White flight and what it meant to Detroit in the wake of the 1967 riots

Posted at 5:00 PM, Jul 11, 2017

We continue our Detroit 2020 series on the 1967 riots looking back to look forward.

This time we wanted to explore, white flight and what it meant to the makeup of the city.

Where you lived in the city of Detroit made a big difference as to whether or not you felt the sting of the 1967 riots and more importantly whether or not you felt an urgent need to leave and never look back.

Motown, the Motor City, the D - no matter what you call it, if you travel anywhere in the country and mention Detroit, people usually think of a black urban and crime filled city.

While that image may be changing, thanks to Downtown and Midtown it's hard for many to believe, decades ago in 1940, 90-percent of Detroit residents were white.

Larry Pylar says, "if you were black, you pretty much were like you were French or Spanish or something - you lived in another world."

Pylar was born in Detroit in 1936. He was raised in a lower middle class neighborhood.

"I don't ever remember black people in any of the neighborhoods I lived in," he says.

From the 40s to the 70s lots of black people high tailed it north to escape the harsh Jim Crow laws in the South and to find work. But many were blocked from moving to white areas.

They faced violence or economic discrimination called Redlining.

Those who lived through it say that treatment helped spark the 1967 riots and a mass white exodus from the city.

I asked, "When you think about white families leaving the city of Detroit really in droves what do you attribute that to?"

Larry Pylar says, "Some of it was to get away from the tension and get away from the racial conflict."

By the mid-70s more than two thirds of the students in the Detroit school system were black. Larry relocated his family to Shelby Township.

"We left in '72 and not because I didn't feel safe," Pylar says. "I left because I really didn't like the school system and I had four children in school at the time."

Gail Rodwan and her husband did just the opposite. They moved from Royal Oak here to a grand home in the beautiful Sherwood Forest on the city's northwest side.

I asked, "Did people ever say to you why in the world would you move to Detroit especially now?

Gail Rodwan says, "People have been saying that to us for almost 50 years."

Before the riots the now 100-year-old immaculate neighborhood was nearly all white.

"During that time it was a neighborhood that black people did not live in," Rodwan told me. "You didn't know anybody who lived here who looked like you."

After the riots white flight was frantic. Sixty-seven-thousand people fled in the summer following the uprising, 80,000 more the following year.

It opened the door for black families who only dreamed of owning homes like those in Sherwood Forest. The racial makeup would flip from majority white to 75 percent black over the next decade.

Gail Rodwan says, "It was unheard of for a long period of time, to see a white family move into the neighborhood, but now it's very common."

Gail's daughter Laura returned to buy a here in her childhood neighborhood.

Laura Rodwan says, "We weren't really aware, I don't think, of all the strife and trauma that was going on in the city at the time. I just remember it being a really idyllic childhood."

We saw from family photos that blacks and whites lived here in harmony and when all had given up on Detroit this neighborhood bonded and remained strong together.

Gail Rodwan says, "It's very common to have people say they've lived here more than 40 years."

Gail wrote s book celebrating 100 years of Sherwood Forest and, to her surprise, people are buying it from all over the country.

Gail Rodwan says, "Part of it is that people are interested in reading about Detroit right now  and people are interested in keeping their neighborhoods strong and viable."

Shirley Jackson says, "It made people understand that 100 years as a viable neighborhood is something to be very proud of, particularly in a city that has all of the barriers."

Every year Sherwood Forest has an annual picnic where neighbors old and new come together. They reminisce about the good, the bad and the comeback now on the horizon.

Gail Rodwan says, "I really didn't think I would live to see the day that Detroit was what it is today."