Detroit Songs of the Great Migration

The Great Migration was perhaps the most transformative event in the twentieth century with regards to Northern cities, particularly industrial ones like Detroit. Between the 1910s and 1970s, millions of African Americans from the rural south made their way to the cities of the North in search of higher paying jobs and freedom from Jim Crow laws. Their experiences in the North, however, were a mixed bag. Homesickness and the temptations of urban life, not to mention the racism of white northerners, often gave them, for lack of a better term, the blues. Perhaps nothing better than music captures the feelings of many migrants—from grand hopes and aspirations to the hard realities of urban life.

John Lee Hooker was born in Coahoma County, Mississippi, but eventually made his way to Detroit in 1948 to work for the Ford Motor Company, as well as to launch one of the most storied careers in postwar blues music. His classic recordings of the now standard “Boogie Chillen” detail the excitement that new arrivals to Detroit could find in the city’s bars and clubs. In one version of the song, Hooker sings, “One day I was walking down Hastings Street/That was when I first come to town/I didn’t know nobody/I asked the man, said, ‘What town is this?’/Said, ‘This is Detroit,’/Boy it really jumps hear.”

John Lee Hooker on Hastings Street

Listen: John Lee Hooker – “Boogie Chillen (Henry’s Swing Club)”

Similar sentiments are found in many blues songs of the 30s and 40s, particularly performers’ fondness for Hastings Street, the center of black culture and entertainment in Detroit during that era. Here are a few musical examples of the rollicking good times many migrants found in the big city:

Listen: Blind Blake and Charlie Spand – “Hastings Street”

Listen: Detroit Count – “Hastings Street Opera”

Listen: Big Maceo – “Detroit Jump”

Listen: Montana Taylor – “Detroit Rocks”

For many, Detroit was a city of promise, where good paying work could be found and a better life was certain. “I’m going to Detroit/Get myself a good job” and “I’m going to Detroit/Get me a fair house there” sings Blind Blake in his song “Detroit Bound Blues.” New Orleans native Fats Domino, who certainly spent a significant amount of time in the Motor City as a touring performer, sings, “Detroit City is one of the finest in the world.”

Listen: Blind Blake – “Detroit Bound Blues”

Listen: Fats Domino – “Detroit City Blues”

Of course, a silver lining was not always found in Detroit. Many musicians lament their move North after negative experiences in the big city and promise to return home to the South. As Arthur Alexander sings in the classic “Detroit City” (originally penned by Danny Dills and Mel Tillis), “Home folks think I’m big in Detroit City/From the letters I write they think I’m fine/But by day I make the cars, by night I make the bars/If they could only read between the lines,” after which he promises to hop the next freight train South to return to his family. A similar situation occurs in Tampa Red’s “Detroit Blues,” where the bad men of Detroit steal his woman. Red vows to steal her back and return to Tennessee. Abner Jay’s song “Depression” captures the restlessness of many migrants. The song’s character sings of his past in Georgia, where his parents were sharecroppers who had nothing but “grasshoppers.” Setting out for a better life, the song’s character fails to find fulfillment, singing, “I hitchhiked to New York City, Chicago, Cleveland, and Detroit/Singing love ain’t strong/Everywhere I went along/Everything I do is wrong/Oh Lord, shoulda never left home.”

Listen: Arthur Alexander – “Detroit City”

Listen: Tampa Red – “Detroit Blues”

Listen: Abner Jay – “Depression”

Bad men, wild women, and excessive whiskey consumption are common threads in many of the songs of this era. For many, Detroit was nothing more than a pit of vice. This is clear in the song “Gambler’s Blues” by the York Brothers,[1] who sing, “I had a gal down in New Orleans, but the Detroit women got the best of me/I love to gamble, gamble all the time/…I never did do nothing to start a fuss or fight/I love to drink my whisky and stay up late at night.”

Listen: York Brothers – “Gambler’s Blues”

Many of the songs that capture the experience of the Great Migration still ring true today. Listening to them makes us ask ourselves if Detroit’s “glory days” that exist in the collective nostalgia of many Detroit natives ever truly existed. Victoria Spivey’s lyrics to “Detroit Moan,” recorded in 1936, are relevant to many descendants of the Great Migration living in Detroit today: “Detroit’s a cold, hard place/and I ain’t got a dime to my name.”

Listen: Victoria Spivey – “Detroit Moan”

By Matthew Lewis


[1] Note: The York Brothers were a white duo. While the Great Migration is mostly thought of as a movement of African Americans from the South, many poor whites from the rural South and Appalachia migrated to industrial northern cities to find work during the same period.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Can You Teach Detroit How To Duggy?

Mike Duggan is considering a run for mayor in the City of Detroit. In reality, Duggan’s campaign has already begun. Last week, he resigned his post as CEO of the Detroit Medical Center, and in April he moved into Detroit’s Palmer Woods neighborhood from his longtime residence of Livonia. A formal announcement of his candidacy will come in January, but it seems safe to stay that the race is on. In case you were unaware, Duggan is a white guy (full disclosure: I, too, am a white guy) and the population of Detroit is 82.7% black. The city has had black mayors since 1973, when the last serious white candidate, John F. Nichols, narrowly lost to Coleman A. Young, who challenged the racist police institution STRESS that Nichols, the former Chief of Police, staunchly supported. There have been white candidates for mayor, guys like “Walking” John Mogk, but none of them have had a serious shot at being elected…until now. Having sat in a room next to Mike Duggan Monday night at a Declare Detroit forum, I became convinced that he will be the next Mayor of Detroit.

Duggan is a squat man with a balding pate, piercing eyes, and a raspy, streetwise voice. In many ways, he fits the archetype of the big city mayor of yesteryear—guys like “Uncle” Al Smith and Boss Daley. This likeness to the big city bosses is more than superficial considering that Duggan’s career in public service began under Ed McNamara, the longtime Wayne County Executive and leader of a Democratic machine that birthed the political careers of people like Bernard Kilpatrick, father and co-defendant of the embroiled former Mayor of Detroit Kwame Kilpatrick, former Governor Jennifer Granholm, and current Wayne County Executive Bob Ficano. McNamara’s career and life ended under the shadow of an FBI investigation into corruption allegations relating to the awarding of contracts for the construction of the new terminal at Metro Airport that now bears his name.

Mike Duggan

Early comments from Duggan straddle the fine line between confidence and hubris. In a recent interview with Jeff Wattrick of Deadline Detroit, Duggan dismissed the “savior” label, saying that he would bring together a team of talented individuals that would tackle issues head on. Duggan shrugs off Detroit’s problems as overblown, toting the fact that as Deputy Executive of Wayne County, he was the architect of returning the County to solvency after years of operating deficits and bringing the SMART bus system back from the brink of financial disaster during the same period. Additionally, Duggan’s three year stint as Wayne County Prosecutor, in his opinion, gives him an edge in addressing Detroit’s serious public safety issues. As he puts it, “Turnarounds are what I do.”

Perhaps his largest turnaround feat occurred during his tenure as CEO of the Detroit Medical Center, which he claims had lost $500 million over 6 years and was 6 months away from closing when he took the job. Duggan’s solution to the medical system’s problems was a massive conversion of the system from a non-profit to a for-profit entity under the control of Vanguard Health Systems. Duggan served as the architect of this sale, which was inked in January of this year. One has to wonder if similar privatization of city services will be the hallmark of his mayorship.

