Alan Feldman, June 16th, 2015
Eight Mile Road—Detroit—Michigan
Michigan National Guard
***NOTE: This interview contains profanity and/or explicit language
NL: Today is June 16, 2015. This is the interview of Alan Feldman by Noah Levinson. We are at 1599 Marshbank in Pontiac, Michigan; the home of Mr. Feldman. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society and the Detroit 1967 Oral History Project. Alan, could you tell me where and when you were born?
AF: I was born in Women’s Hospital on September 29, 1947. The Yankees beat the Dodgers in seven games.
NL: And where is that hospital located at?
AF: I have no idea. I think it was incorporated with something else.
NL: Okay, and where did you live in July of 1967?
AF: I was going to Michigan State University, but I came home for the summer to my parents’ house. They lived in Oak Park.
NL: So you were home in Oak Park during the summer. And what were you doing that summer?
AF: I sold shoes at Name Brand Cancellation Shoes, on Twelfth and Clairmount. I don’t recall if I went to the other store. The owner, “Uncle Harry,” his name actually was Hoffenbloom, I believe, but I always called him Uncle Harry, much to his chagrin, he also had a store on West Warren—he’s eating Nikita’s food, or he’s eating Sally’s food I’m sorry [referencing pets].
NL: What do you recall about Detroit’s—and Oak Park and the general area, in the mid-1960s, about the neighborhoods and the community of the city?
AF: Well, I was very lucky to grow up in Oak Park. Oak Park was really the first, I guess you’d call it a “bedroom community”. The people came from Detroit and moved to Oak Park, there was Birmingham and places like that that were established already, but Oak Park, we had a beautiful high school, brilliant students—I think we were third in the state, our ranking. I was an idiot, but I went to school with a lot of very brilliant people; and we’re having our Fiftieth Reunion, October 3, in which I will display history from the 1960s. Well, you want to know about Detroit?
AF: Well, Detroit – you know I really wasn’t aware that Detroit was disintegrating. Like the governor of the state says, when we went bankrupt, that this has been going on for sixty years—I don’t know where he came up with this ‘sixty years’, it seems pretty extreme, but it was the same way it always was. White people lived in a certain area of Detroit, black people lived in another area; white kids went to high school basically together, black kids went to high school. I taught in a place called Nolan Middle School and—in the mid-sixties, this is before I taught, there were some black kids going to Pershing High School, but still most of the neighborhood was white. After the riot, then many white people moved, so I guess that’s the onset of white flight, but Detroit had high crime. It was a factory town, a huge factory town.
NL: So, growing up even as a child, it sounds like you were aware of the segregation that was happening in the city, at that point.
AF: Oh yeah. My dad owned a store on Woodward and Alexandrine and on Woodward and Canfield, cleaning plants. Everybody that worked for him was black, everybody, and then most of his customers were black, although there were some whites in that area, but not very many. We used to have – I was telling somebody this the other day -- we used to have pimps drive up in their pimpmobiles, for the day, you know, [Buick] Electra 225’s, big Cadillacs—am I supposed to say this?
NL: Sure. Everything you remember.
AF: It’d be a guy, the pimp, was in the front seat just like Mr. Turner—he’s got to be passed away by now—Mr. Turner would be in the front seat and he’d have, like three girls in the backseat, all three beautiful girls, and he’d come in and he’d have this big order of women’s dresses and his clothes. And my father would say to me, “Alan, go help Mr. Turner out with the clothes.” And I’d go outside and they’d all go, “Honey, honey, Hi! You grew over the winter, haven’t seen you,” because he’d have a convertible, so the top would be down, they’d, “Oh Alan, you so handsome!” I’d be like, thirteen, fourteen, I’d be like, Oh my God! That’s when I realized that –see when you live in an area where the only black person that you see, basically, is your maid, okay? When you see women like that you go like, whoa! What’s going on here? I mean, when you’re fourteen— I’m a guy, you look at girls, that’s your one thing. You play baseball and you sleep with the ball, and then you look at girls. So, it always kind of shocked me that there were so many beautiful black women. And in our store that burned down, I used to stand—you want me to put them back out? [referencing pets]—I used to stand, the place was, on the left-hand side there was a window, on the right-hand side there was a window, and then you’d walk into the store. On a hot day when we wouldn’t do very much business, I would stand out on the sidewalk, and people would be walking by all the time. Some of the women knew me after a while, I’d be standing there, “Ooh, you so handsome, why you wearing that? Why you wearing that today? That shirt don’t fit you right.” They get to know you, and in the drugstore, and in whatever, it was amazing. You were one of the community.
