Revisiting neighborhood destroyed by riots where rebirth is still in reach

Looking back to look forward 50 years after riots

DETROIT (WXYZ) - With 5 weeks to go before the 50th anniversary of the 1967 riots Detroit, there's no doubt there's still a lot of rebuilding to do.

In our Detroit 2020 series of reports Looking Back to Look Forward, we went to one neighborhood destroyed by the riots then, but where families still hold on to hope that a rebirth is still within reach now.

If Detroit streets could talk, you would hear different tales about what happened then and now 50 years later.

Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon says, "Detroit at one point had 1.8 million people , it's under 700,000 now. So we're the only city in America that has had a population decline."

Napoleon is a life-long Detroit resident who has taken politicians new to the city on three hour tours including the likes of Governor Rick Snyder and Mayor Mike Duggan.

Sheriff Napoleon says, "If you want to represent this city and you want me to support you, you need to understand what's going on here."

In 1967 alone 67,000 people packed up and left Detroit and that trend continued for years.

A block we visited on Cortland, for instance, is a tale of then and now. Manicured homes where families have never moved, but if you travel to the end of the block a different story emerges. One of blight and abandonment.

I asked Sheriff Napoleon what did it look like around this neighborhood 50 years ago?

He replied most of the men worked in the automobile industry and had well kept homes with a lot of children in the neighborhood.

We also visited with Willie Jackson who is 57. He has lived on Cortland his whole life. Before the riots it was vibrant.

When I asked what he remembered about when the riots broke out, he told me he was only 7-years-old.

Willie Jackson says, "I thought we was at war you know at that age."

Five decades later Willie sits next to a home filled with squatters on one side and a burned out home on the other.

Sheriff Napoleon says, "What happened in 67, changed Detroit forever."

Willie lives on the same street that Sheriff Napoleon grew up on and where his mom still lives today.

Sheriff Napoleon says, "My mom's been in this same house since 1960 and she's a true representative of what people are feeling here now."

Sheriff Napoleon was only 11 when the riots erupted. His family had just returned home from a trip out of town.

Sheriff Napoleon says, "When we pulled up, there was a tank sitting right across from the house I grew up in and we brought stuff in and the city looked like there was smoke everywhere."

Back then there was a huge grassy field where a young Bennie played baseball within walking distance of his home. During the riots that same field was covered with soldiers, tents and tanks. Now it's filled with overgrown grass and signs of neglect.

Sheriff Napoleon says it's painful to look at the city and the field where he once played as a kid and now it's nothing but grass.

Back then the area that I walked along with Sheriff Napoleon had grocery stores, clothing shops and jewelry stores. Today Jerry's Pizza is the only business that stood then in 1967 and still stands now.

Sheriff Napoleon says, "I think the devastation is so great, that most people who don't live here like I have all my life don't really understand how dramatic the decline has been."

Willie Jackson says, "Basically it was jobs, basically if you knuckle everything down it was jobs, no jobs you lose the people that was here."

I asked Sheriff Napoleon when he thinks about then and now, what's going to be the change maker?

Sheriff Napoleon says, "You have to focus on the neighborhoods, until such time, I love what's happening downtown, midtown, and Corktown, but until you take care about the rest of the town it's not going to be a comeback."

After the riots, thousands of small businesses closed for good and headed for safer areas to reopen.

It's been five decades and many neighborhoods and their surrounding business districts are still in ruins.

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