Al Hebert

Title

Al Hebert

Description

In this interview, Hebert discusses growing up on the east side of Detroit in the 1940s and ‘50s and the challenges of maintaining his art studio in the years following the events of ’67.

Publisher

Detroit Historical Society

Date

8/1/2017

Rights

Detroit Historical Society

Narrator/Interviewee's Name

Al Hebert

Brief Biography

Al Hebert was born December 9, 1941 and grew up in the east side of Detroit. He attended graduate school at Wayne State in the mid-1960s and simultaneously taught at Macomb Community College. Around that time he bought a house on Concord Avenue near the Huber Avenue Chrysler foundry. In 1972 he moved his residence to the suburbs but the house on Concord remained his art studio until 1984. He is an optimist and has hope for Detroit’s future.

Interviewer's Name

William Winkel

Interview Place

Detroit, Michigan

Date

8/1/2017

Transcription

WW: Hello! Today is August 1st 2017. My name is William Winkel. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society’s Detroit ’67 Oral History Project and I am in Detroit, Michigan. And I am sitting down with…
AH: Al Hebert.
WW: Thank you so much for sitting down with me today.
AH: You’re welcome.
WW: Can you please start by telling me where and when were you born?
AH: I was born December 9th, 1941 which is two days after Pearl Harbor, in Detroit.
WW: Did you grow up in the city?
AH: I did, yes.
WW: What neighborhood did you grow up in?
AH: On the east side, which was a thoroughly white middle-class neighborhood.
WW: Do you have any stories you’d like to share from growing up in that neighborhood?
AH: Well I could tell you a lot stories, I don’t know if they have any relevance to anything that we’re focusing on today.
WW: Just give us a quick snapshot of what the neighborhood was like.
AH: As I said, it was thoroughly middle-classs, virtually everybody was a homeowner in that neighborhood, and the only person of a slightly exotic nature was a Lebanese family down the street, but other than that everybody was northern European.
WW: Growing up in the city, did you tend to stay in your own neighborhood or did you venture around?
AH: Well, primarily in the neighborhood, but as I got a bit older I had a bicycle and I used to take rather lengthy bike hikes on Sundays.
WW: Growing up, did you interact much with the black community, or other communities in Detroit?
AH: No, I did not. In fact that was almost entirely a different world. My father was a liberal and kindly person and on one occasion when he was playing baseball – my brother and I used to go with him – and we were at Northwestern Field, and they had a kind of fieldhouse there where the players could shower and soforth. And emerging from that one day my father was talking to black people, which was unusual to see.
WW: These small interactions, did they change the way you looked at the city, or the way you were growing up?
AH: I can’t really say that they did at the time, no.
WW: Ok. Not a problem. As you were growing up and you were getting older, going to the ‘50s now, did you notice any tension in the city as you started to explore it more? Or was it still a carefree aspect to it?
AH: The zones that I was in were carefree.
WW: Ok.
AH: When I took my bike hikes for instance, being on the east side of Detroit I would go down into Grosse Point, which of course is white supremacy haven par excellence.
WW: As you were getting ready to go to school, where did you decide to go to school at – for college?
AH: To college I went to Washington D.C. because I had a scholarship to go there.
WW: Ok. How many years did you spend in Washington D.C.?
AH: Four, except for the summers. Back in the Detroit area for summers.
WW: As the ‘50s closed out and you were coming back, did you see the city changing at all?
AH: Well, I graduated from undergraduate school in ’63 which was, I view, as the Beatles era, you know. I don’t really feel that social change was marked, at least in terms of anything that bore upon my life.
WW: Were you here in ’63 for the march by chance? Or no?
AH: I was on one march on Woodward Avenue but I don’t remember the year of it.
WW: Was it with Martin Luther King?
AH: No.
WW: Oh, ok. As we were gearing up and going into the summer of ’67, do you remember if you sensed any unease or uncertainty going into that summer? Did you expect anything to break out?
AH: When I came back from D.C. I started grad school at Wayne University, and in the midst of grad school started teaching at Macomb Community College, hired by Don Brackett who lived in Detroit and was a teacher there and the nominal head of the art department. But I think since I had a bit of income I decided to buy a place rather than rent, and at that time I didn’t sense any impending doom, so I bought something on the near-east side of Detroit, on Concord Street. Concord Street is probably known today primarily because just south of the Ford Freeway is the Packard plant in ruins on Concord. I was north of the freeway between Georgia and Huber Avenue, where the Huber Avenue foundry of Chrysler Corporation was, which contaminated the air terribly. But as far as any kind of social unrest, no I didn’t sense that at the time. The riot, in other words, came out of left field. I didn’t expect it at all.
