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Barbershop: The Ghosts Of Detroit's Past


We're going to close things out today with a special Barbershop. That's where, every week, we gather a group of interesting folks to talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds. Today, as you might imagine, we want to focus on the subject that brought us to Detroit this weekend - the anniversary of the 1967 riots. Many here prefer to call it the uprising or the rebellion. Whatever you call it, we've been talking about why it happened, what it meant and if there are any lessons the country can take away from what happened here.

Right now, though, we want to focus on what's happening in Detroit today. So we've called people who follow events in Detroit closely. Here for a shape-up this week are Lester Graham, a reporter for Michigan Radio and co-host of their new show Stateside. Welcome.


MARTIN: Also joining us is Aaron Foley. He's Detroit's chief storyteller. That's actually his official position. He was designated by the mayor. He's also the author of the book - sorry, Mom - it's called "How To Live In Detroit Without Being A Jackass." Thank you so much, Aaron, for joining us. You'll have to let us know if there are a lot of jackasses in Detroit...

AARON FOLEY: Oh, I will.

MARTIN: ...That we need to be aware of.


MARTIN: Also with us is Rochelle Riley. She's an award-winning columnist for the Detroit Free Press. Welcome back to you. Thank you so much for joining us once again. We've benefited from your insights many times over the years, so thank you.


MARTIN: So I do want to focus on what's happening now, but I did want to just get a couple of minutes of memories, if we could. And, Aaron, I'm going to start with you because I know you weren't around then. You probably weren't even thought of then because you were born in '84. But I wanted to know if you grew up hearing about the riot, or the uprising, or whatever you call it. Did people talk about it when you were growing up?

FOLEY: People talked about it, but it's not like we were taught it in schools. And I think that's a really big shortcoming on our part. And to be honest, there's a lot of local history that I think should be taught in schools. That's a whole different subject. But no, I mean, it's one of those things that was talked about at home a little every now and then. And you just grew up hearing about oh, "a riot," quote, unquote, but not really. Like, it wasn't until I became older and I started studying, like, demographics of Detroit and started studying the history of Detroit that I learned about it.

MARTIN: Rochelle, what about you?

RILEY: You know, that's such a good point because, not only in Detroit, but outside of Detroit, this is not something that was talked about in the way that you saw it on television. There were people who, for years, didn't understand why it happened or tried to, you know, come up with the reasons why it happened instead of focusing on what people had been talking about. And that's the fact that this was a city under siege by the police and poverty and discrimination for decades before it was a city under siege for five days. So we really do have to do a better job of the history. And we really have to do a better job of dispelling some of the myths.

MARTIN: Lester, what about you?

GRAHAM: When I first moved to Michigan 14 years ago, I lived in Lansing. And the white folks wanted to tell me about the 1967 riots. That's the only term they used. And their perspective and what I've learned about 1967 are very, very different.

MARTIN: What did they say? What were their - what was their narrative about it?

GRAHAM: Basically that the black folks went crazy, the city went to hell in a handbasket, and it's never recovered. And that's the attitude, generally, for folks who aren't familiar with Detroit.

RILEY: That's it in a nutshell.

MARTIN: Has any of that changed in recent years, as there's been more focus on it? Do you think that any of that point of view - it seems like those were very separate narratives about what happened.

GRAHAM: Yeah, we did a poll last year. The Detroit Journalism Cooperative did a poll talking to folks in all-white communities and mixed-race communities and all-black communities. And attitudes have changed a bit. There's still that 15 percent of white folks who are convinced that's what happened and that's what was going on. But I think attitudes have changed slowly.

MARTIN: So, you know, one of the reasons that this whole topic is resonant for many people is not just because of the history but because of what's happening now and what we're seeing in a lot of cities around the country, you know, not on the same scale, you know, to be sure. I mean, it's important for people to know, like, this is - number one, this is a big city, period. And number two, a lot of parts of the city were affected. And you can see it. You can still see where it was affected. So - but, you know, Ferguson comes to mind. Minneapolis comes to mind. I mean, these are places where, you know, police conduct - or Baltimore, for example...


MARTIN: ...You know, comes to mind. And I'm wondering - Rochelle, I'll go to you on this - does Detroit feel itself to be part of that? Like, does it feel itself to be part of today's civil rights movement, the Black Lives Matter movement? Because that doesn't seem to be at the forefront of what's in the headlines here.