A Business Candidate?

The election of Dave Bing ushered in a new era of respectability (though not effectiveness) in the mayor’s office when compared to the drawn out scandals of Kwame Kilpatrick’s tenure as mayor. Dave Bing sold the business community and the public, at least initially, that his acumen in business and his managerial experience would help put Detroit back on the right track. Three years later, Bing’s agenda has been derailed by ineffective leadership, high turnover rates in key city positions, health problems, and a general lack of charisma. If Bing actually runs for a second term, it does not appear that he would be re-elected. When I asked Duggan about this, he said to me, “He cannot win.”

Duggan, like Bing did, is running as a business candidate, though Duggan’s business experience came after a lengthy stint of public sector service, first as Deputy Wayne County Executive (under machine boss McNamara) and as chairman of the regional SMART bus system, then as Wayne County Prosecutor. Duggan’s success in the public sector led him into the business world when he left his job as Prosecutor to run the struggling Detroit Medical Center. Now he is attempting to return to elected office with a resume that most candidates would envy.

How Duggan Will Win

Despite not having formally announced his candidacy, Mike Duggan’s campaign is in full swing. In recent months, Duggan has been reaching out to community groups, pastors, and business leaders throughout the city, attending their events and listening to their concerns. With the general election a little less than a year away, if Duggan keeps up the pace, he will be a very familiar face to the Detroit electorate.

Familiarity alone, however, will not win an election. The race question is a serious one, and Duggan has a tall task in building the trust of Detroit’s black community, which has endured significant hardships over the decades and is wary of “outsiders.” Duggan seems to think he can do this. In the meeting on Monday, he touted the fact that he has garnered the support of Malik Shabazz, whose incendiary comments in the wake of the City’s consent agreement discussions with the State of Michigan were widely publicized and charged with racial antipathy to the white governing class in the state. If Duggan can sway people like Shabazz to his cause, who’s to say he can’t win over the voting populace? Duggan certainly has the credentials to run this city, but what convinced me of his imminent victory (by the way, this article is not an endorsement) is his mayoral air. Unless a strong black candidate emerges to challenge Duggan or his quietly aggressive campaign does not keep its pace, city hall is his for the taking.

By Matthew Lewis

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Wayne County’s Hidden Treasure

This November 6, Wayne County residents will cast votes for candidates and initiatives that will have significant impacts on life in the County. These of course include the presidential ballot and many significant municipal, county, and statewide proposals. What is overlooked, however, is that voters will cast ballots for an extremely powerful local office, perhaps only second in power to that of County Executive. Though few people realize it, the second most powerful office in Wayne County is that of County Treasurer.

Wayne County is not the picture of fiscal health. Property tax revenues have declined by 30% since 2008.[1] In 2010, only 12.2% of the City of Detroit’s general fund revenues came from property tax. This is only a percent more than the revenue the city raises from taxes on wagers at Detroit’s three downtown casinos.[2] Nationally, the average of local property taxes as a percentage of local revenues was 29% in 2012.[3] Superficially, the abnormal revenue imbalance in Detroit and Wayne County would indicate that the office of County Treasurer is losing influence; however, revenue is not the only source of political wealth or power. The Treasurer derives power from the possession and control of land—vast tracts of land totaling roughly 5% of all parcels in the City of Detroit. While poor in many resources, Wayne County is land rich, as tax foreclosures have increased dramatically in recent years. When property tax delinquency results in foreclosure, the county treasurer takes possession of a foreclosed property’s title. This year, the County Treasurer took title to approximately 22,500 properties, the vast majority of which were located in the City of Detroit.

State law demands that county treasurers sell off tax foreclosed properties in two annual auctions, the first of which offers properties at an opening bid equal to the value of back taxes, and the second of which offers the properties not sold in the first auction at a minimum bid to be determined by the county treasurer.[4] In the case of Wayne County, Raymond Wojtowicz has set the minimum bid at a measly $500 per property.

Wayne County Treasurer Raymond Wojtowicz

In the September auction of foreclosed properties, Wayne County raised nearly $10 million. In the auction’s second round in October, about 12,000 properties were sold, netting a total of nearly $50 million. This is a significant sum; however, it is a pittance when considering that the amount of back taxes owed on those properties totaled over $275.5 million.[5] Nonetheless, Wayne County Treasurer Raymond Wojtowicz seems to think he is doing a great job in recovering lost property tax revenue. In fact, he awarded himself a $23,000 bonus in addition to his $115,000 salary for the work he and his staff did in the 2011 auction. During his tenure as treasurer, Wojtowicz has awarded himself over $500,000 in bonuses.[6] While this seems fishy, Wojtowicz is authorized to do this according to state law; however, Wojtowicz is the only county treasurer in the state to take advantage of this quirky benefit.

The ineffectiveness of Wayne County’s annual auctions of tax foreclosed properties to recover lost tax revenue and put foreclosed properties back into productive use raises the question of whether the County Treasurer is deserving of his large salary, his large bonuses, or even the power of his office. While Wojtowicz has operated as a facilitator of the sale of foreclosed properties according to state law, he has failed to be more than a bureaucrat and come up with innovative solutions for dealing with the abundance of foreclosed properties that are serious detractors to Wayne County residents’ quality of life. While thousands of properties are sold at auction each year, many are not put back into productive use and frequently return to the auction block in a few years when purchasers fail to pay their taxes. Wojtowicz, age 82, is about to enter his tenth four year term as County Treasurer as no serious challengers to his candidacy have emerged. Though his re-election is imminent, it is now time to stand behind a visionary candidate to serve as his successor, someone who acts as more than an overseer of an annual fire sale of properties. We deserve a treasurer who is dedicated to the sustainable transfer of foreclosed properties to those who will put them into productive use. Who that person would be is currently beyond me, though, now is the perfect time to start the discussion.

Some innovative people around town, namely Jerry Paffendorf, Mary Carter, and the folks at Loveland Technologies, have developed DIY solutions to help make Wayne County’s annual auctions of foreclosed properties more productive events. They created whydontweownthis.com, an interactive map that allows users to access basic information (like current tax assessments, previous owners, zoning, etc.) about tax-foreclosed parcels available in the auctions. Users of the sight are also able to discuss their plans for bidding to more easily coordinate their activities and avoid needless competitive bidding. Such information was previously unavailable to bidders, who had to find out what properties were available from a massive list published annually in the newspaper in the weeks leading up to the auctions. One would think the county would be interested in providing an interactive tool like whydontweownthis.com to help raise awareness of the auction process and potentially recover more lost property tax revenue; however, it took the labor of a small group of tech-focused visionaries to make this happen outside of the government’s ken. The $500 million in bonuses collected by Treasurer Wojtowicz during his tenure could have gone a long way in paying for the development of interactive tools to assist bidders.

