Blight by Association: Why a White Working-Class Suburb Changed Its Name

In this, the fourth and final entry into the Fourth Annual Urban History Association/The Metropole Graduate Student Blogging Contest, Kenneth Alyass turns a skeptical lens towards the stretches one Detroit suburb made to justify a name change—and asks the reader to also stretch and see that the ‘burb’s supposedly colorblind arguments were anything but.

In August of 1994, Kenneth Coleman Jr., a reporter for the Detroit-based African American newspaper, the Michigan Chronicle, asked: “Is Macomb County a Bastion of Racism?” White residents of the suburban county north of Detroit denied it, but the long history of racism and segregation analyzed by Coleman said otherwise. Named after one of Detroit’s largest eighteenth-century slaveholding families, Macomb County was a center of postwar national conflicts over racial segregation, suburban development, and the urban crisis. More than half a million whites migrated out of Detroit and into the suburbs after World War II. Their tax dollars and consumer habits fueled the development of a landscape dotted by ranch houses, malls, and office parks. Meanwhile in Detroit, deindustrialization shuttered factories and corporate decentralization emptied out office buildings. Simultaneously, many whites vehemently and violently resisted attempts at desegregation such as cross-district bussing and affirmative action. But most accepted defeat and moved out into the suburbs where a mixture of grassroots resistance, anti-regionalist politics, and zoning practices ensured that, for the time being, the area would remain lily white. Two separate sociopolitical entities emerged: a “Chocolate City” reflective of the miseries of urban America in the late twentieth-century, and a loosely affiliated white suburban alliance bent on safeguarding their racial and economic privileges and territory.[1]

Coleman paid particular attention to East Detroit—a white, working-class, border suburb on the city’s northside. It was a landscape of cookie cutter frame houses and small industrial shops populated by retired autoworkers, local factory workers, and, increasingly, retail and healthcare employees. In 1982, a group of East Detroiters organized to change the name of their town, first to Erin Heights and later to Eastpointe. George Lawroski, leader of the Name Change Committee (NCC) and a retired tank plant supervisor, explained that they were tired of being associated with Detroit. “We should have our own identity,” Lawroski argued, so that the suburb could disassociate with the “crime and financial difficulties facing the big city.” But the large green lawns and stately manors of the Grosse Pointes—the wealthy, “old money” suburbs of Detroit—seemed far away from the light industry and tract housing of East Detroit. The only similarity was that East Detroit, like the Grosse Pointes, was overwhelmingly white; only 87 of the 35,283 residents were black. However, organizers advocating the name change never said a word about race.[2]

Eastpointe, MI, August 2018. Google Maps.

The rhetoric around the name change was highly racialized despite Lawroski and the NCC’s colorblind language. It was quality of life, they argued, and not racism that motivated the name change campaign. But historians of postwar metropolitan America have pointed out how seemingly “colorblind” issues—such as the name of a city—were, in fact, about discrimination and segregation. David Freund argued that suburban whites learned to view racial discrimination as a “legitimate response to the needs of the market,” and thus worried that changes in the racial geography of the region would bring urban problems, like crime and blight, into the suburbs. Earlier strategies to enforce racial segregation, such as intimidating new black homeowners through violence and protest, failed. Racial transition occurred in spite of the violence, but also the changing national conversation on race in the late twentieth century made violent efforts unpalatable to a population increasingly accustomed to racial diversity in popular culture. These working-class suburbanites had to stretch to find new, seemingly race-neutral ways to articulate their anxieties over racial integration and their solutions to preserve segregation.[3]

“It’s better to emulate a prestigious community than a crime and slum city like Detroit,” said Lawroski. This dog whistle was in response to black suburbanization in the 1980s and 1990s. A black middle-class moved into nearby suburbs of Southfield and Oak Park after three decades of heated conflicts over integration. Residents thought Warren, Hazel Park, and East Detroit—three white, working-class suburbs—would be the next to undergo demographic change. All three cities had a history of resisting racial integration and were at the center of the metropolitan-wide desegregation efforts in the early 1970s that came to a halt following Milliken V. Bradly in 1974. Yet, rather than embracing the loud and sometimes violent resistance of Warren and Hazel Park, the efforts of the NCC demonstrated a discontinuity with how white working-class suburbanites sought to reinforce their municipal boundaries and preserve racial geographies. East Detroiters adopted a strategy similar to that of the neighboring wealthy suburbs of the Grosse Pointes: neutralize race in these conversations and justify discrimination and segregation through quality of life arguments rather than overt violence and racism.[4]

Detroit 1939 Redlining Map, Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC). See Robert K. Nelson & Edward L. Ayers, Mapping Inequality: Redlining in New Deal America.

