‘What A Place This Was’


Detroit — Twenty-five years ago I took a new job and moved here from Kansas City. The area was new to me, but I had been charmed by the stories my father had told me about growing up in Detroit. That snappy ginger ale drink, Vernors, was from Detroit, and my father often spoke about sneaking into Briggs Stadium to see the Tigers play.

I came here to work at the Detroit Jewish News, then one of the best Jewish newspapers in the country. The paper’s founder and longtime editor (editor emeritus by the time I arrived) Philip Slomovitz was in his 90s, but he still came to the office every day; though he was virtually blind, he still used the two-finger method to type out his lengthy musings about Zionism. He was always accompanied by his assistant, Percy, younger by just a few years, who would read aloud to Mr. Slomovitz the relevant stories from that day’s local dailies.

Detroit, I soon learned, was a place unlike anywhere I had ever lived — and I have lived many places. In the words of one native: “Here, everything is about race.” It is also, I have learned, about history and memory.

I settled in Oak Park, an ethnically diverse, but also heavily Orthodox Jewish suburb close to the city. Whenever I meet people not from Michigan I say, “I’m from Detroit.” Their reactions are either “Detroit?” (As though I have said “Mars”) or “That’s so cool!” (Always a response from younger people). With the city recently declaring bankruptcy, I expect I’ll soon be hearing a third response: sympathy.

The truth is that for those of us who live in Metro Detroit, the city has been lost for many years. That feeling can be traced back to the 1967 riots, when it seemed as if everyone who could afford to leave did so — and never returned. Leaving was especially painful for the Jewish community. Detroit was a really Jewish city, from the bad (the city’s notorious mobsters, the Purple Gang) to the good: Tigers baseball star Hank Greenberg, dozens of synagogues and temples, and Jewish family businesses, like Faygo soda, that were Detroit institutions.

Jews have lived in Metro Detroit since at least 1850, when the first congregation, Beth El, was founded. At the city’s peak there were more than 90,000 Jews. Now the number is believed to be about 60,000, the great majority of them having lived here more than 20 years. There was a time when there were so many Jewish neighborhoods: Hastings Street, Oakland Avenue, 12th Street, Linwood, Dexter and Northwest (not to mention smaller, remote districts with their own synagogues). The Jews stayed in the city but continually moved northwest, and almost always were replaced by poor African-American families. Right after the ’67 riots Detroit fell into despair, and it has never recovered. The old Jewish neighborhoods have become block after block of beaten-up houses and vacant lots. It’s painful to visit with someone who grew up in the city, as you’re likely to hear, “What a place this once was. See that church on the corner? That used to be my synagogue.”

I felt that sadness myself when I went to Buena Vista Street, once part of a leading Jewish neighborhood. The house where my father grew up came down years ago, perhaps in the riots, I don’t know. Today in that spot there are just weeds. When I was at the Detroit Jewish News I wrote about everything: Israel, politics, crime, business and the arts. Detroit had an exciting Jewish community, certainly one of the largest and most vibrant and opinionated I’d ever seen.

I liked it all, from the right-wing Council of Orthodox Rabbis, to Sherwin Wine, who founded Humanistic Judaism in the Detroit suburb of Birmingham. The people were bright — and generous. The Jewish federation, long considered one of the finest in the country, always asked us to give more, but the truth is that they raised an astonishing amount of money, especially given the size of the community.

That tradition continues despite the tremendous problems not only in Detroit but also throughout Michigan, the only state to actually decrease in population last year. Jews have left, but at rates no higher than those of other residents, and there are plenty of Jewish families, of all affiliations, that choose to remain. The organized Jewish institutions make tremendous efforts to reach a younger audience (which sometimes means 20-40-year-olds, and sometimes 20-to-70-somethings) and the federation campaign, while it struggled for a bit, is back on track.

Perhaps it’s because the Jews of Detroit know their history so well. They know about early settlers like David Heineman (a city councilman who, in 1907, designed the flag of Detroit), Bill Davidson, who turned the Pistons basketball team into world champions, and Max Fisher, a leading businessman, philanthropist and Jewish Republican who helped the city so much after the riots and gave generously to cultural institutions like the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

Jews in the community are known as innovators, leaders and friends ready to step forward. Today, no one even talks about the city without mentioning Dan Gilbert, who seems to be in the news every day for developing property in an effort to revitalize Detroit. During daytime there’s activity downtown, and there’s still a lot to love: John K. King Books, with floor after floor of magnificent finds, coffee shops and quaint stores, the public library, Wayne State University and my favorite: the Motown Museum. There’s a Moishe House, a center for Jewish 20-somethings, downtown, and a few young Jewish couples move there because it’s inexpensive, and you can be creative there; one young Jewish husband and wife have a small farm on a major city street.

I admire Emergency Financial Manager Kevyn Orr, who had the guts to choose bankruptcy. A lot of the city’s residents are angry with him, but the truth is that Detroit has been virtually bankrupt for decades, and everyone knows it and many are pessimistic about the city’s future. (One shot in the arm could come from the Obama administration’s recently announced $300 million aid package of federal and private money for the city, though Detroit’s overall debt runs to $18 billion.) While expressing a continued “commitment to the city,” the Jews still move further and further north to suburbs like West Bloomfield, Southfield or Farmington Hills. (Many today regard Oak Park as “the old neighborhood” and far too close to Detroit.)

But there’s a curious thing about this city. Despite the dark emptiness, the turbulence, the corrupt officials, the broken-down houses on so many street corners, Detroit continues on, like the Little Engine That Could (although it is a huge engine that should). It is still a city rich in history, with huge buildings downtown and glamorous theatres, sports fields and casinos, and that inexplicable something that grabs you by the collar and says, “C’mon! The living is here!” Look out into the river and close your eyes and you can almost imagine how it must have been once — grand and full of adventures — and maybe it could be again. It’s enough to give you the hope that maybe, after all, there are better days ahead.

Elizabeth Applebaum is former associate editor of the Detroit Jewish News and now works at the Jewish Community Center in West Bloomfield, Mich.