WW: Ok. Do you remember where you were when you first heard about what was going on that Sunday morning?
AH: Well, I must have been at home because I left – I refer to that place as my studio house because I was living there and starting to use it as a studio. Later on after I moved my residence out to Harrison Township, I used it exclusively as a studio. But I was emerging from there to go to Chuck Cole’s house, so I probably heard about it right there.
WW: Did you see anything of what took place first hand, or did you stay hunkered down for most of the week?
AH: There wasn’t anything evident in my immediate neighborhood on Concord or nearby, but as I drove over to Chuck Cole’s house there was evidence of buildings burning and soforth.
WW: Was your studio damaged?
AH: Not on that occasion. But it was plenty damaged later. Maybe if I had been smarter I would have taken the omen and just left right then, but I stayed until 1984 and suffered a lot of losses in the process.
WW: Do you mean – stayed in that neighborhood? Or stayed in the city?
AH: I stayed in that house.
WW: Oh no, when you said you should have moved your studio. Moved it out of the city or out of the neighborhood?
AH: Well, what happened in that immediate neighborhood was that all sense of community disintegrated. When I first in moved there it was mostly older people who had been there since decades earlier, the working class people that worked at Chrysler and soforth. As time went by, we went from a city block that was about 98% occupied by original residents to a city block that was 90% vacant – either houses that were burned or had been removed.
WW: What made you stay in the city though?
AH: I guess I’m a confirmed idealist and optimist. I did move out to the suburbs when my son was born in ’72, but I decided to keep that building as a studio and maintain some presence in the city. As you might be able to see from this photograph, I did a lot of changes to the interior and exterior of the building, and in fact at a later date had a couple of outdoor exhibits there.
WW: So once you get to your friend’s house, you stayed hunkered down?
AH: Yes.
WW: Did you stay there for the remainder of the week or did you stay between there and your place?
AH: I can’t recall how many days I stayed there, but once things seemed stabilized I went back to my studio.
WW: Ok. How do you refer to what took place in ’67?
AH: I refer to it as a riot, plain and simple. I’m not buying into any of this politically correct jargon that they’re using now. It was a lawless event, it was criminality, it was rioting, looting, killing, it was not a act of social…
WW: Change?
AH: What word am I looking for?
WW: Change?
AH: …social change.
WW: Ok. Are there any other thoughts or any other perspectives you’d like to share today?
AH: I’m saddened by what happened to Detroit after that. That was just the first in a series of developments that caused a lot of people to leave the city which of course ruined the tax base and further led to widespread criminality. In the later years when I was there, I was being robbed about every two weeks on average. I would go away from the studio for the day and when I’d come back a door or window would be broken in, and as I say I’m some kind of a naïve, optimistic idealist to have stayed there as long as I did. There was one incident where I was beat up by eight guys – this was eight guys at once, not eight separate incidents – and even that didn’t drive me out immediately. It was just the repeated break-ins and senseless violence associated with them, because I had stopped leaving tools or any valuables in the building but that didn’t seem to stop the break-ins, which were just a nuisance to have to cope with all the time.
WW: What do you think of the state of the city today?
AH: I think it’s coming back but it has a long row to hoe.
WW: Given the fact that you are an optimist or an idealist, are you optimistic for the city making it down that row?
AH: Yes. Yes I am. I see signs of it already.
WW: Awesome. Thank you so much for sitting down with me today.
AH: You’re very welcome.
[12:30]
[End of Track 1]

Search Terms

Detroit, Michigan, Brackett, Donald, Chrysler Corporation Huber Avenue foundry, Concord Avenue, Macomb Community College, Wayne State

Citation

“Al Hebert,” Detroit Historical Society Oral History Archive, accessed December 2, 2020, https://detroit1967.detroithistorical.org/items/show/753.

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