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Twelfth Street is going to get a supermarket at last, an event that ranks above even new housing on the agenda for progress in the life of this notorious thoroughfare.
By all accounts, it was a lack of any decent food stores that lay beneath much of the anger that erupted here, in the quiet Sunday morning hours of July 23, l967, into the fire and smoke, the murders and looting of this country’s worst urban riot of the century.
At least 43 persons died in what came to be known locally as ”The 12th Street Riot.” Many of them were shot by the police and 7,000 Michigan National Guard and Army paratroopers who were brought in to quell the four-day riot. Others were killed by rooftop snipers, whose anger did not die with the flames.
Before it was over on the following Thursday, hundreds of stores and slum buildings had been burned and gutted over a 200-block area around 12th Street, 5,000 people were left without even the dirty, crowded houses and apartments that had sheltered them, and Detroit’s name became linked – forever, it seemed – to images of urban misery. Only Store on Street
But today ground was broken on 12th Street for the new supermarket, the first new store, and only store, on the street since the riot. The Detroit Economic Development Corporation, a nonprofit public corporation, put together the public and private financing to attract the Farmer Jack’s chain.
The ceremony today was a sign of the slow rebirth of the street, once the commercial hub of the area known as Virginia Park. ”We as a race have learned survival,” said a woman who identified herself only as Mrs. Wiley. The woman, who has lived in the 12th Street area since 1949 and is a member of the citizens’ council that is at work on neighborhood planning, said that she would not give her first name because any credit for progress belonged to others.
”We have survived through the flames and the ashes and the weeds, and we’re now beginning to see the fruits ripen,” Mrs. Wiley said. ”We’ve had a long wait, but we have learned patience.” Sign of New Life
Mrs. Wiley is right about the fruit, and the new supermarket, promised a decade ago and for so long delayed time and time again, will be a proud ornament on a street where life seemed for so long to have stopped. For there is still acre upon weed-infested acre of empty lots where busy little stores once stood, lining the main street of one of Detroit’s liveliest black neihborhoods.
It was a street, as Betty DeRamus, an editorial writer for The Detroit Free Press, wrote: ”Where wig-wearing women struck poses on corners and smiled at the bug-eyed men in bumper to bumper cars. Where preachers with sound trucks shouted their sermons through long sweaty night while police sirens shrieked. A street of pawnshops with big iron grates. Cancellation Shoe Store. The Chinese hand laundry. Booker’s Market. Cal’s record shop. An outrageous street set smack in the middle of a community, a street that didn’t even attempt to hide its warts.”
All of that is gone now, replaced by open spaces that are just beginning to be be filled with new life. The old street has been widened, and in 1976 became Rosa Parks Boulevard, after the seamstress from Montgomery, Ala., who sparked a civil rights movement by refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man in 1955. Town Houses Being Built
A community center is already in place on the same block as the future Virginia Park shopping center. Work on the last of some 350 subsidized townhouses is under way, and there are some new schools.
To the east, The General Motors Corporation is refurbishing the aged housing stock of its New Center area, and beyond that, work has begun on G.M.’s new 6,000-job assembly plant, which will rise on the site of the old Dodge Main plant.
”This is ours now – we built it,” said Frederick C. Durhal Jr., executive director of the Virginia Park Citizens Council, a local group that pushed for the slow rebirth of the community.
”What is striking is that this resulted from a civil disturbance,” said Mr. Durhal, who disdains to call what happened in 1967 a riot. ”And it is a tribute to the people here. Look at the Watts section of Los Angeles. They had a riot in ’65 and it’s still the same, it’s just as bad as ever. But we said, ‘This is our community and we are going to make it our own.”’
One reason for the determination to make Virginia Park survive may lie in the experiences of the 25,000 people who inhabit its 480 acres. They were the blacks pushed out of other areas to make room for the new construction or redevelopment.
They drifted into Virginia Park, where they jammed into divided and subdivided apartments, overcrowding the area until 60,000 people were compressed into an explosive mixture of squalor and rising anger.
By 1967, the only whites left in Virgina Park commuted there from the suburbs to operate their shops on 12th Street. And after that July, their stores were gone, and so were they.
”After the trouble a lot of people moved out, they got tired of waiting for things to get better,” said Mrs. Wiley. ”But we banded together and said we would not move anymore. This is where we wanted to put our money, and this is where we wanted to have something to hand down to our children and grandchildren. And we did.”
Jessie Turner, a long-time resident of Virgina Park was taking a stroll the other day, watching the preparations for today’s ceremony. He remembers the riot, and believes something good may have come from it after all.”
”We had all the hookers and the dope fiends and the rats out there on 12th Street,” he said, ”and that riot took care of that, didn’t it?”