Harriet Saperstein, July 25th, 2015


Harriet Saperstein, July 25th, 2015


In this interview Harriet chronicles her work with the League of Women Voters and various other charitable and volunteer organizations. She recounts her experiences living in the city over the fifty years. She also dissects the problems the city faced in 1967 and 1968. In tandem, she discusses the shortfalls of the work that has been done and the work that still needs to be completed.


Detroit Historical Society




Detroit Historical Society, Detroit, MI








Narrator/Interviewee's Name

Harriet Saperstein

Brief Biography

Harriet Saperstein was born in Brooklyn, New York on January 17th, 1937. She moved to Detroit with her husband and settled in Lafayette Park. Throughout her time in Detroit, Harriet has worked with Wayne State, the League of Women Voters, and the cities of Detroit and Highland Park. Harriet continues to reside in Detroit.

Interviewer's Name

Noah Levinson

Interview Place

Detroit Historical Museum, Detroit, MI



Interview Length



Zach Shapiro

Transcription Date



NL:  Today is July 25, 2015.  This is the interview of Harriet Saperstein by Noah Levinson.  We are at the Detroit Historical Museum on Woodward in Detroit, Michigan.  And this interview is for the Detroit Historical Society and the Detroit 1967 Oral History Project. Harriet, could you please start by telling where and when you were born?

HS:   I was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1937. January 17 to be exact. And I came to Detroit in 1963 with my husband, who took a job at Wayne State University. We moved into Lafayette Park near downtown Detroit and I have lived there ever since. Luckily, also having lived abroad a number of times.

NL: You've lived in Lafayette park your whole time in Detroit?

HS: Yes. Except for the time I was in London, Stockholm or some other places.

NL: Could you describe what the neighborhood was like during the first years you were living there?

HS:  Interestingly enough, because I just did a talk about that last night, we moved to Lafayette Park because I wanted to live in an integrated setting and that was very important. And what you had was a lot of people who were coming there who were new and young. We were renters at the time and for me who came from Brooklyn, New York, I was used to density and renting and even though I really support historic preservation and I’m sorry to see a lot of the stuff that is being torn down in Detroit, I don’t want to be involved in anything that is related to a house.  I don’t want to worry about it and I don’t want to mow my law and moving into Lafayette Park I had this community with lots of people and lots of green space and no responsibilities to my house, per say.  But I loved the people; there were kids, they were active and there were activists. You could feel that from the very beginning of moving into Lafayette Park. We were all really involved.  For example, I usually talk one of those three or four memories two of which I’ll share around the riot time — and by the way I use the word “riot,” but I am uncomfortable very often, and in an African-American community, I am very careful to recognize that "riot" has a very negative feeling among many African-Americans. "Riot" blames the victim. These victims, although individuals, perhaps should be blamed for what they did, doesn’t shouldn’t blame it. On the other hand the word rebellion which is a much more popular word, for me has a real political influence and this was not yet a political, joint “political rebellion” where there was a philosophy involved.  It was people who because of the rising scale of expectations, because other people were getting things that they felt they should getting too, were angry and pushed back and pushed down as many African American still are today.  We have a level of institutional racism in our society that, we know, these last several months have been examples of that in individuals being killed clearly, personally in my mind for basically conscious and unconscious racial feelings and stereotypes.  But going back to that time, riot, rebellion and civil disturbance.  Civil disturbance is a terrible word.  Doesn’t give you the feeling of what was happening and what was going on, so if I use the word riot I am accepting it in the context that it is really too narrow and I am not in any way blaming the victims.  Okay?

NL: Alright.

HS:  So one of my memories, but going back I remember walking down with my kids to the riverfront which is four blocks from where I lived and because I remember sneezing and a number of other very emotional kind of feelings and I wrote a letter to the recreational department asking, “Why are you moving us here from there?”  That is not the only thing I did.  Took action almost immediately, because I didn’t say, “I don’t like it” I said “why are you moving all of us who are coming to this city?”  And we can’t get there, meaning the riverfront from where we lived four blocks away and anything positive.  And I got back the kind of letter I hoped I didn’t right later on which said “Thank you for your interest. Here’s a map.”   But I probably did, so the activist nature and the interested nature, the integrated nature of it, the first three people who moved in were mixed. I think if I believe two African-Americans and one Caucasian person. It just then you had a lot of people who moved in for example in the African-American community as I understand it, and I’ve talked to them because they wanted something new one of the things that African-Americans wanted — and again they have to say this not me — is that your always inheriting things and sometimes you want something new and something fresh, that’s what Lafayette Park gave us all.  It was designed to encourage people interacting, you had no choice. Your windows were full floor to ceiling windows with at best shades or curtains that you could pull across. Your sound pattern unfortunately carried from house to house a little bit.   But that was the design and the pattern and that’s what we wanted.