The NCC began by gathering signatures to put the issue on the ballot. Meanwhile, local East Detroiters shared their opinions on the issue with reporters: Peggy Kimm, 40, pragmatically expressed that “for the sake of a few who want this change, it is a ridiculous waste of money – it could be better used for streets and sewers.” Gregory Garrett, 63, offered sheepish support for the change: “I travel a lot and have nothing against the name of East Detroit, but people out of state do tie into Detroit.” Garrett agreed that the national reputation Detroit had garnered in recent decades certainly influenced the way the region perceived East Detroit. Bordering the metropolis recently caricatured as the “Murder City” was bad enough but being mistaken for residents of the city was intolerable.[5]

Not all residents were on board. Early in 1984, Charles Bradley formed the Save Our Name Committee (SONC) to challenge the NCC in court. He claimed that the petition signatures Lawroski gathered were invalid due to a technical mistake. The city council and mayor stood with SONC and refused to put the name change on the ballot. Both opposed the measure by arguing that the name change would cost the city and local businesses at least $100,000 and that there was no real difference either way. “There’s East Detroit and there’s the East Side of Detroit…if people can’t differentiate, that’s their own fault,” a local resident sipping a beer at a VFW hall said in agreement with the council. But Michael Abke, a 32-year-old autoworker who had recently purchased a home in East Detroit, felt differently: “Like everybody else, I don’t want to be confused with Detroit.”[6]

By the summer of 1984, Lawroski and the NCC managed to get the name change on the ballot. They proposed the name “Erin Heights,” a nod to the nearby, growing suburb of Sterling Heights. It was intended to cast East Detroit as a “place of eminence,” Larowski said, as opposed to a dot under the cloud of a city “known world-wide as a crime capital of the U.S.” It also harkened back to the Irish immigrants that settled in Detroit in the 1840s, a historical tidbit the NCC regularly advertised in flyers. The connection to an Irish past was odd given that most East Detroiters were decedents of Polish, German, and Italian immigrants. Since Detroit was associated with Blackness, and consequently criminality and social disorder, the name Erin Heights reflected the city’s long history as a proud white enclave, as opposed to a Chocolate City like Detroit.[7]

The vote failed, with two residents voting against the name change for every one in favor. The town’s name stuck with people. Many were unconvinced that “Detroit” marred their community’s image. The NCC regrouped after the failure and revived the effort in 1987, only to lose again for many of the same reasons—albeit at a lower margin than in 1984. This time, however, they were inspired to continue their fight into the new decade by what they considered to be Detroit’s further spiral into decline. And they had a new name, one picked in a city-wide contest designed to stir up support for the name change: Eastpointe.[8]

In 1991, they finally succeeded when residents narrowly voted to change the name of the city. Low turnout may have contributed to the NCC’s victory, but between 1982 and 1991, 7,000 people moved away from East Detroit, leaving behind boarded up shops and empty homes. Population loss compounded with the early 1990s recession; the confluence of these two factors likely had an impact on the vote. East Detroit, as Lawroski and the NCC argued, had begun to look similar to Detroit.

Perhaps residents accepted Lawroski’s claim that a new city identity and image would “protect your financial investment” and that it only made sense considering that “We (East Detroit) don’t have riots, Devil’s Night and those other things that give Detroit such a bad image.” City manager Wesley McAllister Jr. seemed to agree. He hoped the name change would spark a “renaissance” for the city. To celebrate, Eastpointe hosted parties and a raffle, and unveiled three new signs welcoming visitors and passers-by to the “City of Eastpointe – Gateway to Macomb County.” “It’s a suitable, beautiful name,” said Lawroski. “It just sounds nice.”[9]

It is unclear if property values actually rose as a result of the name change. “They can only improve,” Lawroski speculatively commented. It did not really matter, though, because the city had to be disassociated from Detroit. “If my name were Hitler, I’d want to change that too,” Lawroski concluded.[10]

