Then-Michigan Governor George Romney surveys the damage of the 1967 Detroit riot.
It’s hard to believe it now, but the Twelfth Street neighborhood used to be a respectable place, humming with the joyful noise of family life, buzzing with the din of retail shopping, commerce.
It wasn’t always Detroit’s most troubled neighborhood.
But that dynamic changed between 1955 and 1960. By 1967 the neighborhood which houses Clairmount and Linwood — the neighborhood cops and Internet commenters alike thought Rev. Marvin Winans was foolish to choose as the place to pump gas — would come to symbolize the city’s ills and the inability of police, the public schools or community organizations to contain them.
Some 45 years later and Detroit is, as my grandfather once wrote, still living in the shadow of the 12th Street riot. In 1976, 12th Street would be renamed Rosa Parks Boulevard, in part to honor the icon of the Civil Rights Movement, in part a vain attempt to move past the stigma.
So what happened between 1955 and 1960? Nothing less than a major demographic shift, accompanied by unprecedented family breakdown. Robert Conot, author of one of the most authoritative accounts of Detroit’s history, American Odyssey, takes it from here:
“Between 1955 and 1960 one Twelfth Street elementary school, MacCullough, was transformed from an essentially Jewish to a largely Negro school. During that period the number of A students plummeted from 45 to 12 percent. In 1955, 80 percent of the parents were businessmen, professionals, white-collar workers and skilled tradesmen; and none were on public assistance. In 1960, 45 percent were unskilled laborers, and 18 percent were supported by welfare. In 1955, 90 percent of the children had both parents in the home, and illegitimacy was virtually unheard of. In 1960, 40 percent of the children had only one parent in the home, and 9 percent were illegitimate.”
Another factor Conot mentions is that the single Jewish families who left were replaced by black “families with a great many more children.” Between 1955 and 1960, schools in the Twelfth Street neighborhood accounted for 2/3 of the growth of Detroit Public Schools.
So to recap: You take a neighborhood of upwardly mobile professionals, replace them with work-challenged families without 2 parents in the home (and often reliant on public assistance), overcrowd the schools with their children and make the streets unsafe in the process, and the people who have the means to will leave.
Add in a freeway system that allowed Metro Detroiters to travel 4 miles in the time it took to travel 1 mile by side streets, and not only were the conditions for Detroit’s downfall ripe, the means to escape the burning building were there too — for those who could afford it.
What a difference 5 years makes.