NL:  Could you talk about the decision your husband and you to move to Detroit as versus maybe to some other locations that were considered?

HS:  We were living in Buffalo, New York; my husband was an academic.  Those were the years that the wife went wherever the husband went.  I was going to get a career. I was younger than him basically and I was just finishing my graduate studies and someone recruited us for Wayne State University and it seemed better.  I usually say it was 6,000 dollars more but it really wasn’t that, maybe it was a thousand dollars more but it really was looking at it —and we met someone in Lafayette Park and I loved the life style, so we to be honest looked at Lafayette Park, we looked at the University District, but as I said I’m not into houses per say, and we looked at Huntington Woods because that was near Woodward Avenue. I’m chair of the Woodward Avenue Acton Association now, so even then I liked the concept of being near a major street. I grew up taking transportation and that’s the saddest thing for me about Detroit is its lack of public transportation in a meaningful way.  I was ten or eleven traveling the trains on my own, with friends.  I wouldn’t let my kids do that, but I could do that then.  And so my choice was to come to Wayne because it had an opening and some real potential for my husband it looked like it supported women in terms of things and I met someone.  It was the grapevine like every immigrant group. Whether internal immigrants in terms of the African-Americans from the South to the North or European immigrants whose friends and cousins and relatives bring them.  We had a friend of a friend, she showed us the neighborhood and it rang comfortable and true.  And no regrets. I love the city. I resent it sometimes. I worry about it, but I still feel it was the right place for me and it’s been good for me and the career. 

NL:  Could you tell me about where, I know this is not a concrete answer but about where you were living in the summer of 1967?

HS:  Well that’s the piece of why I was interested in this particular study. Because, I have to go back.  In the summer of ‘67 just in July and August, I was actually with my husband who was at a conference in Aspen, Colorado and in Palo Alto, California. I had a five-year-old and a three-year-old and I had made the decision in June of 1967, after a major study for the League of Women Voters of Detroit on police community relations, which I did as a volunteer. I was  teaching part time in Sociology, I had my two young children and I made the decision  at that point because I felt the city falling down around my ears, feet, or whatever body part you want to do, that I would leave teaching in the classroom and I wanted to walk the streets. Well, how am I as a white, Jewish woman going to walk the streets? And I wanted to do it obviously in an intellectual sense that contributed, so I was again recruited to work in the poverty program which was then called TAAP, Total Action Against Poverty. We were just in the Great Society and we were having things like that happening and so I left but the summer was committed away and I completed my study and then I went away.  And perhaps now or after I would like to read you what I wrote exactly at the time the riot happened. Do you want that later on?

NL:   Well I think that why don’t we do that right now.  That would be great. 