So what would a visionary treasurer look like? What might she do differently? Though county treasurers in Michigan are mandated by state law to unload foreclosed properties in annual auctions, they do have tools at their disposal to prevent the auctions from becoming mere fire sales. For instance, the Treasurer has the right to set the minimum bid at whatever number she finds appropriate. A higher minimum bid on certain properties could help prevent land speculators from scooping up multiple properties with no intention of immediately restoring them to productive uses. The Treasurer could also work more closely with the Wayne County Land Bank to align buyers with properties so that foreclosures are transferred to the people who will have the most positive effects on the neighboring community. The Treasurer also has the ability to bundle properties so that multiple foreclosures can be sold as a collection. This would make sense for properties like row houses and small apartment buildings, which often contain units parceled separately, thus requiring auction participants to place multiple bids and adding an extra level of uncertainty to their experience. The Treasurer’s office could work more closely with the County Sheriff to help those seriously interested in bidding on foreclosures gain entrance to those properties and examine them before they place bids. The county could charge a reasonable fee for this service, thus regaining more of the lost tax revenue and helping serious buyers with noble intentions make more informed purchases. Lastly, the Treasurer could embrace technologies like whydontweownthis.com, which would foster more access to information and greater communication among auction participants.

It looks almost certain that we are in for four more years of business as usual from the office of County Treasurer Raymond Wojtowicz, but it is not too soon to think about the future and identify a visionary leader who will use the office of Wayne County Treasurer to its greatest potential. Any volunteers?

By Matthew Lewis

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Lost in Hockeytown: The Joe Louis Arena Story

by Matthew Lewis and Aaron Mondry

Joe Louis Arena (JLA or simply “The Joe”) is hallowed sports ground in a city whose many nicknames include “Hockeytown.” The Red Wings have won four Stanley Cups since moving to JLA from Olympia Stadium in 1979, and the arena itself deserves some credit for the franchise’s consistent success beginning in the early 90s. Thanks to the crowd noise and extra elasticity of the boards, the Wings enjoy a distinct home ice advantage. Their recent 23 game home winning streak (an NHL record that had stood for 36 years) is a testament to this. Beyond the joy of watching a team that has made the playoffs for 20 consecutive seasons, which is the longest active streak in any major American sport, spectators are treated to good sightlines from any seat. The Joe, named after the legendary Detroit boxer, is only one of three NHL venues not named for a corporate sponsor.

But the endearing features of the Joe’s interior (banners, statues of past Red Wing greats, and other memorabilia) are not unique to the arena’s structure.  A great deal of JLA’s charm derives from the rich on-ice history. One does not laud the arena’s architecture, as was certainly the case with the Joe’s precursor Olympia Stadium. Nostalgia is the primary reason for fans’ loyalty to JLA.

This tenuous loyalty will not be enough to save the Joe—its days are numbered. The city-owned arena is showing signs of age, magnifying design issues dating back to its construction. Olympia Entertainment, the entity managed by Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch, let its 30 year JLA lease agreement with the city expire in 2008.  The company continues to lease it on an annual basis, purposefully avoiding a long-term commitment. Since the lease’s expiration, LLCs likely controlled by Mike Ilitch have been purchasing land in Detroit’s lower Cass Corridor at prices well above market value, leading many to speculate that this will be the site of a new arena. Most recently, Head Coach Mike Babcock has urged the building of a new arena, claiming, “If you want the city to come back, you got to revitalize downtown, and a big part of that’s going to be the new arena.”

Much regard has been given to the new arena, but surprisingly little has been said about what will become of the current one. A proper evaluation of JLA is necessary in order to 1) consider the fate of the valuable riverfront site it occupies and 2) inform the design and construction of the new facility.

A Vision of the Future

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

From pre-historic times when Native Americans settled in Southeast Michigan to the present day, one of Detroit’s defining features and most valuable assets has been its riverfront. During Detroit’s industrial heyday, the western portion of the riverfront currently occupied by JLA and Cobo Center was heavily utilized as a transshipment point where raw materials were conveyed from lake freighters to railroad cars. By the 1950s, the west riverfront was seen by city planners as an area of great potential for redevelopment. The zeitgeist in major cities was to restructure downtowns into regional entertainment destinations in order to combat the exodus of residents and tax base to rapidly developing suburbs. Detroit was no different.

In 1947, the Detroit Chapter of the American Institute of Architects contracted the firm Saarinen & Associates to develop a plan for a new civic center in downtown’s west riverfront district.  Most elements of this plan were largely incorporated into the city’s 1951 Master Plan, which called for a widened Jefferson Avenue, a county-city municipal building (the Coleman A. Young Municipal Building), a “large landscaped plaza” on the riverfront (Hart Plaza), “a convention hall and a civic auditorium” (Cobo Hall and Cobo Arena), and a “downtown expressway loop” (the John C. Lodge Expressway) that passes underneath  the convention center and connects with Jefferson Avenue. The near west riverfront of today looks remarkably like the conceptual drawings of the 1951 plan.

This period of massive scale downtown redevelopment coincided with the early stages of Detroit’s long-term population decline. By 1960, when Cobo Center was completed, the city had 180,000 fewer residents than in 1950, experiencing its first drop in population since its founding. Many of these residents, however, had not left the metro area and still used downtown as an occasional playground.

The near-west riverfront pre-Civic Center development, occupied mostly by warehouses and rail yards

The ’73 Master Plan continued the course set by the ’51 plan, prescribing further redevelopment of downtown into an entertainment destination. Special attention was given to the riverfront:

The plan is designed to assist the city in making maximum use of its riverfront resource and to capture more fully the potential of the Detroit River as Detroit’s most outstanding natural resource.  A major objective of the city is to encourage and facilitate the development of the riverfront by uses which derive a particular benefit from a riverfront location. [emphasis added]

The plan is also the first document to suggest the development of a sports stadium near the civic center:

Special commercial-residential areas are indicated just east of and west of the Civic Center … These areas should be developed with a major office headquarters complex, an international gateway, or a major spectator sport facility of regional significance and supporting uses such as hotels, restaurants, major institutions, medium-rise offices, and apartments. [emphasis added]

It is clear from these excerpts that planners expected the Joe to have a harmonious relationship with its riverfront location and generate economic spillover for the rest of downtown.

By 1977, Mayor Coleman A. Young’s administration was set on developing a new downtown arena for the Red Wings to retain them in the city. The Wings were playing in an aging Olympia Stadium, located on Grand River Ave at McGraw about three miles outside of downtown. Underutilized warehouses, railroad yards, and docks in the west riverfront district were demolished to make way for JLA, the final piece of Detroit’s downtown civic center. Joe Louis Arena opened in 1979 and the Red Wings signed a 30-year lease to make the Joe their home. Olympia Stadium was abandoned and eventually razed.

Joe Louis Arena is emblematic of the type of urban redevelopment project favored by the administration of Coleman A. Young: massive, modern, and expensive (see also: Renaissance Center, Millender Center, Riverfront Towers, Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Plant). It also was a major investment in downtown development, perhaps at the expense of neighborhood stabilization and core service provision.

As a way to showcase Detroit’s downtown transformation on a national stage, Mayor Coleman A. Young, a lifelong Democrat, succeeded in attracting the 1980 Republican National Convention where Ronald Reagan, a man Young once referred to as “Pruneface,” accepted the GOP’s nomination inside of Joe Louis Arena.

