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50 years later: Local association takes a look back at the 1967 riots and how they changed the food retail business in Detroit

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In the heat of July 1967, the city of Detroit was ravaged by a riot so fierce, the city would never be the same. For five nights, the smell of smoke and the constant glow of flames consuming buildings assaulted the senses of those who were not able to leave during the riots. The after effects of the riots still resonate within the city, and especially the industry today, 50 years later.

“I remember vividly the smell of smoke and at night the rapid fire of machine gun and small arms,” said James Bellanca, longtime in-house counsel for the Associated Food Dealers of  Michigan (AFPD). “I remember a tank passing in front of my house, in an upper middle-class neighborhood. I remember machine gun nest protected by sand bags at the corner of Jefferson and Woodward. I remember coming out of a movie just before the night curfew and the sound of a helicopter, with a spotlight focused on us as we went to our cars.”

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Detroit grocers featured in a 1967 issue of Life on the Detroit riots

 

Over the course of five days, Detroit had been consumed by chaos and destruction. By the time the riots had ended, there was an estimated $30 million worth of destruction, not including the $7 million that had been lost due to business interruption.

The industry had taken a beating. Recovery from such losses did not seem possible as Detroit’s food and beverage stores had shrunk in number by nearly 450. “As far as the grocery industry is concerned, all of the major supermarket chains vacated the City, without exception” said Bellanca. “The corporate white-collar workers fled the city. Independent grocers moved in, took over their stores and created one of the strongest independent retail markets in the Country.”

With such extensive damage, it was not expected that any business, big or small, would make it out of the riots in one piece. With shotgun toting security guards inside his grocery store and a band of loyal customers to defend the storefront, Jerry Yono, the current director of the Southfield Funeral Home, made it out unscathed. “I had two guys inside the door with shotguns and then during the day, there were people out there, my paying customers, with signs that said ‘leave our store alone’,” said Yono.

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Jerry Yono’s Store was one of those featured in the Life Magazine issue on the Detroit Riots

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While Yono and his grocery store survived the ’67 riots, others were not so fortunate. The industry at the time of the riots was unlike that of today’s. The industry was smaller than it is currently, but it thrived. “The industry was great, everybody was happy, but there weren’t a lot of us,” said Yono. “Everything worked out, all the stores got together and we helped each other out.”

In the 60s, Detroit was one of the most prosperous cities in the country. “Detroit had the highest per capita income in the United States,” said Bellanca. “It had more single-family residences than any city in the United States. More cars per capita. More boats per capita. The school system was considered one of the best in the country.”

As prosperous and strong as the city was, though, the riots overtook Detroit, destroying the sense of security and safety that once blanketed the city. A steady decline gripped the city without an end in sight, until now.

“First, the people left the city, then the business left the city,” said Bellanca. “The constant decline over the years meant that Detroit went from a City that was the fourth largest in the country, (bigger than Philadelphia) with a population of almost two million people, to a city with less than 700,000 and among the highest poverty rates in the country. What is currently happening with the renaissance of Downtown Detroit is a welcome and first true sign of change. It has taken 50 years to begin to recover.”

The ’67 riots left Detroit with more damage than one can fathom, the city only a skeleton of its former glory. Even with the much welcome renaissance of Detroit, though, many realize that no matter how prosperous the city becomes or how safe one feels, anything could happen. “Unless you understand what is in the hearts and minds of others, the unthinkable could become the reality,” said Bellanca. “All of us, from the one percenters, down to the unemployed, are intertwined. Our futures are impacted by each other, both positively and negatively. Everyone has a voice and everyone’s voice should be heard and considered.”

The ’67 riots serve as an important reminder to not only those in the industry, but the residents of Michigan as a whole. People today need to care about what happened 50 years ago in order to bring Detroit back to what it once was.

Today, AFPD represents majority of the 80 full line grocery stores in Detroit. AFPD has been a staple in Detroit since 1910 when it started out as the Meat Cutters Association.

“The State of Michigan cannot be viable and a destination for people and industries if burning rubble and empty spaces of Detroit are in their minds, they don’t know our beautiful state and, frankly, what our cities actually stand for,” said Bellanca. “In the end, the chain that makes up our society, our state and our country, is only as strong as its weakest link.”

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