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Motor City roots

By Alex Piazza

Ed Nowak had a Saturday routine.

He would walk to the Chene-Ferry Farmer’s Market in Detroit with his parents to pick out chickens for Sunday dinner.

Nowak then would navigate the crowds toward his favorite ice cream parlor to satisfy his sweet tooth.

And to cap things off, he would stop by a local playground to catch a game of sandlot ball.

“We had everything you could want on Chene Street,” he said. “Shoe stores, clothing stores, meat markets, flower shops, doctors, dentists, and the thing is, when you came into the neighborhood, you didn’t have to talk English because every store wanted to talk Polish.”

That was 80 years ago when Chene Street was one of Detroit’s most vibrant and inclusive commercial corridors. The thoroughfare was home to hundreds of small businesses, owned and operated by African Americans, Italians, Jews and Poles, and was within walking distance of 100,000 automotive jobs.

But crime, politics, suburban sprawl and a sour economy transformed the once prosperous corridor into one of the most devastated and depopulated in the city. Neighborhoods along Chene Street today are littered with abandoned homes, while overgrown vegetation shrouds vacant lots with inoperable streetlights.

Cue Marian Krzyzowski. As director of the University of Michigan’s Institute for Research on Labor, Employment, and the Economy (IRLEE), Krzyzowski and his colleagues have interviewed more than 300 Chene Street residents, like Nowak, in an effort to convey what life was like there during the 20th century.

“If you give a place a history, people will take an interest in it,” Krzyzowski said.

A dynamic past

As Krzyzowski interviews Detroiters who grew up in his former neighborhood, he often reminisces on his own childhood memories along Chene Street.

He remembers the smell of fresh fruit and vegetables that emanated from Jewish vendor trucks on Saturday mornings.

He recalls the sound of Italian immigrants who often bartered with Polish bakers over loaves of bread.

And he envisions the massive scale positioned in the center of the farmer’s market so African American customers could weigh their live poultry.

“It was a very thriving and dynamic neighborhood,” he said. “Lots of people. Lots of activity.”

Chene Street today is a far cry from its historic past, which is what inspired Krzyzowski to launch the Detroit Chene Street History Project in 2002.

Over the past 12 years, he and his U-M colleagues have interviewed residents and collected thousands of artifacts with ties to Chene Street, including photos, newspapers, church bulletins and high school yearbooks. The research team plans to use their collection, which spans 1890-1990, to create an online virtual neighborhood where users can visualize the history of the corridor.

Picture an online map in which users can click on a location to learn more about an African American church or a Polish bakery that operated on that particular block 100 years ago.

“We have a lot of newcomers in Detroit who drive along Chene Street and have no idea what was once there,” said Karen Majewski (’98 Ph.D.), IRLEE project manager and three-term mayor of Hamtramck, a city surrounded by Detroit. “This project has the potential to serve as a powerful community development tool.”

To an outside observer, the Chene Street corridor might seem like an investor’s worst nightmare. But for those who understand its rich history, there is a glimmer of hope.

“It’s got everything, in regard to its proximity to downtown and the expressways,” she said. “I imagine that there are some people smacking their lips at this enormous amount of now vacant property. I’m not ready to count out the Chene Street corridor just yet. There are plenty of folks who see the potential and they’re working to stabilize the area.”

From the street to the classroom

Monique Claiborne (’06 B.B.A.) grew up in Detroit, but was unfamiliar with the politics and culture of the Chene Street corridor.

Shortly after the business major enrolled at U-M, she contacted Krzyzowski to join his research team.

“It’s very transformational when you look at how much has changed over a short period of time,” said Claiborne, who now works in business development for the Detroit Regional Chamber.

Claiborne collected several historical artifacts and interviewed residents who lived along Chene Street during the 20th century. She also learned that her church, now located on the west side of Detroit, was founded in the Chene Street neighborhood.

“They were so willing to share their stories,” she said. “People don’t have that sort of pride in their neighborhoods anymore.”

Claiborne is among more than 25 U-M undergraduate students to participate in the Chene Street research project.

“These students have really committed to doing something outside of the box,” Krzyzowski said. “They are deeply passionate about Detroit and the social issues surrounding the city.”

This semester, the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts teamed up with the Jean & Samuel Frankel Center for Judaic Studies to establish a history course based on the Chene Street project.

The senior research seminar focuses on Chene Street to examine the rich and complex history of Detroit’s racial, religious and ethnic conflict, competition and cooperation during the 20th century. Krzyzowski co-teaches the course with urban historian Deborah Dash Moore and uses photographs, oral history interviews, letters, newspapers, music recordings and maps to recreate Chene Street’s complex history.

As part of their final project, students are encouraged to conduct their own research to recreate Chene Street’s complex history through multimedia narratives.

“Detroit is very close to Ann Arbor, and yet it seems for the students to be a whole other world,” said Dash Moore, director of the Frankel Center. “We wanted to bridge that world, but we also wanted to let students recognize how complex the world is and how it offers them real opportunities to research history that matters.”


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