Sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll and Plum Street

The ’60s is a loose designation referring to the time period from about 1964 to 1974. It encompassed the free speech movement at Berkeley, the anti Vietnam war movement, and the now legendary sex and drugs and rock-and-roll mentality.

Haight Ashbury was a San Francisco mecca for flower children and hippies from across the country and beyond our shores. At the height of the hippie period, even Detroit had a counterculture: Plum Street had hippie shops and Belle Isle had a Love-In. A Detroit marijuana conviction made national news and a local man had John Lennon on his side in his war against society.

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The corner of Fifth and Plum streets — the gateway to Detroit’s short-lived arts community

Chicago created Old Town, St. Louis rebuilt Gas Light Square, and Detroit had Plum Street. Plum Street’s entrepreneurs wanted to recapture the nostalgia of the Gay Nineties and the Roaring Twenties.

Robert Cobb, then a 24-yr-old high school history teacher, thought Detroit needed a major tourist attraction as other cities had. When, one year earlier, the proposed International Village failed financially, Cobb decided something had to be done. With all the money he had he began scouting for a location.

Cobb discovered Elton Park downtown between Michigan Ave.,the Lodge and the Fisher Freeways. Upon seeing the old buildings on Plum St. he envisioned an Artist Community with shops, theaters and restaurants. Slowly he began buying buildings. He met Sherman Shapiro, then a 57-year-old real estate developer, and they became partners. They ended up owning most of the buildings on Plum St. between Fourth and Fifth.

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Upon seeing the old buildings on Plum St. Robert Cobb envisioned an Artist Community with shops, theaters and restaurants.

They hoped for a communal effort in planning and developing the area. Inviting anyone with the same interest in a thriving art center to buy buildings and, or open shops.

The gala debut was the July 4 weekend and the Grand Opening was in September of 1966. Gov. George Romney, Sen. Robert Griffin and Detroit Mayor Jerome Cavanagh were present for the official ceremonial opening. Jerry Booth, a television personality, was acting as master of ceremonies. All had great hopes for Plum St.

Mayor Cavanagh promised his support and had the city put in gas lights and trash cans that people painted bright psychedelic colors. Then Parks and Recreation Supt. John M. May told Cobb and Shapiro they could use nearby Elton Park for concerts and art exhibits. He also promised to help schedule concerts if they attracted enough people.

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Detroit Mayor Jerome Cavanagh pledged his support for the Plum Street project and showed up for the grand opening.

Cobb and Shapiro knew they were taking a gamble with the location of Plum St. They’d have to draw primarily on the Central Business District and tourists for customers. The people who were attracted to Plum Street were loitering college kids from Wayne State and the University of Michigan. At first the businesses welcomed the hippies hanging out, to help create an image. The merchants became upset after realizing the hippies were harassing customers for money and not spending it in the shops. The area became known for drug dealing and later motorcylce gangs, which scared away customers.

Plum Street started having troubles after only one year. During the ’67 riots the merchants and residents formed a vigilante group to protect the shops from looting. Their problem was mostly with local kids who knew the shops and who took advantage of the chaotic situation.

At one time there were 43 shops in the Plum St. district. In 1969, three years after the opening, only 6 to 8 shops remained. People tried placing the blame as to why it failed.

Shapiro said “I wish we could have had the hippies without the dope”. They also had problems with motorcycle gangs drinking in parking lots. Blame went to all the undesirable people who kept customers away, and the city for lack of support.

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Plum Street became a favorite hangout for hippies, who had little money to spend and harassed customers, and later motorcycle gangs, who scared customers away.

A list of Plum Street shops

Prometheus Candle Works – Was operated by Ed Dobson and Chuck Brewer. They made candles the old fashioned way, by dipping. They wanted to revive the lost art of candle making.

The Wee Folk – Operated by Tarya, Bambi and Tony Simo with help from their mother Jacquie Simo. This shop was made out of an antique wooden walk-in ice chest. The kids sold old-fashioned candy, nuts and cold drinks.

Of Cabbages and Kings – Jacquie Simo operated this antique shop next door to The Wee Folk.

Pic-A-Pearl – Owned by Ted Gilmore. Customers could pick their own pearl from a live oyster to be used in jewelry of their choice.

Tres Camp – Owned by Rick Cook. Sold art reproductions, posters and the like.

The Body Shop – Owned by William Marcus. They sold the latest fashions for men.

Other shops included: Wee Bit O’Erin; The Added Touch; The Landing; Above it All; Group Et Al; Hai-Ku Coffee House; Suede and Leather Shop; Johanna’s Boutique; Little Things; Plush Puppy; Waste Basket Boutique; The Skin Shop; Oddity Earring Shop; Joint Venture; House of Mystique Incense Co.; Red Roach Coffee House; Full Stomach Restaurant; Leather, Feathers and Furs; The Emporium; The Image Makers; The Plum St. Pottery Shop, and Reality Toke.

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WSU graduate student John Sinclair led a group of hippies called TransLove Energies that later evolved into the White Panther party.