RILEY: Well, it depends on the people that you talk to. There are longtime activists who have been fighting for better equality and fighting against police misbehavior who would say that there should have been a Black Lives Matter movement here decades ago. There are people today who say that we're a match away from '67 happening again, which the police chief firmly, firmly, not only denies but says won't happen. And he was a little boy, 10 years old, in '67, who, at 20, became a cop who saw the racism firsthand and vowed to one day be chief. And lo and behold, here he is.

But I think the biggest problem is the reason Black Lives Matter resonates is because a single person died. You're talking about something that's so big, so large with the discrimination and the police abuse in Detroit, that it wasn't seen the same way. It's still not seen the same way, but it should be.

MARTIN: So, Lester, nationally, you know, Detroit is seen as this city on the rise. I mean, it keeps popping up in hot places to live, hot places to work, you know, the food scene, hot places to eat. But it's compared to, like, in places like Pittsburgh and maybe Asheville, you know, North Carolina. But I take it you don't think it's that simple. You've talked about Detroit as a tale of two cities. You know, as - I mean, obviously, you've spent a lot of time reporting on this, but as briefly as you can, tell us why you think that that's really not the right - you know, that you don't think those comparisons are the right ones.

GRAHAM: Well, it's booming in downtown and midtown. It's great. It's really good to see. But when you go to the neighborhoods, you don't see that. It's not the same life. There was recently a Wayne State University study that indicated that a lot of people who are living in the neighborhoods are actually doing worse now since the bankruptcy than, you know, the midtown and city - the downtown areas are.

They - jobs are still not there. Poverty's still a problem. The schools are still a problem. You know, they have street lights now, and they have regular garbage pickup. That's good. But the rest of their life hasn't improved like we've seen in downtown and midtown.

MARTIN: So what's the key to that? I mean, what is the issue here? Is there just a job - what's the issue here?

GRAHAM: There's always been a - chronically, Detroit's unemployment level is twice that of the state, and that hasn't changed at all. Even with the states lower, it's still really high, pretty darn high in Detroit. The other thing is, you know, the public transportation system is still not good enough for people to go get a job. Auto insurance in Detroit is - it's the highest in the nation, so people can't afford auto insurance. So just getting to a job is one of the big hurdles. And that's just the beginning.

MARTIN: So, Aaron, is that, in part, what your book is about? Which is that if you're one of the people who's benefiting from the rise of Detroit, don't be a - forgive me, Mom - a jackass to the people who aren't. Is that part of what the deal is for you?

FOLEY: It's along that line. Like, why I wrote the book was because there - long story short, there were a lot of younger white people moving into Detroit, right? Not just young white people but young people from all backgrounds and who were not familiar with the same kind of Detroit that I knew growing up, the same Detroit I loved growing up. And people kind of moved to downtown and midtown and just sort of surround themselves in that bubble. But downtown and midtown are only 7.2 square miles. They're a very important 7.2 square miles, don't get me wrong, but the whole city is a 143.

And people were saying things like, don't go past, you know, the boulevard - Grand Boulevard. Don't go past MLK, you know, you're going to get shot, you're going to get this, you're going to get that. And it's just like, I've - I'm still here. I've never been shot in my life.

Not to say that crime doesn't happen, that violence doesn't happen, but I got tired of people saying things in general about Detroit. And I'm looking around at, like, my friends, my classmates, my aunts, my uncles, my parents, all these people that call Detroit home at some point or another, and we love this city like no other.

MARTIN: Are you mad at these new folks? I mean, just be honest. Are you mad at them?

FOLEY: Oh, no. I mean, well...

MARTIN: Come on.

FOLEY: ...Maybe - OK (laughter). Maybe - I'm not mad at them directly. I'm mad at what they were taught. A lot of this is coming, in my opinion, just to keep it all the way real - this goes back to when I was a freshman in college when it clicked for me. Hearing kids from the suburbs say if you go past Alter Road or go past 8 Mile - the movie "8 Mile" came out when I was a freshman. And people were saying that all of Detroit, all 143 square miles of Detroit looked just like the movie "8 Mile" and all of this.

And I'm just, like, look, I grew up in a brick house in an all-brick neighborhood. We had a block club. We had ladies on the street, you know, that would beat you when the street lights came on and all that. And that - you're going to tell me about my upbringing and all of this? So yeah, I'm not mad at them, but I'm mad about all these discrepancies and all these things that people were taught over the years.

