "Chuck" Vella,” Detroit Historical Society Oral History Archive, accessed December 2, 2020, https://detroit1967.detroithistorical.org/items/show/741.

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