HS:   Alright, there are two little pieces.  This is — I write an annual letter which is generally four to six pages some people call it a book and you don’t have to read it. I’m at the point now where by email, where I send a cover letter and it’s got an executive summary and then I write it and it’s got pictures by using the internet. But, it started as a page or two of personal — and it was always both personal and political in a general sense of what was happening in my community and in my society, and in the process of having to do a talk about Lafayette Park last night, I looked back. I find I use it as my own history, so I look back and it’s written in the third person generally so it starts with “Harriet” , but that’s me “ Harriet has been teaching and been doing some interesting volunteer work completing a study of the Detroit Police for the League of Women Voters of Detroit. And working with an exciting educational project in the inner city. Our urban renewal area - that’s Lafayette Park and the beginnings of the Elmwood’s -”, but just the beginnings “has joined with six” Elmwood one was certainly there maybe two I don’t know whether three was there yet. "Our urban renewal area has joined with six other really inner city schools trying to bring quality education to a heterogeneous area that has suffered too long for the problems of little money and less thought. Funded by the State of Michigan to the tune of $600,000, we having a strong concerted citizens council began as a citizens study action group, we meet at least once every two weeks and try to deal with the serious problems of education in the big city.” Could I write that today?  “It took two elections to get the minimum mileage through, this when Detroit was at its most prosperous” that’s a piece of what’s important “and we suffer mightily with the big city problems: the achievement ability, motivation circle (or lack of it), overcrowded classes and under trained teachers, rigid bureaucracies, and the beginning of citizen concerns. Can we change the circle of disillusion and despair?  This group will try hard to do so.”  That was written in January ‘67 so it’s before everything really fell apart.  Now, this is coming into written the next in February of ’68, but is reflecting the summer of ’67. On the fact of what I had done with the League of Women Voters and what was happening and my images of what I know. So it’s as accurate of a personal imagery could be. It’s not my memory as much as what was. “On the domestic front we tried. Harriet has taken a full time job with the poverty program. The Mayor’s Commission on Human Resource Development (fondly known as McCurd; the Scotch poverty program) and there is you feeling there was some feeling you could see to a gut realization of the increasing polarization between black and white in the metropolitan area, that no amount of really inner city changes can really help. Harriett finishes substantial report for the League of Women Voters on the Detroit Police, “Problems and Perspectives” which is still being circulated and utilized in the cities attempt to deal with the delicate issue of police-community relations.” Now I have to stop and give you a memory. In June of 1967 I was asked to speak to the police academy at least I think it was the police academy. It’s a memory I can feel and touch and smell. I can see myself standing in front of a microphone in a Quonset hut, as I remember it, feeling sweaty and talking to a whole group which I have to be, in the context of what I said, the graduating police students. So I talked about police-community relations study, why we needed a citizens review board that had outsiders tied into it. We’re still talking about that issue. Why do we want the Justice Department to deal with these horrible cases we’re having of local police basically killing African-Americans and black lives do matter.  I’m a supporter of that. But basically, when I look at that I gave this talk and I said we need the outsiders and there were many other things; none of which I remember. But, I do remember that.  After the talk I asked for questions and someone raised their hand and said, “Do you think there will be a riot this summer?” I remember standing there silently which would seem to be three minutes, four minutes, but it was 30 seconds I’m sure and my answer was “My silence is my answer.  What I do know is if something happens this summer it will be because of someone in this room and I’m not blaming that person. It will be someone inexperienced who doesn’t know how to handle a crowd and it’s a tinder box out there. Something will happen no one will know what happened and all hell will break loose.” That’s what happened, but I, having commitments for the summer with my husband and my family, left town. Okay, now I’m going to go back to what I said when I found out about it. “In the midst of the clean air, flower, glaciers, stars, skiers - yes in August - came the news of the turmoil in Detroit. Harriet felt guilty for not being there and kept phone lines busy as soon as you could get through to Detroit. It seemed so strange to look out the window at Independence Pass and hear the stories about people arming their homes, working 24 a days at our centers” - those are the poverty centers and the recreation centers -   “and the death or destruction.  Riot or rebellion, it is an expensive way to settle our problems.  Attitudes have hardened since. And yet, what else can one expect? Any can under too much pressure will explode.  And our cities are under unimaginable pressures.” This is written in February ‘68, so it’s after the summer. “Touring the riot area, even well after the fact,” - September in retrospect, that’s not well after the fact, but it’s afterwards “showed how specific the hostility and anger were.  The damage was clearly directed towards the stores in the area.  Homes, public buildings, occasional stores (sometimes labeled 'Soul Brother', sometimes not) were carefully left unburned and undamaged when all around it would be destroyed. The image I am left with is however, one block of homes that did catch on fire” meaning that everything went. “There was the front of the house.  A rod iron balcony and a flower pot with a real geranium still growing and nothing else. The rubble had been cleared but people gone. Where? But the geranium shown rosy in the sun. And so thinking about the easy life in Aspen and the difficulties of Detroit, we tried to explain to everyone who asked and tried to understand ourselves, how it could happen in a city with more citizen involvement than most others, better programs than most other, and a reasonably concerned attempt to change. A band-aid on a cancer was the apt analogy.”

NL: Wow.

HS: So that’s what I wrote.

NL: Not enough people heard that in 1967 and ’68, I guess.