MARTIN: But, you know, Rochelle, you know, we've been in a number of cities this year where the issue of the new folks and the folks who've been here has come up. You know, gentrification is the term of art for a lot of people. Some people - it's a dirty word. Some people, like, you know - so just - let's just use it for shorthand, OK, without sort of claiming the politics of it on either side. Now, we were in Austin, where the mayor told us that there isn't a city in the country that has figured this out yet.

You know, prices go up. The economy gets healthier. Some people get priced out. New opportunities arise. But a lot of the people - a lot of times, there's a mismatch between those new opportunities and the people who are already there. Do you think that's true? Has anybody figured this out? And is that something that people in Detroit are talking about?

RILEY: Well, here's the thing - not many people try to figure it out. For instance, in Detroit, you've got Dan Gilbert buying more than a hundred buildings and literally transforming the 7.2. Well, if he's going to do that, then the city ought to focus all of its attention on all of that area and the donut around that area. And instead, what people do is they jump on the train to make sure that they - it's like, all of a sudden, that's where our public transportation is, this 3-mile train that goes up and down Woodward. And I call it, you know, the second people-mover because our people-mover's our old train that goes around in a circle.

I think that if you have something that is spurred by business, if the catalyst is business people and corporate types who are trying to make money off of the renaissance, then that's what you're going to get. If you have a city that's decided, we're going to do more than that, then that's what will change.

MARTIN: So let me - we only have about three minutes left, and I just want to hear from everybody here. You know, a lot of people are expecting big things from Detroit, and it obviously isn't that simple. And when you think about the future here - and I understand you're all journalists, so your job is the what is not necessarily what the should be is. But I would like to hear from you as people who think about this. As briefly as you can, what do you think would make the biggest difference - small things, big things? Lester, do you want to take it?

GRAHAM: I - well, I want to make one quick point. You know, after the '67 riot, we had the Kerner Commission report which looked at all of the grievances that folks had about why these civil disturbances had. We took a look at all the grievances that they listed in '68 and looked at Detroit today. And African-Americans in Detroit, living in the city, for the most part, are in worse shape now than they were in 1967. I know that disagrees with what Congressman Conyers said earlier on the program, but that's the fact. That's the data.

FOLEY: I think one thing that's not being talked about is the one thing we're seeing at the city of Detroit is we can track the number of permits pulled and things like that. And we're actually seeing - now, wait, I'm not saying that things are great - but we're actually seeing a lot of people in all the neighborhoods, when you get a contractor and they pull a permit, people are making improvements to their houses. They're getting new roofs and new porches and things like that. So I think that's the signal to us that says maybe things are slightly on the upswing. You know, I don't like to say comeback city, but I - we are seeing that people are making improvements in their neighborhoods through...

MARTIN: What's the one thing that would make a big difference, though? I mean, you talked about in the book. Do you mind if I kind of spoiler alert? One of the things you say is the schools. I mean, this is not a great place for...

FOLEY: The schools, absolutely.

MARTIN: ...Kids at the moment.

FOLEY: Absolutely. And only just now have we gotten a new superintendent - don't know what he's going to do yet. But the schools, absolutely. You know, Detroit needs kids. We need families, so.

MARTIN: Rochelle, for people - and you're doing your part, I hope, soon, eventually. Are you going to...


MARTIN: ...You going to get there? I mean...

GRAHAM: Not at the moment, but...


RILEY: If only people could see his face right now.

MARTIN: I know, right? Rochelle, last 30 seconds.

RILEY: You and I talked about this several years ago when I told you there wasn't a national chain grocery store in Detroit and you were aghast. That has changed. There is a renaissance. It is real. We need transportation as well as families.

MARTIN: That's Rochelle Riley. She's an award-winning columnist at the Detroit Free Press. In fact, she's the recipient of a new honor - the Ida B. Wells Award, which she will be awarded at the National Association of Black Journalists Convention this year. Congratulations on it.

RILEY: Thank you so much.

MARTIN: Thank you for joining us. Aaron Foley is Detroit's chief storyteller. Aaron, thank you so much for joining us.

FOLEY: Best job in the city.


MARTIN: Lester Graham is a reporter from Michigan Radio and host of the show Stateside. Thank you all so much for joining us at WDET studios in Detroit. Thank you all so much.

RILEY: Thank you.

FOLEY: Thank you.

GRAHAM: Thank you.

RILEY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF BADBADNOTGOOD'S "HEDRON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.