In this interview, Donna Palmer discusses growing up in Detroit’s University district, more specifically the changes that she’s seen the area go through over time and what she expects to see moving forward.
Detroit Historical Society
Detroit Historical Society
Donna Palmer was born in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania in 1942, and later moved to Detroit, more specifically the University District when she was 10 years old, and has remained a resident ever since.
SS: So where and when were you born? DP: I was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 1942. SS: When did you come to Detroit? DP: I came to Detroit when I was 10, so probably around 1959 SS: Is there a main reason that you came to Detroit? DP: My mother came here so she brought me here when I was little, so she moved here for a better life SS: Had you heard anything about the area, any expectations before you came to Detroit? DP: No, I was just too young to even think about it, I just went where she took me SS: What was your first impression? DP: You know Detroit was really a popular place to be, I mean it was the motor city everyone was coming here and job opportunities for everyone here, so it was really a nice place to be. Neighborhoods were good. I came from an area in Pennsylvania that was mostly Italian, so when I moved here the neighborhoods were mixed so it was an easy transition for me, no problems with that. SS: What neighborhood do you live in now? DP: I live in the U of D district; college park district they call it. What do they call it the Palmer Park district. SS: When did you move there? DP: I probably moved in there, probably 1969, or something like that. SS: What brought you to that neighborhood? DP: We were just moving to get into a better neighborhood, it was a Jewish neighborhood mostly when we moved in there, very good neighborhood, good place to raise your kids, started a family, buying a house. SS: What was your first impression of that neighborhood compared to the first neighborhood that you moved into? DP: It was basically about the same, so that the years between when I first came here to the city of Detroit, and when I moved to the college park area things had changed during that time, we had the riots in that area, where I moved from the area was going down the neighborhood was changing and I was married and I had children, was beginning to have a family and I wanted to be in an area that was better for my family. So there was like all the years of decay and all the things changing in the old neighborhood. SS: What were some of the things that you liked to do for fun? DP: I like to go to the museums, I like concerts, but I don’t go as much as I used to because I have problems getting around, but I like concerts, I don’t like crowds, I don’t like large crowds in downtown Detroit, I try to stay away from that area because of all the crowds. SS: Are the any places in the Palmer park area that you like to visit frequently? DP: In the Palmer Park area? No I usually don’t go around there either, I used to when we first moved over here because it was a nice place to go and bring your family in evenings and have a picnic but now with all the garbage, all the things that go on there I don’t go there now any more. SS: When would you say, around what time that started changing? DP: I don’t know, lets see, the last time we had a family reunion out there, it had to be about 10 or 15 years ago. We just stopped going, it was dirty, lot of homosexuals and prostitution going on in that area, things you don’t want your kids to see. They had a nice swimming pool over there, and we used to go and let the kids swim, and then the pool was not cleaned and dirty so if I take my grandkids anyplace we go to Metro park out in Macomb county, you know and we don’t go to Belle Isle SS: So currently do you do a lot of your shopping around where you live? DP: There’s actually no place to do shopping. It was nice they opened up a Meijer on 8 mile where the old state fair grounds used to be. That was another fun place to go back then, but you noticed that they moved. So I imagine Detroit is changing, I’ve gone through downtown Detroit and have seen a lot of the changes which was long overdue, Comerica park, little ceasers arena, places like that where people aren’t coming back. We go down there sometimes for the ice show or Disney on ice or whatever they have down there we go down there for that which is fun. If there’s a concert down there Ill go down for that but I see it changing and it was a fun place to go to the state fair, I was really saddened when they closed it, I said how can you do that after all these hundreds of years of being in the same spot, but then they put a Meijer there which is good because it services not only Oakland county but the ins of Wayne county can go there to shop. I usually don’t shop there, If I shop I go to Livonia, or either I go down river towards Taylor that’s where I shop. SS: You said you enjoyed the state fair grounds, do you have any specific fond memories? DP: They used to have the nicest concerts there, I mean really good concerts. Lots of really fun stuff to do for the whole family. They used to have family days and things there so it was really nice. SS: What school did you first go to when you moved to Detroit? DP: I can’t remember the elementary school, but the junior high school was Jefferson Junior High School, the High School I went to was Murray Wright, and I graduated from Murray Wright, and it was good when I went, it was a good school. SS: So you would say you enjoyed your experience throughout school? DP: Yes, it was good experience. A lot of fun stuff to do. Back then was the Motown, the birthing of Motown so I remember lots of times when they would have like the groups that are famous now were not famous back then the temptations, the vandellas, the Supremes and all those groups we used to have dances where they would have competitions and they would win prizes and they were just starting out just groups starting out that no one had hear of, so Berry Gordy and