Mayor Coleman A. Young awaiting the convention

In his autobiography Hard Stuff, Young writes:

Although Detroit was and is an overwhelmingly Democratic city, and although I have traditionally been at cross-purposes with the prevailing ideology of the Republicans, as a champion of the United States Constitution and the spirit of bipartisan cooperation, I fully supported their right to assemble and spend lots of money in our hotels, shops, and restaurants. I also appreciated what the national exposure could do for the city’s image, which was still characterized by the ’67 riot and out-of-date murder charts. And I was thrilled to see Joe Louis Arena enjoy such a conspicuous and honorable christening. At the same time, the convention was an event that I find difficult to index historically. To this day, it sticks in my craw that Ronald Reagan was nominated in the damn building that I put myself on the line for.

The choice of JLA as the sight of Reagan’s nomination acceptance speech was oddly fitting.  Though Detroit was the largest majority African American city in the United States and had not elected a Republican mayor in decades, the Wings’ fan base was and is dominated by suburban whites. Many of the people who packed the Joe on gamedays would come to be known as “Reagan Democrats” for their role in helping the Gipper win the White House. The 1980 GOP convention was appropriate symbolism, for it soon became evident that the Joe was designed for Detroit’s visitors, not its residents.

30 Years Later

Some have argued that Detroit has lacked effective planning over the last half century—that the city has failed to get things done. The large-scale redevelopment of downtown and the near-west riverfront, however, has been immense in scale and anything but ineffective. The planners succeeded in setting out a vision that would take shape in glass, concrete, and steel. Whether the effects of this thorough implementation have been good, whether, the ‘73 Master Plan made “maximum use of its riverfront resource,” is another question entirely.

After the 1980 GOP convention, Joe Louis Arena would be used primarily as a venue for hockey and other large scale entertainment spectacles like concerts and wrestling matches. The Red Wings play 41 home games in a given season and a handful more in the event of a playoff run. Approximately 25 other sporting and entertainment events are held at the Joe throughout the year. Despite these uses, there are hundreds of days each year during which the arena sits idly.

Many variables determine an arena’s true worth. The Joe’s interior adequately provides everything necessary to enjoy a game or show, though it lacks many of the amenities and design features found in newer stadiums (e.g. LED screens and “gourmet” restaurants). A sports venue’s value to society, however, goes beyond a slick interior, ticket sales, and a winning franchise. We must also consider an arena’s potential to enhance the liveliness of the city beyond its walls. Sadly, JLA’s exterior is an unqualified disaster. It has glaring aesthetic shortcomings and lacks synergy with the central business district.

A basic concern of every fan attending a sporting event is arriving at his seat easily and on time. In the Joe’s case, this process is needlessly troublesome.

The authors have experienced this difficulty firsthand. At one point living about a mile from the Joe, it seemed silly for us to drive to games. Unfortunately for us, walking and cycling clearly were not primary concerns for JLA’s designers. There is no obvious pedestrian route from anywhere in Detroit. Way-finding signage is all but non-existent. The only hope for a first time attendee is following the throngs of more seasoned fans who have learned the idiosyncrasies of approaching the Joe on foot. Coming from downtown, fans can make their way circuitously around Cobo or head away from the Joe several blocks south to the Riverfront or north to Howard Street and cross the Lodge freeway. A rarely used alternative is through the Jefferson/Lodge tunnel, which has a narrow sidewalk that stinks of exhaust and feels hazardous as traffic zooms by. Any of these routes involve navigating a dystopian, gray-washed hardscape where the actual earth is entombed below several feet of concrete.

So close, yet so far: a disconnected downtown

Pedestrian helplessness is the result of an infrastructure that itself seems to be confused—the modes of transit surrounding the Joe are poorly integrated. A skein of vertical silos and horizontal concrete tubes litter the landscape. The Jefferson/Lodge freeway creates a moat-like impasse directly in front of the Joe’s entrance. The path is made less certain by the constant intrusion of walls, fences, bollards, and gratings. Peeling paint and cracked concrete add to the sense of chaos.

Veteran fans and clever businesses have developed their own methods to cope with the flaws in pedestrian access. Of course, a fan can pay $15 on top of his ticket and park in the nearby structure owned by the city and operated by Olympia Entertainment. One of the few times you see the People Mover near capacity is during the hours before and after a Wings game. Patrons park in paid lots along Broadway or some other street with easy access to a stop. Some choose an ad hoc transportation service provided by a bar or restaurant. Nemo’s, a classic Detroit sports bar, offers free parking and round-trip shuttle service to the arena for a small fee. Nemo’s is indeed within “walking distance” from the Joe, but no simple route exists.

In addition to being the hub of an impractical infrastructure, the Joe is also the locus of an uninspiring west riverfront district. Unlike the handsome barn-style brick structure of JLA’s predecessor Olympia Stadium, the Joe is nothing more than a big white box in a sea of concrete. It resembles an industrial warehouse more than a sports venue, making for pitiful aerial footage during TV broadcasts. The total blandness is striking. Except for the sign above the main entrance and a few modest, “inspirational” billboards, only a single strip of red trim adorns the exterior. The building’s designers seemed indifferent to the riverfront location. The Joe’s bland presence cuts off views of Detroit’s defining natural feature. Newer arenas such as Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh incorporate glass atriums in their designs to make the most of their surroundings. JLA’s architects, the Smith Group, did not heed the clear advice of the drafters of Detroit’s ’73 Master Plan to “[make] maximum use of the riverfront resource.” We must overemphasize this point since the ’73 planners themselves seemed obsessed with the idea.

The western side of "The Big White Box," aka Joe Louis Arena

It might be easy to overlook aesthetic and infrastructural shortcomings given that the city receives 10% of all spending at the Joe. According to an article in Crain’s Detroit Business published in August 2011, Detroit “collected $2.1 million from its share of concessions, suite leases and ticket surcharges, the rental fee and another $1.4 million from parking fees.” This is not an insignificant sum for a city on the brink of insolvency; however, a major sports arena should provide other indirect benefits.

In addition to frustrating spectators, the Joe’s flaws in pedestrian access have economic ramifications. Mark Rosentraub attempts to determine the value of sports venues in his book Major League Losers (the title implies his conclusion). One way in which their economic worth is measured is when “people from outside the city or county attend a game and spend money they would not have spent in the city or county for some other type of entertainment.” Using simple parameters, Rosentraub assumes that individuals will budget a set amount for entertainment that remains constant regardless of what they spend it on. Since a good percentage of the fan base is suburban, each Wings game presents an opportunity to capture outside spending of the kind detailed by Rosentraub.

Unfortunately, this potential revenue is squandered. The fees imposed on parking and merchandise is great for Olympia Entertainment and a source of income for the city, but local businesses receive little to no boost from the Red Wings, apart from the clever few that offer shuttle services. JLA’s spillover effects are inadequate given the Wings consistent success and loyal fan base.

The Joe’s disconnect with the city incentivizes fans to purchase the $15 parking voucher rather than deal with navigation hassles. When patrons park at the Joe Louis structure, they are likely to show up for the opening face-off, attend the game, and leave afterwards. If they arrived early, where would they go and what would they do? There are no storefronts, restaurants, or bars in sight. Not all fans come exclusively for hockey, and a great deal who would spend money outside the arena don’t because of poor pedestrian access.

