By Robin Schwartz | Jewish News
Vivid memories remain in the hearts and minds of Jewish business owners nearly 50 years after the 1967 Detroit riot — from the jarring sound of broken glass, to the sight of flames and smoke rising over the city, heavily armed military members swooping in, and the fear that ultimately drove tens of thousands of white Detroiters to relocate to the suburbs.
The five days of disorder, destruction and violence that brought commerce to a standstill from July 23-27 left 2,509 stores looted, burned or in ruins. The majority of damaged businesses were grocery stores, 611 in all, along with hundreds of cleaners and laundromats, clothing stores, department stores and furriers, liquor stores, bars and lounges, drugstores, furniture stores and other businesses.
Before the riot, Jews owned 78 stores or 15 percent of the businesses in the 12th Street area alone. By Day Five of the uprising, only 39 Jewish businesses remained.
“A lot of people believed that black-owned stores were spared because a lot of black store owners wrote ‘Soul Brother’ on their doors, but that really isn’t true. Stores were looted indiscriminately,” says Danielle McGuire, an award-winning author and associate professor of history at Wayne State University. McGuire is working on a book about three black teenagers murdered at the Algiers Motel during the riot. The boys were shot and killed by Detroit police.
“People [who rioted] really saw all store owners as exploitative with high prices, high interest rates and a pattern of treating certain customers with disrespect,” McGuire continues.
Some businesses remained intact simply because workers took up arms to protect the properties. Bruce Colton of Bloomfield Hills remembers that all too well.
“Six months before the riot, my dad bought a case of shotguns,” he recalls. “I asked him, ‘Why are you doing this?’ and he said, ‘Times are not looking so good and someday we may need them.’ Boy, was he right!”
Colton’s father, Sol, and grandfather, Isaac Liebson, founded Domestic Linen Supply in 1926. The company had one plant at 3800 18th St. in Detroit; they laundered and supplied uniforms, towels, aprons and linens to Detroit businesses. In 1967, Domestic Linen Supply employed about 100 people, half of whom lived in nearby neighborhoods.
“When the riot started, we picked up some key employees and went down to the facility and set up with the shotguns to protect the property,” Colton says. “They were burning down buildings all around us. There was no law and order.”
Colton says his family gave workers “war pay,” which amounted to triple their normal wages, so they would sit up on the roof with shotguns. Some stayed overnight. A building across the street, which the company used for storage, burned to the ground. But, the main plant remained unscathed.
“There were a lot of people who wanted to save the business so they would have a job,” Colton says. “You’d fire off a shotgun blast or two and people went someplace else.”
When the smoke cleared, a number of the company’s customers were shut down. But business and deliveries slowly started up again. Domestic Linen Supply received some insurance money for their burned storage building but opted not to rebuild; instead, they turned the land into a parking lot. Colton watched as a steady stream of residents and businesses moved out of the city, but his company stayed. They still have the Detroit location to this day.
“We had a lot invested in that facility, all of our machinery,” he says. “It would have cost a fortune to move it.”
Now called Domestic Uniform Rental, the multi-generational family business continues to grow and thrive. Today, their headquarters are in Farmington Hills; they own eight processing facilities, including the Detroit plant, and have customers in 14 states.
Near Ground Zero
Parker Brothers Shoes and Menswear was near ground zero — at 12th Street and Clairmount Avenue — in the building right next to the unlicensed, after-hours bar (known as a ‘blind pig’) raided by police, touching off the riot. Lester Shindler, 89, of Farmington Hills owned the store. His father-in-law, Julius Parker, had opened it decades earlier.
“We sold men’s, women’s and children’s shoes, men’s clothing, shirts and pants, suits, and we had a shoe repair,” he recalls. “Leather shoes, made in America, were $7.99, Levis were $2.99, and work shirts were 99 cents.”
On the night of the riot, as buildings burned all around them, Parker Brothers was one of the only stores to remain standing. But, the solid brick structure with three ground-level storefronts and three second-floor apartments sustained plenty of damage.
“Four days later, we came back and the whole store was completely destroyed,” Shindler says. “The windows were all broken. The display cases were smashed. They looted us and we lost everything.”
Determined to remain in business, with the help of nine employees, Parker Brothers reopened. But, the shop could not afford the high cost of insurance. Shindler sold clothing and shoes from the corner of the burned-out block for about a year until 1968, when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Police told him that afternoon, “You’d better leave.” He did. And that was the last time he saw the store intact.
“By the time I got home, Guardian Alarm called,” he recalls. “They said, ‘They hit your store. Don’t come back.’”
Shindler never returned. He donated the building to the city for a recreation center (he would drive by years later only to find it had been demolished) and bought Brody’s Camp Supplies and Custom Printing in 1969. His loyal workers were left without jobs. He remained in touch with several families and even attended the funerals of two former employees, but the lack of an adequate bus system to transport people from the city to the suburbs and back prevented them from moving with him. The same was true for many businesses.
“Most [of our employees] didn’t have transportation,” Shindler says. “One came and worked for me for a little while, but it just didn’t work out.”
Brody’s moved from Oak Park to West Bloomfield in the late 1970s. Today, it remains a popular business on Orchard Lake Road, owned and operated by the Shindler family.