NL: So, Detroit was already an obviously segregated city in your estimation by the mid-sixties. Do you remember seeing or hearing about incidents of discrimination against black or non-white people?
AF: In newspapers I remember seeing things, which I have—I’ll show you, I’m pretty sure there’s some in there, but also, Eight Mile Road and Schaeffer, as a little boy, I might have been eight, nine, ten -- right at Eight Mile-Schaeffer there was a hamburger place, I think it was White Castle, and all these black people would line up every morning, right on the curb of Eight Mile and Schaeffer, and white people would come by—I presume they were mostly all white people, and they’d say, “You want to do yard work?” You get in the car, you go do yard work. They’d pick up a woman, “You want to clean the house?” This is how employment was gained. I remember asking my father, why are those people lined up. I couldn’t have been more than six or seven probably. He told me they were they waiting for jobs. So that’s what they did. There were no white people there, there were all black people.
NL: What do you remember thinking or feeling at that time when your dad was explaining that to you? How did that scene strike you?
AF: I don’t know really. It didn’t really affect me very much, but you know what affected me the most was going downtown—I mean I wish I could give you an answer for that, but I don’t really feel like there was an answer it was just like, I wanted to know, who are those people and what are they doing there? And the fact that he pointed out that they were basically black people didn’t really move me—but I saw a black man in downtown Detroit, I couldn’t have been more than five, and this is during Christmas when people—there was no Northland or Eastland [Malls], people went downtown to shop so the streets were jammed with people. There was a policeman and he had this black man up against a wall—I was with my mother—and he had two hat boxes. This is not something I’m dreaming about; this is something that was real, and the policeman had a gun on him and he had his hands up and he was like this [motions], and that’s one of the first remembrances of black and white. I presume he stole hats.
AF: And we had a maid for a long time, named Grassie. I never did go to Grassie’s house, so I never did know what her kids were like; I’d hear about them, but I never saw what her house was like or what was going on in her house. It was like, well, Grassie just went home, but I don’t know what she was doing, you know what I mean?
NL: She left work and went home; we all do.
AF: She made great tomato soup and tuna fish sandwiches. Now there’s something to say about that though, but I don’t know how to express it. When you work for a family and then you go home to your own family—because you’re not working for a family, really.
NL: How do you mean?
AF: Well, it’s like they’re part of your family. Grassie was like my second mother. I could come home for lunch and if my mother wasn’t there then Grassie would feed me; and she’d sit down and she would tell me about Louisiana. Baton Rouge. She would tell me about –what is that—a gumbo. This is how I knew about these things. She was so nice, so sweet, and she had little hairs growing out of her chin [laughter], but, you know, that’s my growing up process with African-Americans. And I did know that African-Americans grew up in a different area than we did because of Joe Louis. My father told me the story when Joe Louis beat Max Bayer in 1935. My mother and him went for a ride to celebrate, to see people on the street, and, you know they were honking their horns and everything. Joe Louis was a huge hero in Detroit. I’ve got the greatest Joe Louis collection. They’ve been to my house ten times; the African-American Museum. I won’t give them my stuff. And they threw garbage in his car. So my dad said, it was down on Hastings—have you heard the name of that street, Hastings Street? He said he’d never do that again, ever.
NL: That was 1935?
AF: 1935. And I’ve got a picture in the newspaper of the crowd of African-American people after he won, and they’re going crazy. He was the biggest hero.
NL: Switching gears a little bit, I want to ask you about 1967. First off, how did you first hear about or become aware of the civil unrest in July 1967?
AF: I was listening to the Tiger game at home. I don’t know what I was doing before then. And I needed gas; I was going to a friend’s house named Joe Kass, K-A-S-S, we’re still friends. I went up to Eight Mile Road and Schaeffer; there was a Sunoco station, and gas was 19 cents. I had a car, a Pontiac LeMans that was like a year or two old, it was like brand-new. And back then where you had the license plate, you’d pull it down and the gas cap would be. So I took the thing off and I was putting the gas in, and I just happened to straighten up and look and I saw the whole sky was full of smoke. The entire sky going south, I was like, “Wow! What a fire that must be.” You know? So I get back in my car and I got the ballgame on. They were playing a double header; back in those days you played double headers. Now the [dog barking] players won’t do it unless it’s really a catastrophe.
NL: Yeah, if there’s a rain delay [dog barking] from yesterday or something.