Inside a parking structure silo

In the article “Cities and the Financing of Sports Facilities,” Adam Zarestsky writes, “When studying this issue, almost all economists and development specialists … conclude that the rate of return a city or metropolitan area receives for its investment is generally below that of other projects.” Despite economic indicators, America has an infatuation with building the most advanced sports venues. Construction costs regularly run into the hundreds of millions and can only be afforded by the agglomeration of many rich investors or through significant municipal subsidies. The Joe was paid for entirely by the city of Detroit at a cost of $30 million, significantly less than what it costs to build stadiums today, even when adjusted for inflation. Sports franchises perpetually demand newer venues. By leveraging cities with the threat of departure to another city that will subsidize a venue, their demands are often met. Medium to small markets are the victims in this “sports war,” as Rosentraub calls it. As a result, vacant stadiums can be found around the country. These enormous buildings have a narrow function and costly upkeep. In his article “Landover and Other Cities Are Forced to Find New Uses for Old Stadiums,” Charles Mahtesian describes America as suffering from “throwaway stadium syndrome.”

These venues are burdens for cities as they sit empty year-round except for the rare event. The Pontiac Silverdome, former home of the Detroit Lions, is one such example. Since the Lions stopped playing games there in 2002, the Silverdome has hosted some one-off events such as a Monster Truck rally, an international soccer exhibition match, and a welterweight boxing bout. According to a Metro Times article, as of 2009 the Silverdome cost the city of Pontiac $1.5 million in upkeep annually. Since Pontiac was over $100 million in debt at the time—and has since gone into receivership of the state—the city decided to sell the stadium at auction with no minimum bid. The Silverdome, once the largest NFL stadium and built at a cost of $55.7 million (unadjusted for inflation) in 1975, sold for an embarrassing $583,000. In the absence of a buyer, the fate of a vacant stadium is demolition, as was the case for Olympia and Tiger Stadiums in Detroit. Neither of these sites have been redeveloped.

According to the Crain’s article cited above, “The Ilitches and the city have been in talks for three years on a new lease, one that’s expected to allow the team an easy exit [from JLA] for a new arena when the time comes.” It is hard to see how this outcome will be favorable for the city. As it stands, Detroit will be saddled with a facility that has poor ties to commercial zones and would prove exceptionally difficult to adapt for purposes other than professional sports and major entertainment events.

What will become of the Joe once, not if, the Wings vacate? The Crain’s article speculates that it will be demolished and the area redeveloped at a further cost to the city. It’s difficult to propose a worthier plan. Mahtesian writes, “When an arena is downtown, it can sometimes be used to compliment a convention center trade.” The current plans for Cobo Center’s expansion and redevelopment, however, do not include the potential of utilizing an abandoned Joe Louis Arena.

Already a cause of considerable pedestrian confusion, the problems created by aging, unsightly, and intrusive infrastructure around the Joe will also need to be addressed upon the Wings’ departure. These walkways and parking structures are opened only during the evening of events at JLA. They take up space and make the west riverfront district a veritable dead-zone during the Joe’s off-days. This infrastructure, essentially a part of JLA itself, will be rendered immediately obsolete and need to be torn down along with the Joe, adding to the already considerable expense.

We can only hope that the designers of the new arena are cognizant of the many reasons why Joe Louis Arena fails.

Additional Sources:

Major League Losers by Mark S. Rosentraub

Cities and Sports Stadiums edited by Roger L. Kemp

Hard Stuff by Coleman A. Young

5 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

“On One Accord”: Detroit Silences its Employees

The media and former Mayor Coleman Young had an often acrimonious relationship. The former Mayor objected to sensational reporting, and the media in turn accused the administration of lacking transparency. In his autobiography Hard Stuff, Young confirmed the media’s suspicions, stating, “I have stubbornly and purposefully withheld information from the media, inviting them to exercise their constitutional recourse and challenge my position with a lawsuit … The papers charge that I run the most uncooperative administration in the country, and I say, so be it.”

The enmity between the mayor’s office and the press during Young’s administration endures to this day. But a recent directive issued by Mayor Bing’s Office threatens to fracture the relationship further. The memo, directed to “staff members receiving media calls or requests,” states:

  • Do not confirm or acknowledge any information presented by the media
  • Direct members of the News Media to contact a Communications Team Member or take a message to have a Communications Team Member return the phone call
  • Always remain professional in your response to media outlets
  • Contact the Chief Communications Officer or Communications Manager immediately to advise of any media inquiry (bold not added)

Simply put, city employees are not allowed to speak with the media. Some of these items may not seem extraordinary (and by Detroit standards they’re not), but this directive is not just a message for city employees. Now that it’s been uncovered through the Freedom of Information Act, it’s also an announcement to the media that this administration will not cooperate.

As stated previously, this way of handling media inquiries is not exceptional in Detroit administrations. Dan Cherrin says that when he was Communications Manager for former Mayor Ken Cockrel, “All media requests came through me.” He would then decide who should respond to the request, be it a deputy or department head, Cherrin himself, or the Mayor.  There was not, however, any directive explicitly forbidding city employees from speaking to the media.

This directive wasn’t the administration’s first act of open ire either. This administration’s resentment towards the media became more than implicit in March 2010 when the Bing administration took the unprecedented step of relocating the Press’s City Hall bureau to the basement. Recently, the bureau has been returned to its traditional 11th floor perch near the Mayor’s office. But the damage was done, the antagonism made clear.

These policies have flummoxed journalists and public relations experts.

Professor Corwin Smidt of Michigan State University’s Political Science Department does an admirable job trying to reason on the Mayor’s behalf. Cities are fighting for perception so people stay there, new companies go there, housing prices stay constant,” Smidt says.

Aside from responses to emergencies, public relations are an attempt by city governments to control perception. Seen this way, the directive seems like a logical consequence of this aim. “If everybody talks to the media and gives all these different impressions,” says Smidt, “in the end the city will look ineffective and dysfunctional.”

One of the directive’s critics is Greg Bowens, former Press Secretary for Mayor Archer, who says that the media and city governments often have competing objectives. “City communications sometimes require uncomfortable positions,” he says, “because the press wants information and the government wants to get the right information out.” This all but guarantees a certain hostility.

Bowens, who now runs his own public relations firm, believes Bing’s memo will do nothing to decrease the inherent antagonism.  Furthermore, it is a case of message over-management. “There’s so much routine information that sending out a memo like that will cause a bottleneck and really have the opposite effect. You will lose control of your message.”

Due to Bing’s method of maintaining control of the city’s message, the Mayor compares unfavorably with former Detroit Mayor Coleman Young in media relations. While Young may have openly withheld information, he rarely kept his opinions secret or avoided the media. Kirk Cheyfitz, a former Urban Affairs reporter for the Detroit Free Press, couldn’t find a question the Mayor wouldn’t answer.

“When I needed to talk to the Mayor, I could almost always get him on the phone,” he says. “And when I couldn’t, his schedule was always publically available. You could call his political aids and find out where he would appear in the next 30 minutes because the Mayor was almost perpetually in the business of talking to people. You would then go to that event, wait until it was over, and the Mayor would walk by you. You would say, ‘Mr. Mayor, I got a question.’ He would stop, and he would answer it.”