Heading For The “Hills”
David Broner of West Bloomfield believes his family’s business, Broner Glove Company, was spared because of its close proximity to three schools, just across the street. The business, founded in 1933 by his grandfather, Harry, and father, Barney, was located at 7501 Linwood St. During the riot, he could see military personnel and equipment stationed on the nearby school football fields.
“They were patrolling the streets because of the unrest. They had the National Guard with all kinds of Jeeps and equipment,” he says. “Our building didn’t have a scratch — but, when we went back to where our customers were, a lot of them were completely destroyed.”
At the time, Broner had young children, two sons ages 2 and 4. He remembers the feelings of fear and uncertainty that kept many people home from work.
“My wife didn’t want me to go to work — we really didn’t know what was going on,” he says. “There was a curfew and people were afraid to go out. It was an unsafe time; people were scared and they didn’t know what to do — were they going to reopen or close? Did they have insurance? Could they afford to reopen?”
Amid the turmoil, the Broners received an offer they couldn’t refuse. The church next-door was thinking about expanding and wanted to know if they were selling their building. The family did sell and moved the business to Ferndale, keeping their workers onboard. Relatives, including Harry and Goldie Broner and an aunt and her husband who lived in the building, moved to Oak Park. In 1978, the company relocated to Troy. Now called Broner Hat and Glove, with a division known as Broner Glove and Safety, the business employs 60 people and is based in Auburn Hills. David’s son, Bob, and daughter, Stephanie Miller, are the fourth-generation owners.
“[The riot] set everything back,” Broner says. “It set people who lived in those neighborhoods back, many lost jobs. They had no place to shop. It set businesses back because they had all this damage.”
A 1997 New York Times article about the 30-year anniversary of the riot described the ripple effect this way: “Hundreds of burned or looted businesses were never rebuilt. Tens of thousands of Detroiters moved to the suburbs, including many middle-class and affluent families. The city’s tax base shrank and the quality of its schools declined. ‘Whatever damage you inflict to your own city, it is likely to remain permanent,’ said then-mayor Dennis Archer, ‘because in the very same areas where there used to be flourishing businesses, they do not exist today and, in the very same areas where there used to be dense housing units, they no longer exist today.’”
Douglas Bloom of Birmingham, immediate past president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, tells a riveting story of his own. Bloom’s uncle, Stanley Imerman, owned a business called Imerman Industries that manufactured auto parts, brake products and more. They also had a government contract to make bomb fuse adaptors. As a result, paratroopers guarded the factory during the riot, preventing any damage.
“We were Up North and, as we flew in, I saw through the window that the city was on fire, everything was burning,” Bloom says. “When I got to work in the morning, I had to call up the Chrysler missile plant and tell them we needed protection. This big Army truck showed up and they dropped off these paratroopers and we cooked food for them. They didn’t have ammunition in their guns, but nobody knew that.”
The 100,000-square-foot, two-story building at Lafayette and Mount Elliot was not damaged. But, Bloom, a graduate of Mumford High School, had his own brush with danger one evening while driving home from work.
“I got shot at,” he says. “I was driving home on Jefferson and they were shooting from a building on the right side of the street. A bullet went right above my car — I heard it zing by — and I was in traffic. The police said, ‘Get out of your car and get behind it,’ which I did. They used rifles to take out the shooter. They just shot into the window [where the gunfire was coming from] and there was no more shooting in the street. I got back in my car and went home.”
Within a few short days, the family had decided to move their entire operation to Mack and Conner, where they had another building. But, they made a conscious decision to remain in Detroit.
“A lot of our employees took a bus to work,” Bloom says. “[Making it easier for them to get to work] was important to us. We already had a factory on Mack and Connor, so that’s why we chose to stay in Detroit.”
The company went out of business in the 1980s, but Bloom took all of the same employees and formed another manufacturing company, Bar Processing, which he sold in 1999.
During the tumultuous time, the Jewish community was involved in efforts to repair the damage and help people put their lives back together. Jewish Vocational Services (JVS), which will celebrate its 75th anniversary in the coming year, “provided services to those who lost jobs or businesses during Detroit’s civil disturbances,” according to the nonprofit organization’s historical timeline. Specifics were not available at press time.
A 1997 Detroit Jewish News article on the 30th anniversary of the riot mentions the role Jewish business leaders played in trying to find solutions and ease tensions. The late Stanley Winkelman, whose department store, Winkelman’s, was looted during the riot, was one of them.
“Shortly after the riots, Winkelman became a charter member of New Detroit, a coalition of business and community leaders [including labor leaders and political radicals], founded at the request of then-Gov. George Romney and Mayor Jerome Cavanagh,” the article says. “New Detroit was assigned to identify and address the root cause of the disturbance. According to Winkelman, New Detroit enjoyed substantial progress early on, but its effectiveness dissipated over the years as business involvement declined and its mission was diluted.”
Today, led by the efforts of Dan Gilbert, founder and chairman of mortgage giant Quicken Loans (whose family of companies employs 15,000 team members downtown), Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and others, businesses, jobs, shops, services and a sense of optimism are returning to the city.
Since 2014, several Fortune 500 companies, including Ally Financial and Fifth Third Bank, have established their headquarters downtown and retail stores like Nike and John Varvatos have opened on Woodward Avenue, along with dozens of restaurants and other businesses. Five decades later, while the scars of the riot remain, there is new hope Detroit will finally see the comeback so many have been hoping for.
Historical data was taken from Violence in the Model City by Sidney Fine (Michigan State University Press; 1989).