Around certain people, it’s more than just a phrase. It’s a lifestyle; an embodiment taken on by the residents of a cold, humble and rough city that was once the loud-thumping heartbeat of middle America.
Plagued by the collapse of the automotive industry, widespread political corruption, and overall urban decay, Detroit has never been short on adversity, or naysayers for that matter. But for what they’ve lacked in stability and glamour over the years, they’ve consistently compensated for with sweat equity and elbow grease. They’re not only some of America’s finest folks; they’re some of the coolest people you’ll meet.
There are a thousand things that come to mind when people think of Detroit. Maybe it’s Four Brothers … or 8 Mile. Perhaps it’s the Bad Boy Pistons. Maybe it’s Barry Gordy riding around in a Cadillac or the iconic “Detroit vs. Everybody” T-shirts. You may think bruised, but you’d never think bowed. Bent, sure, but never broken. Because even when they’re down, they’re never out. And that’s saying a lot if you know their history.
Detroit ain’t dead! And like I said, around certain people, it’s more than just a phrase.
“It’s a sort of battle cry we adopted amidst all the financial problems and infrastructure issues and industry collapses and everything else we’ve encountered over the years.”
Meet James, a tall, slender-but-still-fit (but mostly slender) dude that I’ve known for years. He has a certain quiet confidence that lets you know he’s probably both more book and street smart than you, and even though he’d never say it, trust me, it’s true.
He walks with the sort of stoic aura you’d expect from someone still partially skeptical of southern hospitality, even though he’s lived in Atlanta for many years. He’s good with people, and works an HR job in downtown Atlanta. If you catch him on payday, he may be wearing a three-piece nice suit just because. He’s fly like that. Some real Midwest shit, you know?
When I first met him, he drove a white Chrysler 300. He treated it like you would if you were bred in the automotive capital of the world: neatly backing in to all of his parking spots, changing his own oil in the driveway on Saturday mornings, and most of all, keeping it clean.
That is until he totaled it a few years back. It wasn’t his fault, though, and the insurance created a claim for him to get another car. And so he asked for another Chrysler 300… and now he drives a black one.
This is the type of Detroit we’re talking about here. And though he hasn’t lived there in years, he, too, knows the city ain’t dead. It can’t be; it lives through him.
“I just like to look good, man!”
We sat down to chat about his family and city’s history in my living room.
“People think it’s the gutter… and that it’s always, still, trying to come back, but some smart people see that it’s on the rise and time to get it in. I’d move back, but it’s just too fucking cold.”
As he spoke I was going through his vinyl collection; real deal classics, straight from his auntie’s home-grown Motown collection. Many of the covers were worn out a bit and folded on the corners but none of the records were scratched.
I flipped through The Spinners, Diana Ross & The Supremes, Rick James, and of course, Stevie….
“My grandmother came from the South to Detroit with my grandfather after finishing college at Howard. She was a nurse and he worked on cars at the plants.”
Their story is not unlike most of the stories of this movement. Black people of the South were looking to spread their wings and fly to freedom. And for the most part, industrial cities like Detroit had plenty of both. James may have put it best:
“There were so many damn factories that niggas could actually live the good life. For real.”
From the time the Great Migration started in the early 20th century, up until it slowed in the 60's, Detroit was quite possibly America’s Black mecca. However, like most other destination cities, it’s Black population was forced to ebb and flow with the current of what the country was experiencing at-large.
For example, during both world wars, when many white soldiers left their families to fight overseas, Black people hurriedly filed in from the South to fill their jobs. Most of them were industrial gigs, and Detroit had as many of those as you can imagine. So before long, they became home to not only the manufacturing headquarters of Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors, but a great many Blacks too.
Of course when those soldiers returned home, they wanted their jobs back and our Black families struggled to earn a living. Their well-being was only as secure as the country was stable.
This was their story, and they weren’t alone. Blacks of this movement, albeit a world away from the South, still spent years picking up as many crumbs as we could hold; plugging ourselves into less-than-desirable socioeconomic holes no different than rain making muddy puddles out of empty potholes during a storm.