Cheyfitz continues to cover the city and has followed the Detroit Work’s Project with particular interest. The Mayor’s ambitious re-planning of the city is arguably the cornerstone of his entire term. Having covered both administrations, Cheyfitz says the difference in openness between Young and Bing is stark.

“In all the interactions I had while trying to do reporting in Detroit,” he says, “I kept coming into conflict with Bing press operations. They didn’t want to talk, they wanted to supervise interviews, they didn’t want to make [Bing] available, they wanted written questions.”

Dan Lijana, who holds the title of Communications Manager and is therefore the point of contact for the press, believes these concerns to be overblown. “It’s pretty simple,” says Lijana, referring to the directive. “It’s really just a matter of keeping track of the information and making sure our people have the right information.”

Lijana feels the directive, issued before he was appointed but still in effect, is fairly standard in city government. “There’s nothing out of the ordinary about it.”

But in a survey of nine cities around the country, ranging from the largest to those with budgets comparable to Detroit’s, all had communication systems that were more fluid and did not proscribe communication with the media outside the confines of the Mayor’s office. Detroit, in other words, is an outlier.

In Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Houston, Boston, and Columbus, all or most departments have their own Public Information Officers. In Houston, these PIOs are “responsible for responding to media inquiries specific to each of their departments,” according to Janice Evans, the city’s Director of Communications.

Philadelphia’s Press Secretary Mark McDonald, says his city’s PIOs “have expertise on their department and are trained in public relations.” They keep the Mayor’s Office abreast of particular media inquiries, especially those that might require sensitive information, and tend to develop working relationships with beat writers.

For cities with smaller governments that cannot accommodate a PIO for each department, the public relations staff is necessarily more centralized. Yet of the cities surveyed in this category—Fort Worth, Charlotte, Baltimore, Toledo—none admitted to having a directive with the same level of strictness as in Detroit’s.

Charlotte, for example, has a considerably more lenient policy. “We realize that reporters like subject experts,” says Keith Richardson of the City of Charlotte’s Corporate Communications Department. “We encourage members of our staff to give interviews with the media and we do not have a rigid protocol for handling media requests.” After hearing about Detroit’s media directive, he added, “If all calls came through [my office] it would really overwhelm us.”

The past keeps recurring in discussions about Detroit’s media relations. “History has a lot to do with the idiosyncrasies in the city departmental organizations and why and how they get formed,” says Smidt.

Proving Smidt’s point, history is written directly onto the founding of the city’s Communications and Creative Services Division (CCSD). According to the CCSD’s website, during Mayor Miriani’s tenure, two departments gave two differing explanations about the use for a parcel of land. This conflict caused much embarrassment to the Miriani administration, and “as a result a central office through which all contacts with the media would be made.”

Today’s CCSD similarly “ensur[es] that the departments are ‘on one accord.’” This eerie phrase still informs the city’s media policies.

There are more expedient and effective techniques in media relations than the city’s current one.

Bowens suggests training city employees in media relations. “Teach people how to be effective communicators with the press … You don’t prevent them from doing that by putting your foot on their neck so they can’t say anything.” He added that the cost of training employees would be negligible and could be incorporated into the average work week.

Governments shouldn’t fear the press, Bowens says, because ultimately, “A story is neither good nor bad. A story is just a story … Usually when the media brings something to your attention it’s an opportunity to fix it. If you take it as such, then everybody wins.”

by Aaron Mondry

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Was ist DAS?

Donald Angelo Schwenk, aka DAS

For artists who are compelled to create, I imagine it can be discouraging sometimes.  You do what you do, then hope someone cares.  Sometimes it takes a while to connect to an audience.  For the Detroit musician Donald Angelo Schwenk, better known as DAS, it took over 25 years for his music to find a few sympathetic listeners.  Those who have discovered his homespun creations have found a sound unlike any other.

DAS’s musical vision can be heard on his two self-produced and self-financed albums, Non-Chalant and Artifact, both of which have been championed by local lovers of unusual sounds. While he’s probably still not destined for mainstream success, DAS has never been interested in fitting in: his songs’ hypnotic verses tend to repeat themselves, keys change within songs, moods shift eerily.  His music truly defies categorization.  There is a tough, punk rock edge to some tracks, but DAS’s style is too fluid, too diverse to fit any single mold.

“I played music only for myself.  I’m completely self-taught.  I don’t know notes.  I play my own songs…” said DAS.

DAS grew up during the 60’s and 70’s on Detroit’s East Side, and his tastes and interests were initially influenced by his older brother Bob, a young hippy of the sixties.  DAS remembers Bob and his friends listening to bands like the Frost, Procol Harum, Chicken Shack, and Siegel Schwall.  He was also inspired by Bob’s talent for drawing and went on to study commercial art, graduating in 1977 with a degree from Macomb College.  An extremely skilled painter and drawer, DAS made his living reproducing famous paintings and pen and ink drawings for ten years before he began his current job as a cabinet maker.  But music became his primary passion.

He had picked up the bass-guitar in seventh grade, but didn’t stick with it.  He really started playing music in his early 20s.  His first electric instrument was a garbage-picked Dobro-style guitar with an electric pick-up that he’d play through a reel-to-reel tape recorder as an amplifier.

“I started playing on the guitar and tried to play like Robert Fripp or John McLaughlin, fast, maniacal, repetitive riffs, but I never learned how to read music or took lessons.”

He had friends who were talented musicians, but they weren’t always so enthusiastic about his playing.

“Nobody seemed to be playing good original material back then, bands would always play covers… Because I wasn’t playing blues rock or covers, people wouldn’t let me jam with them. They’d say, ‘You can’t play.’  At house parties I’d play one song and they’d make me stop.  It bummed me out.”

While the elitist attitude of some people concerning his playing did hurt his feelings, DAS was a bit of a loner by nature.  Solitude informed his outlook and gave him time to create his own unique style of playing.  Having the patience and temperament of an artist provided him with the space necessary to hone his sound.

“I went through a lot of isolation and depression…. But you have to be isolated to become a good artist.”

The Detroit punk rock band Death, another recently re-discovered musical group, were friends of DAS from the Eastside neighborhood he lived in.  The hard-rocking group influenced him to start writing songs.

“There were a lot of prejudices then.  Nobody wanted to go see a black rock band.  Death never really played gigs, just a few house parties…. I couldn’t really write songs then, but Dave from the Death band encouraged me to write when he heard me play.  My friends actually said, ‘Don’t encourage him.’ ”

Death played original material, too, and DAS understood and appreciated their outsider status.  He even created cover art for a Death album (though never used) that wasn’t released until 2008.  DAS was the person responsible for bringing Death to contemporary ears by bringing a copy of their rare single into Car City Records and providing a cassette copy of their unreleased album to local music aficionados Matt Smith, Dion Fischer and Ben Blackwell.

Though many of his friends discouraged him, DAS did meet people to play with: another song-writer Matt Greenia and he had a friendly competition to show each other new songs they had written.  Within a few years DAS had over 30 songs.  He knew a drummer, Carl Morrin, whom he clicked with, and the two spent their weekends on lengthy jam sessions.