HS: And that leads me to the fact and one of the things I really do think needs to be left, whether it’s an oral history or research.  I’ve now seen a couple of plays that have dealt with this as well as now I’ve read a number of books about it. Is the winter of '68 for me was the worst time I can remember living through. The fear was palpable. We had a newspaper lock out. Let’s remember that. And the stories in the newspapers were awful. There was an old German-American newspaper that was talking about children being castrated in the eight floor bathroom of Hudson’s. They talked about it as rumors, but you say it’s a rumor and people say, “Hmmm, where here’s smoke there’s fire.” Well there’s a hell of smoke and there was a hell of fire, but not for that.  So basically, it was — Dearborn, you couldn’t find a bottle of water (and we didn’t have the little bottles everyone’s got now), but you couldn’t find any water for sale in Sears or groceries [stores]. People were stocking up their houses. In Dearborn, people were taking courses to learn how to fight, to shoot guns.  And the city we were trying to do things. People were moving out. It exaborated [exacerbated] the move, but the move started before '67, partly because of personal things and because of government policies. If we don’t look at the government policies that encouraged suburban sprawl and stopped public transportation in cities like Detroit. we don’t understand and we blame the individual. Individuals make their choices, but the government policies around them impact on that amazingly. So there I was, still living in the city, still working on a number of things, no longer the league study. Now working in the poverty program in the centers trying to deal with things and a number of things happened that made a real difference. For example, when I got hired I was going to be a professional assistant to a project on the east side, Butzel Center on Kercheval and Van Dyke just where the secondary fires were.  And that had some funding which had come from the Butzel family, which is an old Jewish family, for a library and for Southeastern High School which had been closed and had been given some money. We were going to do a community center. It’s still there it’s now the Harambee Center. I haven’t been in it lately, but I go by it and it looks like a viable center near a viable school in the neighborhood. But, when I came back in September, we now had two of us working on that I was technical planner and there was a community planner. She was technical also, but she was now working with people who were hired as community planners. That was the first time we really recognized – at least in the Detroit poverty program (and I suspect it was a national trend) – that we really had to not only ask the people who were going to be affected by things to be volunteers, but you know, they could take those jobs and have responsibilities that they were getting paid for as well.  And that interaction in that winter of ‘68 between the, basically the various two had a lot of tension in it. We had to learn how to talk to each other, we had to learn how to listen!  We had to learn how to listen, that’s what’s really important, Noah. And I had to learn how to listen, because I tend to talk first and listen afterwards. So basically, we had that going on in terms of work we were cleaning up, and at home as a volunteer, we had something called the Miler District Advisory Council. And just in my basement for the talk I gave, went and found the book which I will be putting in the Reuther library. It’s too good, it’s information that someone need to have on what was happening, We were trying. And here’s the example of Lafayette Park and the difference. We had the Chrysler School and sometimes we’d resent it because it would have the middle class integrated racially, but not class necessarily and the class/race overlap always gets so confused in our minds and in our country, in terms of what’s going on. But we didn’t just deal with Chrysler school. We joined with Chrysler, Bunche, Harris, Bellevue, and Duffield all of which flowed into what was then Miller Junior High School which in the past had been Miller High School where Joe Louis went. Okay — and now is a charter school by the way, a good charter school I believe, but a charter school. A science and arts charter school, but at that time it was a pubic junior high school — and we tried to see if all six of our schools could be improved. That was the kind of thing then in those days people were trying, but what happened was we had some funding from the state and the funding was going to run out and the school board had given us a person to work with us and he said he was leaving. And that was February and March of ‘68 when it felt like all the grassroots in town were trying to do something. We said, “We can’t live like this.” We began looking at the grassroots level, as well as the New Detroit major level, to see what could we do.  Did we make a difference? I hope so.  Was it a big difference?  No. The pressures, the strengths were really awful. That went on until the spring with the awful assassination of Martin Luther King, basically. And we didn’t blow up which was very interesting maybe because we had blown up before and then the Tigers won the Pennant and it’s a very funny thing.  Last night, when I was talking, people were sitting there and their heads were going up and down yes, remembering. There was something about sports, there is something about sports, that does seem to cross class and race lines and people get together around it. Now I’m not a sports fan, just like I’m not a house fan, in a sense, but I appreciate that, just like some people are not musicians and they can appreciate different kinds of music. And there was this kind of celebration that we won the pennant and it just set a new tone for things that could happen. However, I will remind people that there were a couple of cars burned up and there were white suburban guys who burned them up. Just like we still have dumping in areas and if you watch the trucks they’re not local trucks. We still have the tensions between suburban and city in this area. 142 governmental agencies and the pressures are really great around saying, “I will support me, not the larger community.” The thing about Lafayette Park and the people I know and the people I care about is we cared about ourselves, we cared about protecting ourselves, but we saw it and still do in the larger context of our communities —our neighborhoods, our community and our society have to function. I’m lost, where was I?

NL: You are everywhere and it’s fantastic.  I want to ask you a few specific questions about things that you’ve already said, to go into a little bit more detail.

HS: Certainly.

NL:  Going, I think sort of chronologically, back to some things that you said in your written piece. Could you tell me about sort of the genesis of that police community relations group and the League of Women Voters that you were involved with, how did that start what was the process of making that report and maybe a little bit more details about what you remember being in the final report? 