Charles Bradly, former leader of SONC, begrudgingly acknowledged that racism was a “small” factor in the name change, but noted that greed and the racialized logic of the real estate industry pushed the name change forward. He remarked that realtors “wanted to capitalize on the profit to be made from a name change.”[11] Bradley’s comment is telling. As the long history of racism in the northern suburbs demonstrates, anti-Blackness was the major driver behind the name change precisely because white suburbanites often tied racial geography directly to how the market valued property and communities. Detroit became dangerous, even to those who lived outside of its boundaries, because suburbanites criminalized and racialized the city. Suburbanites blamed crime in their neighborhood on city criminals who preyed on suburban families; they claimed that blight and litter from Detroit spilled over into the suburbs and believed that black Detroiters were overstepping their racial boundaries as more began to work and live outside of the city.[12]

Changes in Racial Composition of Three County Detroit Metro Area, 1970 to 2000, from US Census.  Ohio State University, Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective.

Perhaps many East Detroiters who may read this will be angry to see their community and history described this way. Some may claim that historians are sticking race into places where it just simply never existed. But one incident that took place shortly after the name change reveals a different way that suburban racism manifested.

In 1994, Tamara Howard, 23-year-old resident of Detroit, was taken into custody by an Eastpointe police officer on Gratiot Avenue, north of Eight Mile Road. After being bailed out by her mother, the two returned to Eastpointe to settle the case with Tamara’s sister. After being fined $210, they left the courthouse and entered their car. One of the officers who arrested Tamara approached them and said, “If you don’t like the judge’s decision, you niggers stay in Detroit.” In shock, they exited the vehicle to see if anyone around them overheard his comments. The officer and his partner once again arrested Howard, as well as her mother and sister. They charged Tamara with assaulting a police officer, and her younger sister with “disorderly conduct.” Protests immediately arose in response, leading many Eastpointe residents to consider the broader implications of Tamara’s experience. A study of traffic violation tickets written by Eastpointe Police between January 1st and June 30th of that year found that 25 percent were given to black motorists despite the city being less than 1 percent black.[13]

At some points in history, the main animus behind moments like the East Detroit/Easpointe name change are accompanied by overt acts of racism like Tamara Howard’s arrests. Most of the time, however, historians must read between the lines to situate seemingly colorblind movements for segregation and discrimination in their historical context. In the case of the name change, suburbanites in the late twentieth-century deployed inherited understandings of how racism does (and does not) operate in the real estate market to demand a symbolic shift that would preserve their racial geography and “quality of life.”

Today, Eastpointe is nearly 40 percent black and has recently elected its first black mayor—a former sheriff of Wayne County. Still, racial tension lingers. The police department faced protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, and the city is still reeling back from charges that it violated the Voting Rights Act in 2010. Its future lies in the mix of black, white, and immigrant residents who, on Facebook and Twitter in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, are trying to form community organizations to discuss racism and are attempting to build a different city, one no longer marred yet shaped by its racist history.[14]

Kenneth Alyass is a PhD student at Harvard University in the Department of History. He studies modern United States history, and focuses on the intersection of the Carceral State, neoliberalism, and race and ethnicity in the late twentieth-century.

Featured Image (at top): Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from East Detroit, Macomb County, Michigan, Sanborn Map Company, Oct. 1947, Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

[1] Kenneth Coleman Jr., “Is Macomb County a Bastion of Racism?” The Michigan Chronicle (Detroit, MI), Aug. 31, 1994; For a general overview of the political economy of the region see B. J. Widick, Detroit: City of Race and Class Violence (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1989); Tiya Miles, The Dawn of Detroit: A Chronicle of Slavery and Freedom in the City of the Straits (New York: The New Press, 2019), 102-103; “Fleeing whites brought the politics of local defensiveness with them to the suburbs, and found protection behind the visible and governmentally defended municipal boundaries of suburbia…It was far more difficult for African Americans to cross suburban lines than it was for them to move into white urban neighborhoods…Window breakings, arson, and threats largely prevented blacks from joining the ranks of working-class suburbanites,” Thomas Sugrue, The Origins of Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), 266-267.

[2] “Is Macomb County a Bastion of Racism?”; “A Day in East Detroit: No Bright Lights, but Families Like It,” Detroit Free Press, Dec. 7, 1980.

