One of the first interviews I did when I joined the Free Press in 1987 was with a real estate developer who complained about the newspaper’s 20th anniversary coverage of Detroit’s 1967 civil unrest.
Why, he asked, would the Free Press “celebrate the riots"? Wasn’t it better to leave all that negative stuff in the past and concentrate on the good stuff that was happening?
Thirty years on, I’m hearing a related version of that same question from some business leaders as the 50th anniversary approaches. The July 1967 disturbances left dozens of Detroiters dead and blocks of the city burned out, accelerating white flight.
To be fair, nobody accuses anyone of “celebrating” the riots in any joyous sense. Rather, even as business leaders acknowledge the importance of the deadly events that rocked Detroit a half-century ago, many want to manage our remembrance in a way that doesn’t dent Detroit’s current narrative of recovery and renewal.
The danger, said Larry Alexander, president and CEO of the Detroit Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau, is that industries like tourism, conventions, trade shows and the like are highly sensitive to a city’s reputation. If we present an image of Detroit as a troubled city, some people may take their business — and their dollars — elsewhere.
“The progress has accelerated in the last five to seven years, and I would just hate to see that momentum diminished in any way,” Alexander said.
“Back when we had the ‘last-person-out-turn-out-the-lights,’ it was very, very difficult to even get people to listen," he added. "We would call customers. They would hear we were from Detroit, and they would hang up the phone. People didn’t want to come to a city that was down and out or had such a negative image.”
Alexander isn’t suggesting that Detroiters pretend 1967 never happened.
“I’m very sensitive to the struggle of ’67, the lives that were lost, what the African-American community has been through to achieve equality and to advance issues that are important here in this region,” he said. “But we also have to look at it with balance, and that’s what I’m concerned about.”
In a way, Alexander is less worried about the upcoming exhibits on Detroit 1967 at the Detroit Historical Museum, the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History and other local institutions than he is about a new movie titled “Detroit” that hits theaters this summer.
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, the Oscar-winning director of war films “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” the movie from its trailer appears to show a visceral tale of mayhem in July 1967 and of the police and National Guard and federal troops who occupied the city then. Alexander worries that people who see the film may conflate a few days of upheaval in 1967 with the state of the city today.
John Ferchill, the Cleveland-based developer who renovated the old Book-Cadillac Hotel into the Westin Book Cadillac, echoed Alexander's concern, noting that critics often remember the worst about a city even years after conditions have changed for the better. He cites the way people still joke about the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland catching fire in 1969, decades after the actual incident. The same is true of the Detroit '67 unrest, he said.
"They're going to have some commemoration of this event? What would be the reason for that? Dragging that up doesn't make any sense to me at all," he said.
Robert Bury, director of the Detroit Historical Museum, acknowledges the sensitivities and planned his Detroit 1967 exhibit, which opens in July, as a broad look at 150 years of Detroit’s life, not just a few days 50 years ago. The museum’s exhibit will begin in 1917, 50 years before the uprising in ’67, and look ahead to 2067, when, we hope, many of the racial and economic challenges that still trouble us may be closer to resolution.
“What occurred in ‘67 was a very significant occurrence in modern American history, and certainly in Detroit history,” Bury said. “Our mission today is telling Detroit’s stories and why they matter."
To allay business concerns, Bury addressed the board of the Detroit Regional Chamber in recent days to outline the museum’s approach and to quell any potential backlash against the museum and its exhibit.
“We’re hearing it’s good that we’re advancing the discussion, rather than letting someone else do that for us,” he said.
Mark Nickita, a downtown architect and partner in the Archive Design Studio, acknowledged the possibility of a setback but said progress will prove more potent.
"It's something that comes to mind, but I think if you look at the big picture, the advances that we've made in the last 10 years have been dramatic. I don't think the momentum is easy to break."
In contrast to the concerns, some business leaders involved in Detroit's revitalization see an upside to remembering Detroit '67. David DiRita, a developer whose work includes the David Whitney Building renovation, said Detroit has a story of recovery to tell.
"Was 1967 an unfortunate moment in our history? Absolutely," he said. "But as I stand here on Woodward Avenue, lined with people and bustling with development, that's not necessarily telling a bad story. We're the sum of our history here. We were given up for dead 50 years ago, and we weren't (dead), as it turns out. That's a pretty good story to me."
Sandy Baruah, president and CEO of the chamber, pooh-poohs fears that Detroit’s reputation will suffer a setback as Detroiters debate the meaning of July 1967.
“My view is it’s really an unfounded concern,” he said. “Most cities, they’ve all had some sort of major traumatic event like this. How many movies and television shows have been done on the LA riots after Rodney King?” Indeed, just now the National Geographic Channel has produced a new documentary called "LA 92" that looks at the disturbances in Los Angeles that followed the acquittal of police offices who beat motorist Rodney King.
Other cities find a way to acknowledge their traumatic events and then move on, he said.
“I think the way the Detroit Historical Society and their partners are going about this is very balanced and makes a lot of sense,” Baruah said. “I don’t think that people outside the area are going to see the commemoration events or this Kathryn Bigelow movie and say, ‘Oh, I thought Detroit was doing great, but now that I’ve seen this movie, I think Detroit is bad.’ I’m just not overly concerned about that.”
That’s the mature attitude and the correct one. No city that’s afraid of its past can possibly move into the future. And the people commemorating July 1967 in Detroit are doing it the right way, inviting all Detroiters to share their stories about those events and what they mean in our lives today. It's creating a dialogue that's both necessary and healthy.
So, yes, people who thrive or fail on Detroit’s reputation may approach the 50th anniversary with trepidation. But Detroit, like other cities, has to earn its reputation each and every day. The events that will really determine our future lie not in the past but are yet to occur.