50 years after Detroit riots, poverty is bigger issue today than in 1967

Posted at 10:03 PM, Jun 06, 2017
and last updated 2017-06-06 22:03:49-04

Drive up and down many neighborhood streets in the city and evidence of blight, poverty and hopelessness is available for all to see.

That includes Westphalia, on Detroit's east side, where Pamela Johnson is a singular force at work, clearing the curbside of grass and small trees growing on a street that is largely abandoned.

"It needs to be done," said Pamela Johnson, who has lived on the street for almost a dozen years. "If don't nobody else care about your block, who gong to care about it," she asked.

Johnson lives in one of only four occupied houses on the block, which runs between Gratiot and Nashville.  Located in the 48205 zip code, the vast majority of residents are impoverished.

"I'm going to clean it because I don't want my kids living like that," she told Action News. "It's sad enough they got to live around here with all these raggedy houses but their block don't necessarily have to stay dirty."

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Detroit had the highest poverty level among big cities in 2014. 39.3% percent of Detroit residents were living below the poverty line, just ahead of Cleveland.

That number has ticked up even higher in Detroit in the most recent statistics.

Jeffrey Horner is teaching a class this semester at Wayne State University, focusing on those five violent days in July of 1967.

"The conventional wisdom is that, the powers that be in Detroit really sort of missed all the signals of frustration," said Horner, a lecturer in the school's department of urban studies and planning.

Horner authored a chapter in the new book, Detroit 1967, focusing on the root causes of the rebellion and the state of the city 50 years later.

"You still have maybe even higher amounts of poverty going on in cities, you still have way above average unemployment rates for people of color in central cities than you do within in there whole metropolitan area. In many respects, many things are the same but many things have changed also," he said.

Food insecurity was a concern for many in 1967 and it also remains an issue today, according to Gerry Brisson, president of Gleaners Community Food Bank.

"We fundamentally believe, as we always have, you have to take hunger off the table to get to these other issues that lead to poverty and other systemic problems and that's what we're about," Brisson said.

Gleaners and Forgotten Harvest collect about 40 million pounds of food each year, according to Brisson, which is half the amount needed to make Detroit and surrounding communities food secure.

"Having a system where people know where their next meals are coming from, not only provides the food, but it stabilizes their household," Brisson said.  It gives them the confidence in knowing, I'm going to have enough, so I can focus my efforts on the other things I need to do to be successful."