HS:  Well, the League of Women Voters is still a strong organization. There is a League of Women Voters in Michigan. At that time, we had the League of Women Voters of Detroit We don’t have a Detroit chapter right now and that’s again because younger people are much more interested in being politically active around an issue and a narrower focus, the League of Women Voters still has as its major interest voting representation and the larger way of creating a democratic society. The women that I worked with and knew were very much interested in that and there are just other issues that have taken people. It still exists. My daughter is active with it in Cincinnati although it’s a kind of thing, but here it’s got some state leagues it’s got some local leagues and at that time though there was a Detroit chapter. A good friend of mine named Carol Campbell, and by the way her husband Phil Campbell is somebody that hopefully gets talked to on this because —

NL: We just scheduled an interview with him yesterday.

HS:  Fine, because he’s someone who basically was here during the riot in the summer. But Carol came over to me and asked if I could do this volunteer study which looked at police community relations. Why? We’re having a new charter, there were discussions about some of the impact, we didn’t talk police brutality, we talked just police issues and the problems of police community relations, and one of the things about the League of Women Voters is they require consensus. It’s a very democratic way of looking at things. You can’t do a report, you don’t do a study and you don’t get it. You try to find, what can you get that everybody will agree upon. That’s harder and harder to do in today’s world, because basically people say, “No. I will stop” and it’s how you do mediation for example.  Mediation has to be done and consensus building means everybody has to give up something.  They all have to feel that they got a little more than what they wanted and lost a little less, but it has to be done from the purpose of saying, "How can we agree, what’s the core that we can move ahead?" That’s been I think the values system and still is of the League of Women Voters. So what do we do on that? There was a lot of people I don’t remember them all, but it turned me from teaching to going to work for the city, because I went on bus tours, I got to meet government people, I began to see the impact of what could happen. And in that study, you know we had a lot of recommendations, because the charter was coming and we wanted to feed into the new charter. I think that’s three charters ago, it’s at least two maybe three, but we did make some changes. I believe that the civilian review board was incorporated into the thing. So, it was a lot of women who were working to find out what was going on, who could you talk to, and in the process I and all of us learned a great deal about the city that I certainly didn’t know. 

NL:  How long do you think that whole process was from the first that you heard about, “Okay we’re gonna make this report in preparation for the charter” and then completion of it?

HS: Less than a year. Six months or seven months. I believe it was in the fall. I don’t really have a specific memory, but it was finished in June and in fact I think it goes — it says here “they finished a substantial root” and it says in January ‘67 I was doing it and in February ‘68 it was done, well before that it was June of ‘68, six months. I’d say, six, eight months. 

NL:  Did that report, I know it’s not exactly the same thing because it’s about community relations, but —

HS: It was a lot of things on police.

NL: Was there anything you remember learning about relating to their hiring practices, particularly in regards to race?

HS:   No. I do not remember that. I do not remember it yes or no. 

NL: Okay. Could you along the same line of thinking, could you elaborate a little bit more and talk about the beginning of your personal involvement with the TAAP program and the efforts you put in that regard?

HS:  There are two levels to that. While I was teaching, my friend Joyce Brown who was the one who introduced — she and her husband Leon Brown was an academic like my husband. They had two boys a little older than my kids basically and we both started in the Nicolet-Joliet and moved to Shadow Ford or a little different, just across the park personally, but Joyce — who unfortunately has passed on, but was really important to my career — had been already working for the city and she asked me to do a study with my class on what programs served youth. So I had done a class program looking at what were some of the various kinds of programs serving youth in the city. Because of that I met her boss, the director Myron Liner who is still around — I think he works for Matrix right now, another person probably well worth talking to, Myron M-Y-R-O-N, Liner L-I-N-E-R – basically asked me to come to work for him. So, I literally wrote a proposal, which was not atypical even today, which would have for this Butzel project, and which had a technical assistant which wasn’t officially or legally going to be for me.  I wrote the grant, as a part time person, but was designed so that they could get some funding so that I would get hired by the city. And then all hell broke loose that summer, but I did make that choice to leave. So basically, I knew about the various programs and I came in, but it changed tremendously because before this we were doing Great Society programs [unintelligible], I don’t think again the programs locally were listening.  And we had to do a lot more in bringing in the community planners, although it wasn’t perfect, [it] made a difference, looking at  how we worked and where we worked and now we had things that had to deal with cleaning up the city, putting back together rec centers, looking where our center were and who they served. What was going on to do it?  I got a lot of stories both at that time and later.  Another person to be sure to talk to is Roy Levy Williams. Roy Levy William worked for the Urban League at the time and when I was teaching after I left working in Highland Park — I tease, Noah, and say that I worked for the city of Detroit for 17 years, almost ten probably in the Recreation Department, and then Detroit wasn’t tough enough for me so I took on Highland Park.