AF: Yeah, right. So they won’t do it, but [dog barking] I turn it on and it says—they’re doing the news and then at the end of the news, I think it was the end of the news, the guy said, “There is a civil disturbance going on in Detroit. Do not go to Detroit; stay out of Detroit.” So, I went home and I said to my dad, “Civil disturbance. I think, Dad, that means a riot; they’re having a riot in Detroit,” and he said, “Yeah, I heard that on the radio,” because my father had a transistor radio, and like a lot of men back then, they had their own chair—did you ever see All in the Family?
AF: I swear to God, I swear to God, they came in our house late at night.
AF: And they saw my father with a cigar hanging out of his mouth, asleep, with the transistor like this. I come home at two o’clock on the morning he’d be like that. I’d say, “Dad, get up!”, and he’d go “[grunts] Ehhh, what do you want from me?” That’s what happened. I went over to my friend Joe’s house and now everybody knew. Like, if you were my neighbor I’d go over and I’d say, “They’re having a riot in Detroit. Did you hear this?” So, everybody knew and you had to be off the streets I believe by 5:30 or 6:30, something like that. I’m not sure; I think it was 5:30, 6:30. So I left Joe’s house and went home, and that night—we lived in a really beautiful apartment complex—people took their TV’s and put them on the porches. We had a celebrity talk show guy in Detroit then, his name was Lou Gordon, if you ever heard his name, and Lou Gordon was on with his wife, Jackie Gordon, and that’s all they talked about was the riots; you know they had people on talking about it, and they were saying it was just terrible. And my father was just praying that they burned down his store; he was praying, he was, “Alan, I want them to burn down the store so bad.” Because he had had a tremendous business, and then, you know where the medical center is there? Like off of Woodward and Alexandrine, that’s the area. They tore down all these houses in that area, and that was my father’s walk-on trade. He had a tremendous route that he did, but that was his walk-on trade; and there were no houses there anymore [laughing] so he was losing a lot of money you know, so he was praying they’d burn down his business. It didn’t happen. We went downtown on Tuesday and the entire city down the Lodge [US-10] smelled of smoke. Everything. I mean, when you got down past, like Eight Mile Road, the entire city smelled like smoke; like fire. So he’s like, “Let’s go to the store. Let’s hope it burned down.” [laughter] Because of insurance, you know?
AF: So it didn’t burn down so he was very disappointed. Then we went for a ride. I never was sure if my father should have done this, but we went for a ride all over the western side. And what I recall mostly is, right near – I think it was near Northwestern High School in Detroit, they had a gun store. And on top of the gun store were all kinds of police and state troopers, I guess they were, National Guardsmen, one of them was Mickey Lolich of the Detroit Tigers; he was a National Guardsmen, and they surrounded this place; they weren’t about to let anybody get in that place. They’d kill them. If anybody tried to break in there they would kill them. There were troops all over the city, like army trucks, and there’d be like four guys in a Jeep, and three guys would have their rifles pointed out. You probably heard this already. They’d have their rifles out—the driver didn’t obviously, and this went on for a long time, you know, the city was in chaos.
NL: You said that the store that you were at this summer was near Twelfth and Clairmount?
AF: It was on Twelfth and Clairmount. It was on Clairmount.
NL: What happened to the store?
AF: Oh, it burned down. Uncle Harry had that store and one on West Warren, they burned down. The tale is this: Uncle Harry never left the store on the weekend with any money, because the weekend was big. It was like New Year’s Eve, for a lot of people, every weekend on Twelfth and Clairmount. You can’t understand unless you were there. It’s like, during Christmas and Easter, everybody had to have a pair of shoes; you had to have a pair of shoes. And I’ll deviate just a little bit; when I first started working there, people would come in and—you know it was a men’s shoe store, so guys would come in and they’d say, “I need a pair of Stacy Adams,” so I’d say okay. Now I’m like, seventeen, sixteen, I don’t even know what I was, but I was the guy that they kept because I had a way, a natural bullshit way. So I’d say, “Well, what do you wear?” and they’d say, “Oh, I wear like, ten triple-A,” and I go, “Ten triple-A? No, let’s measure your foot,” and it’d be like seven and a half. So I’d say, “Well, what makes you think you wear a ten triple-A?” He says, “I want you to give me a ten triple-A.” I said, “Why?” He says, “Well because that’s what I want to wear, is a ten triple-A.” I said, “You wear a seven-and-a-half,” and then it dawned on me what was going on here; they wanted their feet to look longer. They wanted to look more like a grown-up man or something like a big guy, you know. So I’d get them the ten triple-A, and their foot would stop like right here, and then there’d be a point here, and this is what they’d wear; this is what they wanted. [Dog whimpering] and then we’d go up to—[to dog] ‘Kita! Shhh! That’s a trait of a pointer, by the way; they cry. That’s what she does. –I’d say to them, “You need some socks?” and they’d go like, “Yeah, give me some thick-and-thins, thick-and-thins.” They have, like, a lisp for this. Thick-and-thins are like, the bottom part is a regular kind of sock, and then the part going up, you can see through. So they were thick, and thins. Anyway, I was really good at doing this, and Uncle Harry, who honestly spoke like my father, like this deep voice; he’d say, “You work for me”, so I’d say, okay, so I’ll work for you. The other guys were afraid. So where were now?
