Researching the history of the Black community in Detroit, my hometown, I am struck by the number of commonalities it shares with New York City, particularly Harlem, where I have lived for nearly a generation.
That connection was given a gruesome aspect last week in Detroit, when five young Black men confessed to the beating of a white man. It sent my memory swirling back to Harlem 20 years ago and my coverage of the “Central Park Five,” who also confessed to a brutal attack on a white woman jogger but whose convictions were later overturned.
New York City has agreed to a settlement of $40 million with the five men, who each spent seven to 13 years in prison. Meanwhile, the five young men in Detroit face long prison sentences with little hope of exoneration.
This is the most recent Harlem-Detroit convergence for me, but many of these similarities exist in the past, when Harlem was comprised mainly of African-Americans, which is the current makeup of Detroit.
Both Detroit and New York City were destinations for runaway or fugitive slaves during the 18th and 19th centuries. Sometimes, when the runaways arrived in New York City, they discovered, like Frederick Douglass, the city was no safe haven. Rather, it was necessary to seek refuge further north and across the Canadian border. Detroit was a popular terminus for fugitives after they had safely navigated the Underground Railroad, though they too were often spirited across the river to Canada, especially after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.
In the middle of the Civil War, both cities experienced major race riots and practically for the same reasons: economic and job competition. White men in New York City, mainly Irish, were disgruntled that upon being conscripted to serve in the military, their former jobs were taken by Black workers. In Detroit, the civic disturbance that rocked the city in 1863 was precipitated by a similar wartime situation.
When Harlem was beginning to sprout the first sprigs of its fabled renaissance in the 1920s, Detroit’s storied Paradise Valley was giving birth to its own cultural flowering, which would later mark the emergence of the poet Robert Hayden and the great jazz ensemble McKinney’s Cotton Pickers.
False rumors of racial conflict sparked the riots in Harlem and Detroit in 1943, and in the wake of these disturbances that left many dead and a massive destruction of property, it took the communities years to regain any semblance of social and economic stability. The melding of Harlem and Detroit took on a special significance in the 1960s with the occurrence of the riots, but more positively for the era, there was the productive sharing of a coterie of musicians bred in Detroit and nurtured in Harlem. The Apollo Theater would be a veritable cauldron for the aspiring entertainers groomed by Berry Gordy at Motown. (Broadway’s “Motown the Musical” is a current manifestation, at least symbolically, of a connection between the cities.)
Nowadays, Detroit and Harlem are in the midst of political battles in their 13th Congressional Districts, represented respectively by John Conyers and Charles B. Rangel, senior members of the Congressional Black Caucus. The veteran leaders, each pressured by campaign snafus or heavy breathing challengers, had to fight for their political lives and legacies.
And no matter who comes out on top in the primaries and the subsequent election, the congressmen representing Harlem and Detroit’s 13th Districts will witness communities undergoing dramatic changes in constituencies. Gentrification is as much an issue in Harlem as it is in Detroit, if their cores are compared.
A recent poll of registered voters in Harlem shows that 25 percent are white, making them an increasingly potent voting bloc. If the influx of white homeowners continues at the current pace, Harlem will begin, from a standpoint of color, to look like it did in the 19th century, when whites comprised the majority.
Not too long ago there was a steady flow of whites and people of other colors into Detroit’s downtown and midtown areas, but while the stream continues, it’s far less intense in a residential sense. Rather than seeking a comparison of gentrification between the two communities, it is best to view them through a prism of class, one elected official in Detroit advised.
“As I see it,” he said, “it’s a question of classism and people in Detroit, like folks in Harlem or any place else, the issue is one of parity. So long as there’s a level playing field and equal opportunity, I don’t care who moves in next door if they keep their property up.”
Both Harlem and Detroit are enduring dramatic population decline, and the flock in flight is Black and white residents desiring better schools, safer streets and a place where their middle-class dreams can be realized. During my two separate months of research in Detroit, I saw many of the conditions so prevalent in Harlem. Clearly, poverty, homelessness, infrastructure needs and unrelieved unemployment, particularly of young Black men, are as evident in Sugar Hill in Harlem as they are on the East Side of Detroit.
Even so, there are signs of hope and recovery in both communities—a shared resilience and resurgence that makes my venture so rewarding, so promising. There is a line in a poem by Jessica Caremoore about Malcolm X, “a Harlem man with a Detroit walk,” that once more ties the two communities together.
A Harlem on the rebound can be seen in the renewed neighborhood harmony; increased attendance at community board meetings; and the ever-expanding activism stimulated by newcomers who refuse to tolerate traditionally poor city services, potholed streets, slow assistance at the post office and slow snow removal.
There are indications of improvement in Detroit as well, with local leaders expressing an abiding interest in the plight of the young; the spread of urban gardens in the vast number of vacant lots; and the encouraging, intergenerational dialogue between veteran activists and eager neophytes.
Yes, Detroit is constantly in the news because of the withering fiscal crisis and the woeful bankruptcy, and those stories resonate for Harlem readers in an inescapable way, reminding them of impending doom and how to possibly avoid a similar collapse.
In a few days, I will return to Harlem with a fresh sense of Detroit’s dismay and its gradual rise from the ruins. But all it takes is one trek, one drive through my neighborhood to keep my hometown out of the rearview mirror.