NL: [Laughter]

HS:  But I was teaching when I left Highland Park - 17 years later - I taught metropolitan conflict for a little bit and Roy came to my class and talked about what it was like being on the street. Now I’m going to quote his story, but I hope he gets a chance to do it as well. Which is he remembers dealing with not just in Detroit, but other places in the riot itself, as an African-American man, working for the Urban League, working with young people trying to keep the riot/rebellion from spreading. But his image, and you know, talking with the various people that came in, and his image, like mine on the geranium on the empty porch, his image is of a street, near Twelfth street, where there’s a cart and a television set in it and an older woman standing. The lights are shot out, the gunfire can be heard, the smoke can be seen, and she’s waiting for the light to change when she crosses the street. Now she didn’t steal that, someone gave it to her, and I’m not  gonna argue that, but it was that kind of image because after the riot there was an interview, there was a whole research study and they said, “Were you involved in the riots?” But you know what, that question got answers which really could be interpreted several ways, because some people were involved in the riot and they gave water to the National Guard people; they walked around their neighborhood trying to calm people. I worked with people in Highland Park who basically drove around the city, there were no fires in Highland Park. Why? Because the African- American leadership went to the white mayor, Michael Glusac — who is still alive and around — who said we want to prevent our city from blowing up too, and they did because they were there and they knew that the fires didn’t help. Nevertheless, the pain does and the anger does and you have to find a way to deal with it. That’s not — I’m quoting other people, but they’re stories that I heard and know and that’s what I also felt when I was out there, how do we put the city back together? What do we do? 

NL: I’m curious, and I think this is sort of connected to another question that I had about the governmental involvement, really the aftermath, the Seventies and beyond of it today. So I hadn’t heard that before that Highland Park took action to try to prevent those same kind of damages. 

HS:  That’s because no one does the oral history and you know something, every one of those people in those cars is gone. 

NL:  Looking at Highland Park today, it suffers just as much as lots of areas of Detroit and I’m wondering if you can weigh in on that. And how that has happened and what has been happening in the city and the several counties around the area that have contributed to the problems of Detroit.  

HS:  Highland Park is a microcosm of Detroit. It’s exactly the same patterns except they’re even more so. And one of the things basically, and my job when I went there was to run an economic development agency called HP DEFCO which was funded with five million dollars from Chrysler when they decided to leave Highland Park, technically to take half their people to Auburn Hills. At least they were responsible. Ford Motor Company is a very philanthropic corporation, but they have never recognized or met their responsibilities to Highland Park. If you ask them about the Ford site they say we don’t own it. They do, they own the story and the history. I’m still trying to work with Ford Motor Company.

NL: You’re talking about the original?

HS:  I’m talking about the original Ford plant is there. The original Ford plant is there. They may not own it, legally.

NL: I drive by it every day.

HS:  But they — well, the Woodward Avenue Action Association, which I’m chair of, basically now owns the Ford administration building in Highland Park and we’re trying to turn it, and there’s a number of things we’re trying to do with it. That’s not for this talk I’ll talk to you about it later, but it’s a representation. So basically, again, Ford is very philanthropic, but they’re scared of Highland Park, that’s another story. In Highland Park itself, it’s a microcosm; it basically had a fair amount of duplex housing, rather ownership. Comparing Hamtramck and Highland Park will be a fascinating PhD study someday because they started about the same size (Hamtramck lower), they boarder each other. One ended up with a real mix of ethnicity and still has it; one turned from white, Armenian [to] black, basically and now has 10,000 people instead of 60,000. Well we have 2,000,000 to less than 700,000 so it’s basically a microcosm. And yes, what happened is the 142 community government agencies we have, the state pattern of property taxes staying with the community and then putting in basically something like Proposition A where you can’t raise your taxes, but if you do sell eventually somebody else gets caught in that and it is a parallel and a microcosm and all I can say is it’s a village. It’s also a neighborhood. It’s tried very, very hard. And it’s had the same problems, it’s had some corrupt leadership, it’s had some very responsible leadership just like Detroit has had. So I can only see it as an analogy and a parallel and the fact that it sits right in the middle on Woodward Avenue is an interesting part of it.  I researched why it isn’t part of Detroit and that has to do in the 1920s when it was talked about, they were getting a hundred thousand dollars’ worth of taxes from Ford, this is 1921 I believe, I’d have to check that. And the point is that’s like a million dollars in taxes today so they didn’t want to join Detroit, because they were getting a fair amount of money, Detroit didn’t care at that point they could have their little hole in the spot. Now, I’m not sure. I’ve been asked by Carl Levin why it isn’t part of the city. On a regional planning thing it should be part of Detroit on a personal, historical, there’s a history, and a personal, and a feeling about this community that makes it very hard, so I don’t know what will happen, but it is an analogy and a parallel. They’ve tried. 