NL: You said that the store at Twelfth and Clairmount had burned down.
AF: Okay, so he would never leave the store with the weekend’s receipts. He would go in the basement, and he had a special box I didn’t even know about. He totally trusted me. [deep voice] Alan!” [laughter]. He had a box down there; so supposedly the story was—you know, they burned down the whole neighborhood—he went down in the basement; this is what I heard from my best friend Richard, who was his nephew, and he walked, I guess in the water, I hope the electricity was turned off otherwise he’d be dead, and he went to this box, it was all mushed up, reached in and there was three thousand dollars.
AF: There was three thousand dollars. He never worked a day in his life again. He had insurance on, obviously, Twelfth and Clairmount and West Warren; I don’t know what else he owned, he was very wealthy. He grew to depend upon me, because I was an idiot, basically where they would get robbed in the middle of the night. So what you had—remember I told you, you had a window here full of shoes and a window here and they walk in? So all the shoes were left shoes, okay. You never put in a left and a right; because you put in a left and a right, then they have a pair of shoes. So they’re only left shoes. So he calls me up one night—this happened, I think, four times. And this time my father, after he said it, “Okay, pick him up,” he said to me, “You ain’t doing this no more.” So I said, “Okay, I’ll tell Uncle Harry.” We get in the car and we go to the store and the window thing is there, they’re fixing the window, but all they did right then was put up a board, and they were gonna come back and put the glass in, because it was, like, 6:30 in the morning I guess. I don’t know, I can’t recall that much, but I do know that about 11:30, 12:00, this guy comes in—and I’m behind the counter, there’s no business, and Uncle Harry is doing something with the shoes upstairs. He had shoes downstairs; thousands and thousands of shoes. The guy comes in, “Man what’s wrong with you? I want to know what’s wrong with you?” So I said, “What do you mean what’s wrong with me? There’s nothing wrong with me.” And he says, “I came in here yesterday, I bought a pair of shoes, you only gave me the left!” So I said, “Would you say that again?” He said, “You only gave me the left shoe, where’s my right shoe?!” I said, “[loudly] I only sold you a left shoe?” So Uncle Harry turns around with fire in his face, I mean he is really angry. And, the guy looks at Uncle Harry, he looks at me and [clap] he’s gone, he gets right out of there. So Uncle Harry says to me, “Alan, follow him.” So I said, “Follow him?! I’m 18 years old; I’m not a detective! I’m not following this guy.” He says, “Follow him. Just go see where he goes.” So I went outside and I watched where he went, I went down like a block and he walked across the street into an apartment building. I came back, I told Uncle Harry, and he called the police so I think the guy was arrested. They might have found a lot of left shoes. [laughter] You know what I mean? So this is the type of stuff that went on, and there were pimps and whores all over the sidewalk all the time. This was the neighborhood; there was a lot of crap going around, but it was actually fun, a fun kind of place to be. But after the fire, there was nothing left, so now the people—just like in Baltimore and other places—when you think about it, these people think they’ve accomplished something. What they’ve accomplished is, you got to get in your car now and drive someplace else to shop. You haven’t accomplished anything. I hate to say it, it makes me sound like a racist, but it’s the truth. You haven’t accomplished anything; nothing has taken place that is going to be helpful to you. A bunch of rhetoric by a bunch of politicians who really could care less.
NL: What do you remember about the first time that you went back to the neighborhood after the store had burned down?
AF: That’s what I thought about. I was with my dad and my dad really brought it up. It was like, “Well I won’t be buying shoes from you anymore, I wonder where they’re going to have to go.” Nothing really dawned on me, I was like 18 years old or 19 and, you know, you don’t think about these kinds of things; you’re not that deep, generally. And it took years for them to rebuild that area, Rosa Parks Boulevard?
AF: It’s never been the same because it was like the hub of the West Side of Detroit, this area. Like I’m saying, you’d walk down the street and there would be just tons of people, and everybody seemed to know one another. It seemed like bullshit, but it really wasn’t. Of course you could be friendly with somebody and they might shoot you later in the day but, there was a lot of crime.