The Belle Isle love-in

One of the seminal figures in the Detroit Hippie scene of the sixties was John Sinclair. An erstwhile graduate student at Wayne State University, Sinclair came to prominence when he formed a loose knit group of hippies called TransLove Energies to promote a few rock bands, artists and poets. TransLove, which advocated free love, marijuana decriminalization, an end to the war in Vietnam and a generally benevolent anarchy, later evolved into the White Panther party, a more distinctly political movement with ties to the Chicago Seven of 1968 Democratic Convention fame.

In its early incarnation, TransLove was simply a communal group near Warren and the Lodge, home to Sinclair and a gathering spot for the emerging hippie culture. Their first major enterprise, a Love-In on Belle Isle in 1967, was promoted as a self-policed gentle love-fest, a gathering of flower children, to which the public was invited. It ended in a drunken brawl, a melee in which several attendees and police officers were injured and 10 arrests were made.

Sinclair had promised that this would be a peaceful gathering. TransLove Rangers would patrol the crowds. The police agreed and on the afternoon of April 30, only a few mounted police were on hand and minor infractions were ignored. The crowd of up to 6,000 was peaceful. As dusk fell, the mood of the crowd began to change and the TransLove Rangers began to lose control. Beer and wine were brought out. Where earlier in the day oddly dressed hippies had passed out paper daisies, candy and balloons to the crowd, now leather-clad bikers were roaming the park. When the Rangers asked the police for help, they suggested that the band, the Seventh Seal, quit playing. They hoped that with the music shut down, the crowd would disperse.

The band refused to stop playing and the crowd grew rowdier. The revelers attempted to light bonfires from the trash and garbage strewn around but succeeded only in creating a nauseating smoke that covered the area. A man began driving a motorcycle wildly through the crowd. Police arrested him and the crowd turned ugly. Someone threw a firecracker into the group of police horses. Rocks and bottles followed and more firecrackers.

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A spectator at the love-in filmed a member of the Outlaws motorcyle gang, far right savagely beating a bystander. Below, the victim is being dragged away by friends.Windsor docks

The police formed a line and moved the crowd out onto the bridge and off the island. Windows on E. Jefferson were smashed and a liquor store looted. The Howard Johnson and a White Tower across from the bridge locked their doors in fear of the mob. Other area businesses followed suit. The crowd, 2,000 to 3,000 strong at the outset of the melee, was finally dispersed by 9:30 p.m. after 150 police were called in. A Detroit News photographer and reporter were attacked with rocks and bottles when they tried to photograph the mayhem.

A spectator had filmed some of the earlier diversions on Belle Isle, and caught a member of the Outlaws motorcycle gang savagely beating a bystander. The Outlaw claimed he was defending his girlfriend from untoward advances by the victim.

John Sinclair claimed that it was “straights” and “weekend hippies” that caused all the trouble and that all the real hippies were gone by the time the rowdiness began.

Like many love affairs, this one ended in disillusionment.

While his role in the turbulence of the love-In may be debated, Sinclair definitely got on the wrong side of the law in his various marijuana convictions, the third of which became a cause celebre across the nation.

Arrested for handing two joints to an undercover policewoman, Sinclair faced serious time because he had two previous convictions for marijuana possession. Convicted the third time, he was sentenced to 9 1/2 to 10 years in jail in 1969. Ann Arbor professors attended a cocktail party fundraiser for Sinclair, modeled after Leonard Bernstein’s elite soirees for the Black Panthers in New York. However they raised only $137 for his defense fund.

John Lennon wrote a song decrying Sinclair’s sentence, referring to “ten for two”, 10 years for two joints. Sinclair’s White Panther party declared him to be a political prisoner. During his stay in Jackson and Marquette prisons, he was indicted for an earlier bombing of an Ann Arbor CIA office, further elevating his standing among national radicals.

The Chicago Seven requested his testimony in their defense at the their trial in Chicago for the disruption of the 1968 Democratic Convention. Support for Sinclair culminated in an eight-hour rally in Ann Arbor on Dec. 10, 1971, attended by Jerry Rubin, Bobby Seale, Allen Ginsberg, John Lennon, and Yoko Ono. About $45,000 was raised at the rally. The White Panthers had by then become the Rainbow People’s Party, and they worked for Supreme Court review of the sentence.

Finally, the Michigan Supreme Court ordered him freed pending the appeal of his case. He was released on Dec. 13, 1971, and drove off from jail in a friend’s Bentley. The state’s marijuana penalties were reduced, and his conviction overturned by the Michigan Supreme Court. The CIA bombing charges were later dropped, and Sinclair pursued a wiretapping suit against the FBI for J. Edgar Hoover’s alleged actions in that case.

Leading a quieter and more establishment life in Ann Arbor, John Sinclair worked for the city of Detroit as editor of an arts magazine until 1991, when a disagreement over the fate of Tiger Stadium led to a rift with then Mayor Coleman Young.

Plum Street is long gone. Urban renewal has erased any trace of the stores. Flower children grew up and cut their hair and got establishment jobs and had kids of their own. John Lennon was murdered and the Democrats had a peaceful convention in Chicago last year. American businessmen trade with Communist Vietnam. Occasionally one sees an aging hippie on the street, looking lost.

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Followers of Sinclair gather on courthouse steps to protest his imprisonment.

By Julie Morris and Jenny Nolan / The Detroit News