NL:  Could you, I think you were just touching on it. Could you elaborate a little bit more on your views of the policies that encouraged white flight I think is how you said it earlier. Or just general suburban flight?

HS:  Well you start with several things. The ones we see are the express ways. If you take the Lodge expressway it tears, take a look at just the pattern there were big fights, should it be under ground?  Should it be over ground?  It divided up functioning neighborhoods. Chrysler, particularly the I-75 and the 375 piece is even more exact. It destroyed Hastings Street and Black Bottom, and again for history, I’m sure other people will tell you that the name Black Bottom comes originally from the delta and the dirt, the black rich dirt they had. It was Irish, German, other things, Italian and then now it has the double meaning of Black Bottom, because African Americans live there. But basically it was destroyed by 375, or 75 whichever one you want to do. Paradise Valley and Black Bottom and viable neighborhoods And putting it back together again was very hard. This will relate perhaps to the ‘67 one. So, the expressways did it, you can see them, you can go look at maps and see and watch what’s happening. The government policies around mortgages are the major thing that did it. What we call redlining, okay, which we think about — they sometimes think brokers, you know, said, “We can’t take you there.” It’s more than that. The FHA, Fannie Mae, the various government policies, would not give mortgages to people who moved into integrated neighborhoods, to mixed neighborhoods. That is a factual, the numbers I can’t give you, the exact timing of how it worked and when it I did, but it existed.   You can look up the history and you’ll find it. One of the things we had that goes even further of course, but that was done in ’48, I think it was ‘47 or ‘48 is the restrictive covenants and deeds.  In fact, a local person Reggie McGee’s family — and he is around and probably was here during the riot and probably worth talking to — was one of the  key people in the case that took the restrictive covenants. It went to the Supreme Court, the Supreme Court said, “We can’t change deeds, if it says no black, no Italian, no Jews, no Catholics. It has to sit there as language.” No court in America may hold that up. It can’t be held up. It’s Constitutionally wrong and it’s psychologically and sociologically and humanly wrong. That’s a little more hidden. I don’t know if people know about what I call the segregation wall [Burwood Wall] which is basically four blocks west of Wyoming and two blocks south of Eight Mile, which is now an inspiration, the little piece that’s left. But, some developers built a six-foot-high concrete wall because they could get mortgages on the other side. That kind of thing was hidden. African-Americans had a double line, even if whites could get mortgages, they could. Then you had blockbusting basically with conscious kind of ways of getting it and pressures. Leon Atchison, who just passed away, who was the Director of Recreation and again a major force in my life and other lives and has done a great many things, remembers talking about looking out of his house, which is in northwest Detroit, and seeing an African-American woman with a stroller and three kids walking down the street. He went out to talk with her. She had been hired to walk the street. How does that impact on white flight? Another issue, in the sense, is why African Americans have often followed Jews in this area, in the northwest area, and it has to do with the public social justice commitment of the Jewish community. Those people who disagreed kept their mouths shut. They didn’t picket, they didn’t use violence. Other groups did, and I’m not blaming those groups again; there’s a lot of other reasons for this. So you had that kind of thing and you also had some people who basically would bring people in because they believed in integration, and others who were making money, point blank. Let me say that. And I wonder someday, and I keep asking people, somebody needs to study land contract, and the function that can have, when you have access to credit because you’re a business man versus someone who is perhaps in a corporation or a government job. So that you can move faster. Not true today, but was true then. So the issues of government policy around mortgages, around —which were discriminatory, not just for the individuals, but for the whole development community — and the highways and the way they tore that apart and the policies that made it easier for developers to take a green field. You didn’t have to pull out the pipes underground, you didn’t have to tear down a house or buy something from someone. But if you look at Lafayette Park, it was cleared right after World War Two and it took until the late-almost 1960s, until it began to be built on, because people wanted it. Mortgages, in terms of GI bills of homes, and people wanted individual homes and space at the time and were encouraged to do so, so the whole pattern of the dense pattern in this city. Now I have to take the role of the auto companies. They pulled out the tracks; GM did that in the Twenties. They encouraged the driving; they’re selling cars. They did it for good reasons, both corporate money making and values in terms of that. It gave people individual freedom, that all affected flight, which was primarily white flight, because African-Americans couldn’t move. It’s not that they wouldn’t, they couldn’t move in the same way that whites could, and that’s what we’re still living with today, less so, but we’re but were still living with it today. The patterns get established. That’s why kids are coming back they don’t carry their parents’ and grandparents’ fears at the same level as their parents and grandparents. I spent my life, people saying, “How come you still live in Lafayette Park?" and I argue with it because it’s the right place to live and because I wanted a setting where my kids could meet people that were different than they, not terribly different let’s be honest, here’s the class/race issue, where I could work to make something better, but people ask me still all the time, “You still live in the city?” I say, “Where do you live?” and people - I say and I say “Detroit”, because that’s the piece, go anywhere else, say West Bloomfield, Farmington, Shelby, nobody knows, but you say Detroit.  But basically they say, “What Suburb?”  And I say “I live in downtown Detroit.”  Did I take you where you wanted to go?

