Summer in the City
Detroit and Newark are still recovering from the violence that erupted 40 years ago
Views on the riots run the gamut: While some see the work of simple criminals, activists describe the disturbances as empowering, as a turning point for African-American clout. In 1970, Newark became the first major northeastern city to elect a black mayor; Detroit followed suit in 1974, and African-Americans have held City Hall in both cities ever since. In Detroit, leaders organized New Detroit Inc., an organization that still works with the business and black communities to soothe racial tensions in the city. In Newark, black leaders negotiated with the city to dramatically limit the size of a medical school that threatened to displace city residents. "When we sat down to negotiate, we had that nameless and faceless brother with the brick standing with us," recalls Junius Williams, then an organizer in the black community and now head of the Abbott Leadership Institute at Rutgers-Newark.
But many white residents took a different message from the "nameless brother"get out. The year before the riots, 22,000 residents, predominantly whites, left Detroit. By 1968, it reached 80,000. Both majority white in 1960, Newark's white population now stands at 22 percent and Detroit's at 11 percent.
Ghetto palms. The riots also made suburbanites wary of traveling downtown, crippling businesses. In Newark, 13 percent of the stores in the riot area closed immediately, and an additional 19 percent within a year. Coupled with the decline of manufacturing jobs and the surge of gang violence in the following decades, both cities increasingly became synonymous with urban decay.
In Detroit, seemingly the only thing that has flourished in recent decades are the so-called ghetto palms that sprout from the rooftops of abandoned office towers. And with the further predicted erosion of auto industry jobs, the economy is expected to get even bleaker over the next decade. Yet Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick insists that Motown is throwing off its malaise. The burly son of Michigan U.S. Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, he talks up brisk sales of pricey lofts converted from vacant industrial and office space, the crowds at the Tigers' glitzy Comerica Park, and the newly opened RiverWalk. "I think that a lot of our problem is also spiritual," Kilpatrick says. "We've got to get off our asses and stop being so woe-is-me."
But cause for optimism is hard to find near Rosa Parks and Clairmount Street, the once vibrant district where the riots began, and where the view now offers little but blight. Retail is virtually nonexistent, many of the homes are abandoned, and at least a third of the nearby land is empty-hardly unusual in a city that owns about 28,000 vacant lots.
Such landscapes have prompted charges that downtown Detroit is being propped up while the rest of the city rots. Addressing critics, Kilpatrick has just detailed a five-year plan to target six neighborhoods for redevelopment and beautification. But that leaves over 90 percent of city neighborhoods not covered by the first phase of the initiative, including the area where the riots were focused. To which mayoral spokesman Matt Allen urges patience. "Is an Applebee's going to be built on Clairmount and Rosa Parks today or tomorrow or in five years or in 10 years?" he says. "Probably not."