The year was 1953, and I was a first-grader at Longfellow Elementary, situated near 12th and Buena Vista streets in Detroit. We lived in a four-family flat across the street from the school. Buena Vista consisted of a mix of single-family homes and large rental buildings with manicured lawns. I was a latchkey kid at the age of 6, and this was my neighborhood.
I remember my best friend, Edward. His family owned a home on Indiandale, about a block away. The home had a two-car garage that housed an old car we used to play in. Edward’s family was much better off than ours; they had not only a home, but a TV set. I think Edward’s mother took pity on a poor white kid recently arrived from the South. Most days when I joined Edward for the “Mickey Mouse Club,” she offered me chocolate chip cookies.
Something very strange happened in 1956. Edward got a new friend, who apparently did not like me very much. Soon after, the neighborhood got turned upside down. The historians call it “block busting.” Every single house on the block changed hands within six months. My dad said it was the real estate agents turning a quick buck, and it worked. Every white family on the block was gone, and we followed by moving to Highland Park.
What happened to Detroit? Why couldn’t a poor white kid have a black kid as a friend beyond the age of 6? In 1953, Detroit was still one of the richest cities in the world. Was its decline all because of the vanishing auto industry and one-party progressive rule for half a century, with the incompetence and corruption that comes with it? At this point I have no idea, but it will haunt me for the rest of my life.