Motown all that was then and that’s when we had so much fun. All my friends and us. Poodle skirts, do you remember those with bobby socks and ponytails SS: You said there’s been a lot of change in your time there, what are some of the most noticeable changes to the neighborhood (university district)? DP: I think underneath everything, the neighborhood is basically the same, except the Jewish and the white families moved out and black families, it’s a more black neighborhood, the north west area where black families are there, and the families that are there have been there for a long time, they’re not, and the neighborhood has not decayed so we don’t have empty houses or boarded up houses in that area. Its still solid, and even the house are good build, solid build compared to the new houses that they’re putting up now, the new houses that they’re putting up now are made out of fabricated stuff and the older houses are nice brick and mortar houses, the big bad wolf would have a hard time blowing down. So the house are good, they’re good and sound, the prices of the houses did go down if you look at the average price I guess in some of the areas you can get into $100,000 $ 200,000 maybe $300,000 if you’re talking about the Palmer Park area they could be worth a half a million those houses are still nice and sturdy. If you talk about the Boston Edison area which is all part of that north west area those houses are good solid houses but over the years they have depreciated and it needs a lot of work to bring them up to the way that used to be. My house is an older house, I would think it was built in about 1945 but I’ve been told that my house is nice and solid so if you talk about with your wireless stuff going through walls the walls are so thick sometimes that you can’t hook up to wireless communication to go through the walls you usually need an adapter to relay the waves, but the houses are nice and thick, they’re nicely built, people are still in them and the ones that the people, when I was there, there kids are in the houses now, so the kids are adults and they’re in the houses. Their parents have either moved out or went to Florida or some other place where its warm and given the house to the kids. And the kids are adults with their families so its like second and third generation that’s being raised in the houses so the area is nice I mean some of the stores on Livernois, the Avenue of Fashion that was a key spot, the Avenue of Fashion that runs from probably 6 mile all the way to 8 mile road its all coming back. merchants are coming back; stores are opening they’re having celebrations. I’ve seen where there’s a, used to be a [Bseegles?] that we all used to shop at, that was the place to be, that’s why they called it the avenue of fashion, and Bssegles, that was the bomb that was the place to buy all your clothes, nice clothes, and then it shut down and that whole corner now is being renovated. Someone bought it I think the owner is like the daughter or the granddaughter of the original owner and she held on to it so I think now they’re going to make restaurants and put in apartments there, then I heard that the apartments are going to go for like U of D and Merrygrove faculty people, so its gonna go, I see a lot of renovation in Detroit. Wayne State, wow. They’re expanding and expanding and I see them coming up all over, so I see, and I’m so glad that Wayne State stayed solid and they’re still there because there were times were it was kind of rough, enrollment was down and now their enrollment is up and a lot of students wouldn’t go to Wayne State they were actually going out of state to college, you know they had a problem “I don’t want to go to school at home” but Wayne State has changed a lot. U of D has changed a lot. Merrygrove I understand they’re cutting out their masters program and doing just undergrad. U of D has changed a lot, they’re in the same spot. They used to be when I was taking classes at U of D, they were on outer drive and Southfield Freeway, that huge place there, now that’s Wayne County Community College they bought out so I am so glad I’m still and Alumni of U of D as well as Wayne State. I am more involved with U of D than I am with Wayne State so I am still active in their alumni association for both colleges but I can see it changing. SS: Are there any renovations being made to U of D itself? DP: I don’t know if there’s renovations being made to U of D itself, I can’t see U of D spreading out I think they’re just in that one, you know just the campus there on 6 mile and Livernois, unless they made some changes within, but because I’m an alumni sometimes I’m asked to come back when they have those new students coming in to talk, especially my program there was in, actually my degree is in industrial organizational psychology, so we have people coming back that’s in that area that we come back and fellowship with. SS: What are some of the main things you would like to see changes about your neighborhood today? DP: I can’t really say, I’m worried about that spot there on Livernois because I belong to the neighborhood group and I get the news letters, but for years I worried about what they were going to do with that Livernois and 7 mile area, but now I see it coming through. I think they were supposed to do that years ago, there might have been some money allocated to improve that area the neighborhood, I’d like to see more of that money put in the neighborhood rather than just in the businesses, I would like them to put more into the neighborhoods, I would like to get some grants too to fix up my house, and you know make some changes in my house, but the houses that were empty there, one of those banks, they’re like land banks, they kind of take these houses and fix them up and then they sell them, so these houses are really not empty that long, and I see than changing but I’d like to see more of it. More of you putting money into the neighborhood. There must be something there that a lot of people are trying to buy those houses. I see the neighborhood changing like last