[3] See David Freund, Colored Property: State Policy and White Racial Politics in Suburban America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010). By the 1970s, de facto segregation was largely outlawed, and Black political power grew as thousands of African Americans were elected to office, including the first black mayor of Detroit, Coleman A. Young. Alex Haley’s book and subsequent TV adaption, Roots, brought the history of slavery to living rooms across the nation while The Cosby Show and The Jeffersons highlighted the growth of a black middle class during this period. Simultaneously, anti-bussing riots plagued cities like Detroit, Boston, and Charlotte while right-wing politicians began to roll back the welfare state and the gains of the Civil Rights Movement. The War on Drugs and mass incarceration wreaked havoc on inner cities as mass unemployment and concentrated poverty emptied out vast blocks of previously robust neighborhoods in places like Baltimore, New York City, and St. Louis. By the early 2000s, nearly every statistic measuring the quality of black life in America was lower than in the 1960s.

[4] East Detroit City Council Minutes, August 16, 1983, Eastpointe, Michigan, 2-3; “Residents to Vote on Renaming East Detroit,” Los Angeles Times, Nov. 2, 1984; “Black Flight,” Detroit Free Press, May 18, 1986; on the history of black suburbanization see Andrew Wiese, Places of Their Own: African American Suburbanization in the Twentieth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005); David Riddle, “Race and Reaction in Warren, Michigan, 1971 to 1974: “Bradley v. Milliken” and the Cross-District Busing Controversy,” Michigan Historical Review 26, no. 2 (2000): 1-49; Donald Warren, “Suburban Isolation and Race Tension: The Detroit Case,” Social Problems 17, no. 31 (1970): 324-339; “Warren Halts Racial Strife,” Detroit Free Press, June 15, 1967.

[5] “East Detroit: Halfway to a New Name?” Detroit Free Press, Mar. 24, 1983. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, newspapers and political commentators began to refer to Detroit as “Murder City” because of rising homicides: “126 Slain in Two Months: Detroit Becoming Murder Capital of U.S.,” The Globe and Mail (Toronto, ON), Mar. 9, 1971; “Much More on Why Detroit is Murder City,” New York Times, Jun. 16, 1974; “‘Murder City, U.S.A.,’” The Sun (London, UK), Jul. 29, 1977; “East Detroit or Erin Heights? It’s Up to the Voters Now,” Detroit Free Press, Jul. 26, 1984.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid; For the long history of the association of Blackness with criminality see Khalil Gibran Muhammad, The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010).

[8] “Macomb County Results” Detroit Free Press, Nov. 8, 1984.

[9] “Neighbors Charge that the Pointe They’re Trying to Make is Grosse,” Wall Street Journal (New York, NY), Nov. 7, 1991; “East Detroit Reaches for Upscale Image, Reborn as Eastpointe,” Chicago Tribune, Jun. 22, 1992.

[10] “City Puts 8 Mile in Rearview Mirror,” Detroit Free Press, Nov. 7, 1991; “What to Call Home?” Detroit Free Press,Dec. 6, 1991; “Restless Suburb Will Get the Pointe,” Detroit Free Press, Jun. 20, 1992.

[11] “Is Macomb County a Bastion of Racism?”

[12] “Is Macomb County a Bastion of Racism?”; “Why Suburbanites Are Locking Doors,” Detroit Free Press, Mar. 21, 1971; “Big-City Crime Creeps Out to Growing Suburbs,” Detroit Free Press, Nov. 4, 1973; “Problems Are Too Many to Be Controlled by Walls,” Detroit Free Press, Dec. 18, 1974; For more on the relationship between Detroit and its suburbs, see Scott Kurashige, The Fifty-Year Rebellion: How the U.S. Political Crisis Began in Detroit (Berkley: University of California Press, 2017).

[13] “Is Macomb County a Bastion of Racism?”; Timothy Bates, “Driving While Black in Suburban Detroit,” Du Bois Review 7, no. 1 (2010): 133-50.

[14] “Eastpointe Agrees to Settle Black Voting Rights Case,” Detroit News, Jun. 4, 2019; “Monique Owens Makes History…Again! Becomes First Black Mayor of Detroit,” Michigan Chronicle (Detroit, MI), Nov. 6, 2019; “Eastpointe Resident Organizers Protest for Racial Justice,” Roseville-Eastpointe Eastsider (Macomb County, MI), Jun. 2, 2020. See the numerous Facebook community groups created in recent years which collectively involve one third of the city’s population.

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