NL:  Absolutely.  And further.  I just have one more question before we wrap up and that is could you sort of sum up what’s your views on the state of the city today in regards to everything that we’ve discussed and sort of what your visions are for the near future of the city? Whether they’re hopes or whether they’re trepidations?

HS:  Okay.  If I’m asked what my dreams are, it’s for a regional government and a regional community that is Detroit and its suburbs that is back into at least the 4,000,000 that we have working together and it has good public transportation. We have pieces of it, it’s not quite the right way from my perspective but we’re going to that. I have hopes and dreams, I worry about the plans.  I’m not stopping, but I do worry about my children and grandchildren and I’m using that phrase beyond my personal family. I think we are back in a situation where there are some hopes again because we’re trying very hard to work this. It is the national situation that worries me. The worst decision we’ve made in the last twenty years of the Supreme Court decisions is Citizens United. The ability to buy elections has impacted and the buying elections has removed and hurt voting rights. And it has hurt the way primaries have become gerrymandering and primaries, it has therefore hurt democracy. Citizens United has hurt democracy, and I don’t know how to change it, but I’m willing to try to work on that. So my hopes are we’re in better shape. We’re getting some mass transportation, it’ll probably be bus rapid transit and the people mover and basically the light rail. Hopefully, I hope the light rail will go further, because people psychologically can handle that better. Again historically, we have all kinds of images in terms of buses that make it harder for people to ride and I just got that talked about the other day. So I’ve got hopes, I’ve got dreams. I worry about that is that it’s even harder. Is it harder than it was in ‘68? No. how could it be harder than it was in ‘68?  In a certain sense, we had a city that had been partially burned, destroyed, fear and anger palpable. I don’t have the palpable feeling that I can almost touch it, like I can touch your arm rather than touching the air, but it’s there and hidden. So the answer is what are my predictions? A real long, hard battle as we move forward. Detroit is in better shape.  When people ask me what’s it like in Detroit? I always say, “It’s better than you read about.”  Now interestingly enough today, we’re reading all kinds of little positive stuff, but the thing I want to make sure that happens, the thing I hope that happens and I still try to work on and a lot of people I know do, both black and white and everything, is making sure that the people who have struggled and stayed are really there and that’s the jobs, because the jobs moved further and without public transportation we can’t get it. It’s interesting how the one little story about the guy that was walking miles and miles, you know, got him perhaps rescued, but it’s died down now. Okay, so again if you want to say Detroit is coming back, will it ever be where it was? No. Does it have to be where it was? No. Nothing stays the same. You do not return. It’s a spiral, and I’m hoping that the spiral is moving upward and not at a level.  For a long time we had a spiral that was going down. It was a spiral of degradation. Now I’m hoping that it is a spiral that is perhaps at a parallel, but moving up. There are people who are investing positively, there are people who are continuing to work, there is a better relationship between African-Americans and whites for many of us, but not for all. And I worry about the national policies that impact, because they’re hidden and they affect us and they last for years. I care enough. I’ll give you my epitaph: She cared, she tried, she did. Okay? But if a lot of people don’t do that I’m one person, I’m 78 years old, my kids still do this, they happen to be in other cities, but are still working in different things.  Everybody has to care and find the one thing they can do.  I got asked that last night and I said, “You can’t do it all.” You pick the thing you can do to make not just your life, but someone else’s life better. Going back to ‘67, ‘68, that’s what some of us, not just me, some of us tried to do.  Did we succeed? In pieces. Did we succeed where we should have? No. Are we still struggling in the same battles? Yes. Do we need to have these stories? Yes. And my story is just one story of what I remember and what I lived through and probably even what I’m making up a little bit, because your memory takes you where you want to be. 

NL:  So true.  Well, thank you for sharing your memory with us and your perspectives today. 

HS: Okay.



Levin, Carl


Saperstein, Harriet photo.jpg


“Harriet Saperstein, July 25th, 2015,” Detroit Historical Society Oral History Archive, accessed July 3, 2022, http://oralhistory.detroithistorical.org/items/show/106.

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