Acid Rhythms

That dim basement office on the west side of Detroit

Joe Molloy. Acid Detroit: A Psychedelic Story of Motor City Music. Repeater Books, 2023.

Detroit was once a city of postcard dreams, the place associated above all others with the rise of the northern Black middle class. It was where, in 1914, Henry Ford made history when he gave autoworkers an unprecedented $5 a day, and then again, in the 1920s, when he hired large numbers of Black migrants moving up from the South. Yet it wasn’t until the boom of World War II that Black workers were hired by the rest of the auto industry en masse. Once the war ended, as federal defense contracts dried up or were diverted to upstart military industries in the Sunbelt, Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler looked at their bottom lines and came to feel that the union movement had won too much. Ford opened its Automation Department in 1947. Automakers took advantage of the brisk new transport routes opened by postwar highway construction to shutter or downsize their centralized Detroit plants, moving production to remote cornfields or to the unionless sunshine of the South.1

Already by the end of the 1940s the city had grown a little emptier. White residents took their tax dollars and receded to the suburbs. Black residents, excluded from housing stock, were cramped into a single neighborhood, Black Bottom, which local authorities saw as a slum ripe for renewal. The city razed it in the early 1950s, running the Chrysler Freeway and the world’s largest collection of Mies van der Rohe buildings right through Hastings Street, the hub of Black commerce and blues-club nightlife.

The new neighborhood, Lafayette Park, remains a beautiful emblem of compact yet spacious urban design: acres of park space encircled by two-story modernist townhouses and residential high-rises with floor-to-ceiling glass walls. As Walter Reuther, the president of the United Auto Workers and the lead backer of the project, argued, the new development promised to house a diverse population, showcasing “how all classes and groups of people could live together in a democracy.” Instead, construction grew too expensive and developers slashed the allotted low-income units — in classic postwar style, the clean Bauhaus aesthetic lived on while its socialist vision withered. By the early 1960s, when the demolition-and-rebuild dust cleared, what was left was a half-ghostly, half-heaving gleaming-glass city that had shuffled people around and made for volatile intersections. Middle-class Blacks moved west, running up against whites packing for the ’burbs. Working-class Blacks squeezed into ever tighter apartments, praying that the wait list for the Brewster-Douglass housing projects would start moving.

Detroit’s ills were supposed to be soothed by the 1962 election of a young Kennedyesque mayor, the liberal Catholic Jerome Cavanagh, who was backed by the Black professional class and fawned over by national media. Cavanagh inherited a city with mounting debts and simmering racial tensions. But he had luck on his side. The first few years of his mayorship were boom years for the US economy, lifting the auto industry into a brief resurgence. For his part, Cavanagh proved a wizard at securing federal funds. He spent the money on downtown redevelopment projects, on small-scale inner-city jobs programs, and on a long list of new committees and councils, with leadership often plucked from the Black elite, that did things like monitor diversification at city departments and hold community relations seminars with police.

These efforts made for great PR, as did the 1963 civil rights march where Cavanagh strode down Woodward Avenue with Martin Luther King Jr. Detroit was a city, Cavanagh boasted, where you didn’t “need to throw a brick to communicate with city hall.” But Black unemployment stayed high, housing access stayed woeful, and police abuse stayed rampant. By 1967, the friendly economic winds had changed course. Federal funds were diverted from the city’s coffers to the war in Vietnam. Black youth unemployment ticked upward, hovering around 30 percent. That year, for the first time in Cavanagh’s tenure, the city budget tipped into the red. In late July, a Cavanagh aide complained that the only thing the administration hadn’t had to deal with was “a riot.” Two days later the city burst into flames.

  1. I’m grateful for the work of several writers. Of particular importance, and not otherwise cited: Stuart Cosgrove’s Detroit 67: The Year That Changed Soul (2015), DeForrest Brown Jr.’s Assembling a Black Counter Culture (2022), David A. Carson’s Grit, Noise, and Revolution: The Birth of Detroit Rock ’n’ Roll (2006), Dan Sicko’s Techno Rebels: The Renegades of Electronic Funk (1999), Thomas J.  Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (1996), and Sidney Fine’s Violence in the Model City: The Cavanagh Administration, Race Relations, and the Detroit Riot of 1967 (1989). 

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