“We’d play for hours and hours on Saturdays.  Every two or three months we would just record for six hours… we recorded hundreds of hours of music.”

The recordings began in 1979 and were done at home on a stereo cassette recorder.  A somewhat reluctant bass-player, Gust Loukas, joined DAS and Morrin in 1983 and the trio would play and record live in the basement.  It was a simple studio set-up by today’s standards.  DAS would bounce the cassette material onto a four-track reel-to-reel and over-dub additional vocals.  Saxophone was added to some tracks by his friend Wally Fritz, a professional musician who had heard DAS playing his songs on a school piano when DAS was working as a janitor.

After several years of amassing hours of recorded material, he decided to self-release an album.  This wasn’t a common occurrence in 1985, and DAS’s friends were surprised.

“I told people I was going to put out a record, and they’d say, ‘What?’  I wanted to show my friends that you can do this, quit making excuses.  So many people would just talk about what they were planning on doing, what their next band was going to be… I wanted to show them that you can do something on your own.”

He saved up some money, went to Archer Records, and paid to press 500 copies of his first record, DAS – Non-Chalant.  It features a realistic cover that he drew and designed and was released on his own label creation, Sir-Reel Records.  The strange-looking guitar he’s holding on the cover was a real guitar that he actually built and played.

Perhaps “released” is the wrong word, seeing as DAS gave some copies to his band-mates and friends, but let the rest of the records sit in boxes for almost 25 years.  Why?  Unfortunately, many of his friends and acquaintances weren’t terribly supportive of his musical creations and interest in his album wasn’t great.  The vast majority of the records sat unopened until 2007 when DAS was at Car City Records and spoke with musician Matt Smith.

“I’d seen him around a long time at Car City.  He was a quiet guy, and somehow the subject of Archer Records came up, and DAS mentioned, ‘Oh, they never gave me my artwork back.’  I was like, ‘Artwork? What artwork?’  DAS, just casually, ‘For my record.’  I said, ‘What record?’ and reluctantly he told me about how he made a record in the 80s.  I told him, ‘I have a feeling I’d like it.  Can you bring a copy in for me?’  He brought a copy in for me and when I saw him next, I told him, ‘I love this record,’ and I asked him if he could give me 10 copies that I could give to music guys around town, and word’s spread since then.”

The album has a surreal, unworldly sound.  Some songs deal with metaphysical topics like astral projection and the beauty of music, but others are grounded stories of people and friends, love, hardships and isolation.  The album is remarkably cohesive for being a collection of hours of jam sessions recorded over several years’ time.  DAS’s songs are based on observations: of people, trances, spirits…  “Art is observing; seeing a person and writing a song that people can listen to and say, ‘That’s me.’ ”

“It’s a great record,” said Matt Smith, even more so considering that, “He was working in a climate of 100% discouragement.”

Recently DAS has played shows around town to a new and more appreciative audience. He went back to his hours of tapes in 2008 and released a second collection of songs recorded in the 80s titled Artifact (the title is Artfact on the record’s cover, a difference that was actually a mistake he made while rushing to get the artwork done in time to release the album for a show).   Artifact’s sounds are close to Non-Chalant: the songs are just as good and it is a remarkable follow up.

DAS hasn’t stopped creating music.  He has been playing with a new drummer, Jim Smith, someone who is enthusiastic about DAS’s style of “raw, straight pumping music.”

“All my friends are into folk and easy listening now.  I’m still into playing hard, primitive stuff,” said DAS.

Although DAS is still an underground musician playing uncompromising sounds, the new-found interest in his music after all these years is truly gratifying for him.  It’s taken 25 years to find an audience, but he’s glad that at least some people appreciate what he’s doing. “Nobody could feel the way I do with my music, because back then, nobody wanted to hear it.  I can’t wait to play.”

DAS is playing at PJ’s Lager House on Friday, August 26 with Danjee Flesh Nation.  More info here.

By Glen Morren

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Donald Goines’ Detroit

Donald Goines

A recent MetroTimes feature story, channeling British writer Martin Amis, proclaimed the great noir fiction writer Elmore Leonard “The Dickens of Detroit.”  With all due respect to the MetroTimes, Mr. Amis and Elmore Leonard, they got it wrong.  The true Dickens of Detroit is Donald Goines, a ne’er do well hoodlum from Detroit turned pioneer of the urban fiction movement.  Goines’ career as a writer lasted just three years, but he managed to write sixteen novels including the urban fiction classics Dopefiend, Eldorado Red, Whoreson, Black Gangster, and White Man’s Justice, Black Man’s Grief.  These books would become iconic tales of life in the black underclass of early 1970s Detroit.

As hinted by their titles, Goines’ books are hard hitting portrayals of ghetto life, due in large part to the fact that Goines’ settings and characters originate from his experiences as a hustler, pimp, and dopefiend on the streets of Detroit.  Much like the so-called Blaxploitation films of the 1970s, Goines’ books are more than just pulp glorifications of street life, but actually provide serious insight into the inequalities of the era.  Goines’ books are valuable depictions of a period of dramatic transformation in the City of Detroit—between the civil unrest of the summer of 1967 and the election of Coleman A. Young as Detroit’s first black mayor.  Goines’ stories are set in a Detroit that simultaneously contains elements of the nostalgia of suburbanites (downtown department stores, neighborhood groceries and retailers, etc.) and the creeping elements of decline that are all too apparent in a city that has lost over 800,000 residents since the publication of his books.

Goines was born in 1936 in Detroit to middle class parents of Arkansas extraction, who, like hundreds of thousands of other southern blacks of the era, came to Detroit for economic opportunities.  The Goines family lived in Detroit’s North End neighborhood (the same in which Smokey Robinson grew up), where Donald’s father Joe ran a successful laundry business.  Donald attended Catholic grade schools and then enrolled at Pershing High School.  He dropped out after completing 9th grade, and at age fifteen enlisted in the Air Force by altering his older sister’s birth certificate to bear his name.  Goines was sent to Korea for two years during the height of the conflict.  It was there that he was introduced to heroin.  He would spend the rest of his short life struggling with addiction.

Upon returning to Detroit, Goines was unable to settle down into legitimate employment.  This is a theme in many of his books, where his characters are disenchanted with the drudgery of the workaday world and would rather seek profits in quick hustles.  In Whoreson, the main character Whoreson Jones, named so by his prostitute mother out of shame for her profession, expresses contempt for those who toil in factories day after day with little material wealth to show for their hard work:

“Now with the dawn breaking through the early darkness, I watched from my window the working men of the neighborhood preparing to depart for work.  Milton’s father, dirty as usual, stood in the street beside his car talking to one of his neighbors.  I watched him with disdain.  His coveralls were grimy with filth.  The old model car he drove matched its owner in shabbiness.

My gaze flickered to my Cadillac.  There was a feeling of triumph inside of me.  I wasn’t even half his age and I’d already accomplished more [as a pimp] than he ever would.  Milton’s mother could look down her fat nose at me if she wanted to pretend, but we both knew who had the sweetest end of the stick.”