“We got in where THEY fit in.”
His interesting choice of words led me to look deeper into the crannies our families tried to fit into, and I came across some interesting population trends.
What did I find?
Eventually the city became so packed with Blacks that white people began to venture far past the 8 Mile border to live in the suburbs. By 1960, there were already more white people in the suburbs than in Detroit-proper. This is formally known as white flight and it is still happening in Detroit today.
As you can imagine, with them went jobs, schools, and other opportunities.
The message was clear: if Black people wanted the city we could have it, and everything that came with it.
As the decade wore on, the city wore down. Jobs decreased with the population, and the flourishing Blacks had seen in years prior simply wasn’t there anymore. Once again, they were fighting for their lives. And they fought like hell, because that’s just how they get down.
In 1967, the turmoil bubbled over into one of the most notable race riots of 20th-century America. It saw hundreds of people, mostly Black, injured or killed as over 2,500 businesses and stores were looted over the course of five tumultuous days. In the end, almost 400 families were displaced or homeless. Many of these families were first and second generation “Great Migrators” and some of them struggled to get back on their feet after the dust settled.
It’s a stain Detroit still wears to this day as many would say the city has yet to fully recover.
In the years that followed, they watched the the auto industry further decentralize as foreign cars became more popular in America and domestic plant jobs were moved to the suburbs and to other cities altogether. By 1972, even Barry Gordy’s Motown had opened offices in LA.
Bruised… bent…. down. Never dead!
They’d lost the very things that made them who they were. Their identity was stripped from right under their nose.
By the time Detroit elected their first Black mayor in 1974, the Great Migration was long over, and there wasn’t much left of the city. Corruption ran rapid, entire blocks of homes were left abandoned, and the descendants of those Southern expats were forced to make the most out of what they had; which wasn’t much. Still, though, the city was hard to kill.
“(Mayor) Coleman? That was a bold MF right there — wasn’t your typical politician. A Black man that would curse whoever all the way out.”
Coleman Young (a former lieutenant of WWII’s Tuskegee Airmen and originally from Tuscaloosa, AL) was a product of the Great Migration himself. He was Detroit’s first Black mayor and served a record five consecutive terms spanning a polarizing 20 years. He became the first in a line of many Black mayors. Dennis Archer, Kwame Kilpatrick, Kenneth Cockrel, Jr., and Dave Bing would all serve the office without shaking the crooked stigma that engulfed the position.
Urban decay was everywhere, and by the time that run of mayors ended in 2014, the city was over 80% Black.
James credits much of his present-day success to his close-knit family. His mother and grandmother both still live in Detroit today, the latter of which is 98 years old and has owned her home for over 60 years.
Unfortunately, he never met his grandfather, who died young in a mechanical accident while working on cars at the automotive plant. Sadly, the same job that gave him hope in the city, ultimately betrayed him. James’ mom was just a baby.
This was a microcosm of the Great Migration’s effect on Detroit and it’s people. Their crowning achievements: the political, entertainment, and automotive empires they helped build would all eventually let them down in the end.
The Great Migration wasn’t kind to everyone, but it provided all kinds of opportunities many of us enjoy today. And that sense of pride has kept that fiery American heartbeat thumping louder than ever among my generation all these years later.
And anything with a heartbeat is alive.
So nope, Detroit ain’t dead. It could never die as far as I’m concerned — I see it in James everyday.
And he’s not the only one: Shout out to Carrington, Malcolm & James, Aussie, Uncle Stan, Chyna and the fam, Chels, AB & Biko, Brandon, Andrena, Myiah, Tiana, and Dia.
What the Migration means to him and hundreds of thousands of the city’s offspring has much less to do with the fact that they may have struggled over the years, and much more to do with how it’s never, ever crumbled. No matter what.
“Marvin Gaye and Barry Sanders.”
After giving me his favorite Motown musician and Detroit athlete, it seemed fitting to end by asking him the make and model of his favorite car:
“Does Cadillac count?”
That’s the type of Detroit we’re talking about here.