Site where 1967 uprising began sees new signs of life
On the block where Detroit’s uprising began in 1967, a private development is in the works that could erase the blight and emptiness that’s plagued the street ever since.
The Boston-Edison & Atkinson Business District is an estimated $12 million development planned for Rosa Parks Drive, formerly 12th Street, between Atkinson and Clairmount. The plan would bring back shops, residences and a cultural center.
In 1967, 12th Street was part of a dense strip of small businesses. After five days of looting, arson and violence, those businesses began to vanish from the block, and none replaced them.
“There’s a lot of emotion sometimes when I am here, and now, that emotion includes joy,” said Ray Johnson, as he stood in Gordon Park, the actual spot where the tumult began in 1967.
Johnson was 18 years old that historic summer. He remembers National Guard tanks aimed at his father’s barbershop nearby at Linwood and Burlingame. Johnson is one the principals behind the development.
“It is joy, pride because we are not just doing this for ourselves but the community,” he said.
Around 3:30 a.m. on July 23, 1967, police raided a party above the Economy Printing Shop at the corner of 12th and Clairmount, where the city-owned Gordon Park now stands. The party was for two soldiers returning from the Vietnam War. The location was known by police as a site of a “blind pig,” which is slang for a place hosting illegal, late-night parties.
An angry crowd would retaliate against police, setting off mayhem that included heavy looting, sniping and arson.
The ’67 Detroit uprising — many now call it a rebellion while others still prefer labeling it a riot — resulted in 43 dead, several thousand injuries, and more than 4,000 arrests during an emergency period. Fire heavily damaged residential and commercial areas, including blocks of small businesses on 12th Street.
“Most everything was gone (after the five days in July), the stores were burned and most never opened again,” said Katrina Lockhart, who lived one block away on Atkinson at the time. She recalls by the early 1970s only a party store and small photograph studio remained open on the block of 12th between Atkinson and Clairmount.
The property on the block became so undesirable that by the mid-1970s the city began to take control of some in hopes of coming up with a plan. In 1976, 12th Street was renamed Rosa Parks Boulevard, in honor of the civil rights leader.
In 1982, another part of the former 12th Street business district was reborn into the Virginia Park Community Plaza Shopping Center, located five blocks south of Clairmount and Rosa Parks. The shopping center was the result of years of effort that included residents buying bonds to raise money for the project.
Retail and residences
Two years ago, Lockhart began the seeds of her development plan. The pharmaceutical sales representative started the Karasi Development Group. Karasi, an African word, means wisdom and life.
“I did it because it’s time. There is incredible talent and resources in this community, and we will serve the residents in Boston Edison,” said Lockhart, referring to the neighborhood of historic mansions and stately homes. The development also hopes to draw residents in Virginia Park.
In 2015, Lockhart approached the Detroit Land Bank Authority to buy the last remaining commercial building on the block from 1967. It was slated for demolition.
“They actually didn’t believe I wanted to try and develop something,” she said of her first meeting with city officials. “Someone at the meeting essentially told me ‘Why? There’s nothing there and the building you want is too ruined.’ ”
The city did raze the building, but the talks eventually gave Karasi Development permission to work on the project.
City officials acknowledge they are working with Johnson and Lockhart about the development but declined comment on the plan, which is common before a final agreement is reached between a developer and city-owned land.
The city has already made the necessary zoning changes for the project. Karasi, along with the nonprofit Brothers Always Together, adopted Gordon Park last year, which means they are responsible for its upkeep.
If Karasi’s plan goes as intended, three new mixed used buildings will be constructed on Rosa Parks next spring, bringing restaurants and other retail along with 45 new residential units.
The owners of the popular Ethiopian restaurant Blue Nile, with locations in Ferndale and Ann Arbor, have expressed interest in being part of the development.
The first phase is underway on Atkinson, just around the corner from Rosa Parks, with the overhaul of a dilapidated house that will become the Karasi Education & Cultural Center. The group is in talks with the Motown Museum and the Rosa Parks Institute for potential partnerships at the center.
Twelfth Street was just one of the areas in Detroit that has never fulled recovered from the mayhem of 1967. Once thriving business strips on Dexter Avenue, Linwood, Grand River, and Joy still bear the physical scars of abandonment.
About one mile southeast from Rosa Parks and Clairmount is the site of the former Algiers Motel. One of the most notorious incidents of the ’67 violence happened there. Three black men were killed in an annex of the motel at Woodward and Virginia Park. The incident is the basis of the upcoming movie “Detroit,” directed by Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow.
The Algiers was demolished in 1979 as part of the New Center urban renewal project funded partly by General Motors. The property has been an open space ever since.
On Rosa Parks, the ’67 history has become part of the draw for recent investments.
Three years ago, two successful millennials began buying homes on Atkinson. Andrew Colom and David Alade, who formed the development group called Century Partners, bought their first Aktinson property, an empty duplex, in 2016.
The duplex was sold shortly after the ’67 uprising for $15,500, public records show. That’s the equivalent of $110,389 in 2017 dollars. Century Partners bought the property for $29,700 in 2017. That’s the equivalent of $4,170 in 1968 dollars, which means the value of the home plummeted from its value nearly 50 years ago.
Century Partners bought homes on Atkinson for as low as $6,000 and often in the mid-to-low $10,000s in the past two years. Century Partners has fixed up 19 residential units in 10 properties. All but one of those properties were empty before the overhauls. All of their properties are now occupied, with rents ranging from $500 to $1,500 a month.
The strategy appears to be paying off. A house on Atkinson sold last year for $105,000. Other investors have bought properties on the street and are fixing them up.
“It’s the history and the people. It’s connected to my history,” said Colom, who is African-American and originally from Columbus, Mississippi. He was involved in real estate development there before moving to Detroit.
He and Alade, a former Wall Street investment banker, drove through many Detroit neighborhoods before deciding to invest on Atkinson.
“Its location is a real opportunity now,” said Alade, noting it’s next to Boston Edison and near the thriving Midtown area.
Now comes the larger plan by Karasi Development, which is relying on a mix of private, nonprofit and crowd-sourcing for its funding.
The United Auto Workers-Ford Motor Co. unit has already provided funding, Karasi Development said. The nonprofit Detroit Local Initiatives Support Corp., LISC, is providing help in shaping the group’s plan. Karasi is also in talks with the influential Invest Detroit, which is often a key funder in city developments. Other institutions such as Wayne State University to nearby residents are contributing various technical and planning support.
Many are happy to see the historic Detroit block finally be revived, Lockhart and Johnson said.
“We are just one of the stakeholders who want to restore economic vitality and respect the history of the community,” Lockhart said. “You don’t have to be a billionaire to make big, forward change.”