Having no desire to take the reins of his father’s laundry business, Goines instead pursued moneymaking by illegitimate means, trying his hand at pimping, gambling, pushing and bootlegging. These experiences would provide him ample material for his books.  Before attempting his career as a writer, however, his illicit exploits would land him in prison three times—twice in Jackson State Penitentiary and once in a federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana.

His detainment extricated Goines from one of the most tumultuous moments in Detroit history: the civil unrest of the summer of 1967, during which black anger at police brutality resulted in violence and destruction throughout the city.  His books, including White Man’s Justice, Black Man’s Grief, Whoreson and Dopefiend would later reflect the tensions caused by the domineering presence of an overwhelmingly white police force in what was becoming a majority black community.  Whoreson reflects on the tough situation faced by ghetto residents in Detroit in the early 70s, saying, “In the ghetto, any black man or woman driving a Cadillac is fair game for every policeman with a badge in his pocket.” 

Integration of the Detroit Police Department was the main issue that Coleman A. Young campaigned on when he was elected to his first mayoral term in 1973.  Reflecting on his successful efforts to integrate the Detroit Police Department, Young states in his autobiography Hard Stuff, “The presence of black officers reduced the antipathy and distrust between police and black citizens.”

Interestingly, the events of the summer of ’67 hide in the background of Goines’ books and are never specifically mentioned, though the tension between the black community and the nearly all-white Detroit Police is a current running through most of his stories.

During Goines’ third stint in jail at Jackson State Penitentiary (served on charges of larceny), he became acquainted with the writings of Iceberg Slim, the first celebrity of the urban fiction movement.  With time on his hands and the realization that writing could prove to be a legitimate hustle outside of prison walls, Goines began typing the tales of his misspent adolescence.

While on the surface Goines’ books appear to glorify the life of the hustler and denigrate that of the honest working man, they are nonetheless reflective tales about the problems of a segregated and unjust society, one in which ghettoization and the lack of opportunity can steer people in self-destructive directions.  A degree of self-loathing comes out in Dopefiend, a novel in which Goines describes the horrors of addiction to heroin, which compels the characters to steal, perform depraved sex acts, and betray family members just to get a fix. Nothing seems more pathetic than a dopefiend at the end of the novel, which perhaps was Goines’ way of warning his readers not to make the same mistakes he had.

Indeed, most of Goines’ main characters who stick to the life of drugs and hustling end up in jail or dead by the end of his books.  None of these characters ultimately profit from their exploits.  Eldorado Red is an exception in that the namesake character does not go to jail or lose his gambling empire, but he does lose his only son due to his involvement in the underworld.

Goines’ books exhibit a prescience of the tougher world to come.  All of his books were published before the oil crisis of 1973-74 that severely hampered the automobile industry and led the country into a recession from which, some argue, Detroit has never recovered.  Indeed, the economic crisis of the rust belt would also have an effect on the economy of the hustler.

A common hustle employed by Goines’ characters is the stealing of goods from neighborhood retailers to resell for dope or living money.  The characters in Dopefiend often stuff their shirts with meats from grocery stores and resell them at a discount to neighborhood people in order to feed their habits.  Whoreson steals suits from neighborhood clothiers and resells them at barbershops in order to pad his bank roll.  Ironically, the economic downturn that Detroit has experienced over the last half century has left a vacuum of the kind of neighborhood retail from which Goines’ characters grifted in order to sustain themselves.

When Whoreson Jones moves his pimping operation to Flint due to legal heat in Detroit, the women in his stable can’t believe how flush the factory workers are:

“They had never seen so many white tricks as they saw up on Industrial Street.  This was due to the fact that a car factory was right across the street from all of the bars there.”

Whoreson profits handsomely from hustling factory workers out of their freshly inked paychecks at various crap and card games in the backrooms of bars and whorehouses around Detroit and Flint.  Much like the disappearance of neighborhood retail, factory jobs that afforded workers dispensable income with which they could whore and gamble have also waned dramatically since Goines’ day.  The economic downturn of the inner city has given rise to less traditional means of hustling than pimping and stealing, such as the rise of metal scrapping from abandoned (and sometimes occupied) buildings as a means of subsistence.

Goines’ book Eldorado Red is the story of a gangster who controls a vast numbers racket in Detroit.  Prior to the creation of the Michigan State Lottery in 1972, local “numbers” operations were commonplace in many Detroit neighborhoods.  This underground gambling system spawned much violence over territory and money.  In his autobiography Hard Stuff, Mayor Coleman Young talks about his reasons for attempting to bring casino gambling to Detroit, saying that Detroit could harness its long history and culture of illegal gambling and transform it into a legitimate source of revenue for the cash-strapped city.  This has come to fruition, though it took longer than Mayor Young would have liked  The city of Detroit’s three casinos are some of the largest tax contributing businesses in the city, though perhaps at the expense of residents who fritter away their money at the gaming tables.

Before the crack epidemic of the 1980s, heroin was king in inner city America.  Detroit, of course, was no exception. Dopefiend was written in roughly the same period that President Nixon launched the War on Drugs, declaring drug abuse to be “public enemy number one.”  Goines’ timely story is set on the eve of the HIV epidemic that would ravage urban America in the decades to come, but the simple horrors of addiction depicted in Dopefiend sans the complicating factor of HIV are enough to show the devastation that drugs would cause in the inner city.

White Man’s Justice, Black Man’s Grief is a preview of the problems that would be created within the prison system due to the War on Drugs.  The book’s primary focus is life within the Wayne County Jail while awaiting trial and transfer to Jackson State Penitentiary.  Goines points out the mockery that is the “right to a speedy trial,” showing how in some cases it could take up to a year of being held in the county jail before a young black man could get his day in court.  Goines critically examines the rise of the bail bonds business, which he rages against in the introduction to the book:

“Countless numbers of poor persons have to pawn their belongings, sell their cars or borrow money from finance companies (another high-interest bill they can’t afford) to regain their freedom…The poor bastards are out several hundred dollars [paid to the bail bonds businesses and courts] they can ill afford.”

Bail bonds have become a huge industry in Detroit.  One can find bail bondsman storefronts on Woodward Avenue in downtown Detroit, an area void of other “normal” retailers.

Goines’ books remain popular to this day.  You can find dozens of copies of his novels on the shelves of the Detroit Public Library or for sale at the Barnes and Noble on the corner of Cass and Warren.  While reading a copy of Dopefiend in Campus Martius Park in downtown Detroit, one person approached me to say that she loved Goines’ books and another walked up later and claimed to be Goines’ nephew.  While his books are not exactly “artful” works, they reflect the origins of contemporary inner-city ghetto culture and remain relevant to those living in Detroit.

Unfortunately for Goines and his readers, his own life resembled the lives of his characters too closely.  He was consumed by his addiction to heroin, though he tried several times to shake the habit.  Eventually he did most of his writing while high on the drug.  Goines’ career was cut short tragically when he was murdered at age 37.  The crime was never solved, though many in his family suspect it was related to a drug deal gone awry.

by Matthew Lewis

Special thanks to Adam Ziskie for the above painting of Donald Goines. Check out Adam’s other artwork at http://adamziskieillustration.blogspot.com/

For further reading on Donald Goines, check out:

Low Road: The Life and Legacy of Donald Goines by Eddie B. Allen, Jr.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized