My Family’s Jewish Detroit Story
I wandered recently with my mom through her childhood Jewish Detroit. It was a journey of 10 miles and approximately 60 years. I saw both the good and a Detroit that suburbia largely ignores, the “don’t go there” parts of the city. They were once mostly Jewish and, though we’ve long moved away, they are still a part of our city. To start healing Detroit, we must know its stories, old and new, no sugar-coating. I’ll start.
Turn on your JewPS and set the coordinates to Detroit, circa 1940s. Continue on I-75, Downtown, to Witherell near Elizabeth. This was the spot of Leo and Charlie’s Parking Lot, co-proprietor Charlie Grossberg, my grandfather. My mother spent many a summer day at the adjacent “day camp,” known as the Fox Theater, where my grandfather would leave her to watch the likes of Betty Grable, Harry James, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis as he worked.
Charlie was so nice that when students parked at meters instead of in his lot, he would insert nickels as necessary. Let’s just say the value of the legacy he left was not a financial one, but priceless nonetheless. Today, this spot houses a sporting concern you may know, Comerica Park.
My grandmother would take her kids for outings by bus to J.L. Hudson and to eat at Carson’s Cafeteria. By the 1940s, Jews visited and worked there, but few still resided Downtown.
Mom lived first in the upper flat of her grandparents’ home on 2661 Elmhurst with, at any given time, her two sisters, parents, Bubbie, Zadie, other extended family and, as was the practice of Jews during this era, Holocaust survivors. Little did she know her future husband lived nearby on Leslie in a more tony area. My paternal grandfather worked hard from a young age to support his seven siblings and always had money.
My mom knew every home and resident on her block. But, in 2017, she wasn’t sure whether 2661 was the hollowed-out shell obscured by an overgrown tree or the empty lot next door. There were still some occupied homes in the area, mostly in disrepair, marred by urban blight.
Mom’s eyes welled up driving down the block her grandparents walked to the Stoliner Shul on the corner of Elmhurst and Linwood. She clearly recalled running downstairs where the men prayed and upstairs where her Bubbie sat with the women to spread the word that her older sister gave birth to a baby girl on Yom Kippur, just before the shofar blew.
We saw her alma mater, Durfee Intermediate School, set to close this year. The building’s beauty belied the sad spiral of the Detroit Public Schools.
She pointed out her pride and joy, what used to be Grossberg’s Market, our family’s business on the corner of Webb and Linwood. I tried to imagine my mom walking down this street with her grandmother, swinging a freshly decapitated chicken from the shoykhet.
And, it was in that upper floor on Elmhurst that their lives changed when mom’s sister contracted polio at 9 years old, leaving her a paraplegic. She spent the next year at the former Herman Kiefer infectious disease hospital in Detroit. All my mom saw of her beloved sister the next 12 months was what she could make out from the courtyard as she waved up to her window in the quarantined facility.
The following year was spent with her in rehab learning to walk with crutches, due to paralysis from the waist down. At age 11, my aunt attended the Oakland School for Crippled Children (the Nellie Leland School). For high school, she was allowed to attend Cass Tech, and my Nana finally learned to drive, determined her disabled daughter would attend a regular school. My mom doesn’t know what scared her more at this time, contracting polio herself or driving with her newly licensed mother. My aunt later became a Michigan Civil Rights Commissioner and advocated for disabled people.
Back in 2017, we continued driving past mostly empty buildings, a few businesses barely holding on and more than an occasional church. My mom recognized many that used to be Jewish shops and shuls. We soon arrived at Livernois, which was the high-end shopping district and is now touting an active revitalization initiative.
Further north on Wyoming, past McNichols, was my mom’s high school, Mumford, which is recently rebuilt. Just past that was Gospel Temple Baptist Church or, as she knew it, Young Israel, her home shul after the Stoliner Shul.
We turned left on Curtis, and right on Monte Vista. The second house from the corner of Pickford, No.18307, was where my mom spent her later adolescence. It was a modest one-story home that she remembered being much grander.
Jumping again to today, after the Northwest Activities Center on Meyers and Curtis, which used to be the neighborhood Jewish Center, we turned right onto 7 Mile Road and, at Pinehurst, located the building that was my mom’s hangout, Zukin’s, a place I always pictured as the soda shop from Happy Days.
We were now in the area that was the next wave of northwest Jewish migration, Bagley. Here was the home of Super Sol Market on 7 Mile, just before Livernois, my paternal grandfather’s business and what was to be my parents’ inheritance. However, while my dad was in Vietnam, the ’67 riots shook the city to its core, and he returned home to his new wife and the news that Super Sol was super sold. It’s called Family Dollar now. The irony.
Just past the Sherwood Forest neighborhood, if you made a left on Strathcona, you would find No. 1690, the house built by my mother’s eldest sister and her husband. We had finally arrived in the fanciest of all neighborhoods, Palmer Woods, home to many of Detroit’s elite.
Having only traveled a few miles, we were decades from Elmhurst. Back there, under the imprint of the erstwhile Mogen David, a black man sat on the steps of my great-grandparents’ treasured Stoliner Shul, now Williams Memorial Missionary Baptist. He mumbled to himself, world-worn and spent. My family’s trials and triumphs were likely nothing this person could imagine, but I knew for a fact the opposite was also jarringly true. The neighborhood held sacred memories of another nature. I heard my family’s, and it was time to hear his.
We can stake our claim in a new Metropolitan Detroit, or we can return and lay claim to Detroit holistically for every citizen. Yes, it will entail becoming true allies by confronting uncomfortable truths.
I urge everyone to turn on their own JewPS. There are great resources to help, like the Jewish Historical Society of Michigan and shtetlhood.com, Lowell Boileau’s website depicting Detroit’s synagogues.
Seeing my history gave me renewed respect for my heritage. It also inspired me to take my family back to Williams Memorial Church, shake someone’s hand, listen to their story and join in a conversation about a city we both treasure. Hopefully, this will lead to a shared future brighter than both our
Joshua Lewis Berg, The Wandering Jew, is a mythical figure whose legend consists of wandering the world in search of the perfect bottle of kosher pop and other revelatory phenomena.