night, and its not that I’m a racist or anything but I’ve seen a white man riding his bike down the street, I see a lot of white family’s now coming back, I see a lot of bike clubs, what do they call it, bicycling through the neighborhood, and you know the question that I probably that I say to myself in my head is I wonder why they’re here, but then I have to realize that the neighborhood could be changing back. I would hate to see the blacks move further out because the whites are coming back in. The city of Detroit is changing and they’re coming back to the downtown area. I have gone downtown a lot of times when there’s hockey games and stuff and I see a lot of whites coming back downtown because its becoming safer and there’s more things down there to get involved in. I see them coming back, I see the neighborhood changing. SS: During your time in the neighborhood was there ever a time where you felt you wanted to move out? DP: Never. Never. Never. I’m not moving out, I told my kids they can try and get me to move out there 18 and a half mile road, I said no. “Sell the house ma and move out” no. I have two houses, I have my mothers house, which my daughter lives and and then my house. I said I’m not selling either house and I’m not moving out. Now, if I get to a point in life where I cannot get around, and I absolutely cannot handle being in a house with up and down, with two floors, then I’ll get an apartment somewhere but I’m thinking where. I would love to move downtown in those apartments but they are very very expensive, very expensive, even if you’ve got a loft they are very expensive and so my thing is why should I go out and pay 2 or 3 thousand dollars a month rent when I’m here for free and my house is paid for. So until I get to that point I have to figure out a way that I can maneuver that if I decide to go that way but I think its an awful a lot of money to pay for rent, those rich people can pay that. Those doctors and lawyers, those doctors that work at the DMC and all that they want to live downtown close to their jobs they can pay that, I can’t pay that. SS: Do your kids still live in the area? DP: I have one son that lives in Pontiac and one son that lives in Houston, and then my daughters are here in Detroit, in fact my one daughter just bought a house and my other daughter is living in my mother’s house, why buy a house when I can live in grandma’s for free. SS: Is there ever a time where you felt uncomfortable in your neighborhood? DP: Oh yeah, crime rate yeah, breaking in, you know, but I can’t even say just my neighborhood, it happens now in all neighborhoods. So where can I run and why would I run and hide from what’s happening, just the neighborhood is changing. We just have to clean it up, we just have to get rid of those misfits. I mean I shop at the Walmart on Middlebelt, Plymouth and Middlebelt, that’s where the old lady 88 years old got beat up, mugged and they stole her car. So its out there you can’t even go in the broad open daylight. So these guys if they’re going to rob you and they’re going to make it unsafe for you they’re going to do it anywhere and they have done it. So it’s unsafe, you just have to watch your back take safety measures, like putting in a ring door bell, like putting in ADT cameras all around your house, you know, like getting in your house at a certain time at night, not being out dilly dallying around. My neighbor across the street got robbed in her driveway. Why, because she came in late and had packages in the trunk of her car, so there she was bent all over in the trunk of her car getting the packages out. She says she’s seen these 3 guys coming down the street but it didn’t dawn on here because my neighborhood is fairly safe, but they were up to no good, and they robbed, they robbed her of her purse, they didn’t take her car or anything like that, but it’s unsafe a lot of places you go, so I’m not going to say just Detroit. I could get robbed in Oakland County too, the only thing about it is if I got robbed in Oakland county I might get a quicker response from the police department but my house is already in that area, a lot of the houses are on alert, so the police are there quickly I can honestly say that. My alarm went off accidently and they were there. I mean she called me, the operator called me on the phone for ADT but I didn’t punch it and you know set it off, and she asked me if I was ok and I told her yeah, she said the police were already on there way so they had already been alerted and then they came up, you know as soon as I was talking to her, so I can say that I get quick police response there. SS: Well I think that’s all I have for today; I really appreciate you taking the time to talk about this. DP: Yeah it’s just Detroit is changing and I hope I’m around to see it completely changed because I see it turning around, it’s turning around, we still have some little things that we have to critique, police time the EMS time, you know stuff like that we really have to do that, neighborhood watch, watch your neighbors all that kind of stuff, until we feel safe that we don’t have to do that anymore, but my neighbors watch me. You know I find all types of things that I can do to protect myself and I tell them all the time the neighborhood watch group, if you’re coming in and you think you’re gonna be robbed push your panic button on your car. No thief wants to be there when that thing is going off, and while it’s going off your neighbors are going to be nosey and look out the window, so if you do that and push the panic button and then throw your keys away somewhere where they can’t get them and turn it off. They’re gonna run, so you have to think of all kinds of stuff to protect yourself and you need to tell. If you know something and you see something tell, tell it. A lot of them say well “snitches get stiches” no, they make your neighborhood safe so tell. That’s about it Detroit is good.
“Donna Palmer,” Detroit Historical Society Oral History Archive, accessed July 3, 2022, http://oralhistory.detroithistorical.org/items/show/718.