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A literary tour of Detroit

University of Detroit Mercy


Compared to its music and visual arts scenes, Detroit's literary culture is scarce...or so it seems. The city has been slow to celebrate its rich contributions to literature and tell the full story of its storytellers. But it is true all the same: from Broadside Press to Pulitzer Prize-winning authors to U.S. Poet Laureates, Detroit has produced an extraordinary body of work.
 
This literary tour of Detroit spotlights the places where the city's great writers, and their work, took root.


 
Note: Be sure to check out Marygrove College's Literary Map of Detroit, which was started  in 2002 by Frank Rashid, who's been updating it ever since. 
 
Paradise Valley and Black Bottom
 
Paradise and Black Bottom may have been destroyed to make way for a freeway and new housing during the city's "urban renewal" period, but the legacy of those places lives on in the written word.
 
Robert Hayden, the first African American to become what's now called U.S. Poet Laureate, was born in Paradise Valley in 1913. He was given to his next-door neighbors when he was eighteen months old. At the corner of Beacon and St. Antoine streets --today a lot in the shadow of Ford Field  -- was the home where Hayden lived until he was ten. Hayden remembered St. Antoine as teeming with restaurants, barbershops, pool halls, drug stores, and gambling joints. As Hayden described it,
"St. Antoine was the parade ground for people from everywhere in the world. That was the place where the street preacher was most likely to attract an audience; so they'd get out on the corner to preach, sing, and shake their tambourines and all that." - Robert Hayden

 
Throughout his writing life, Hayden returned to the neighborhood. His poem "Elegies for Paradise Valley" opens with vivid detail: "My shared bedroom's window / opened on ally stench. / A junkie died in maggots there. / I saw his body shoved into a van. / I saw the hatred for our kind / glistening like tears / in the policeman's eyes…"
 
Hayden isn't the only writer shaped by Paradise Valley/Black Bottom. Dudley Randall, poet and founder of Broadside Press, wrote about it in "Laughter in the Slums" and "Ghetto Girls." (Randall and Hayden, incidentally, went together to see Billie Holiday at the Club Plantation on E. Adams around 1940).
 
Paradise Valley is also featured in urban fiction writer Donald Goines' 1972 book "Whoreson," and in an extended sequence in Jeffrey Eugenides' Pulitizer-winning novel "Middlesex," where the neighborhood's significance as the birthplace of the Nation of Islam is highlighted.
 
Second Baptist Church of Detroit
441 Monroe St.
 
The church of Robert Hayden's childhood and "the center of family life"," Second Baptist is the oldest African American church in the state. Its presence in Greektown is an echo of an earlier map of the city: this was once part of Paradise Valley.
 
Hayden went to Sunday School and Vacation Bible School here, and was president of the Baptist Young People's Union. He also wrote for the church paper. Though he would eventually marry a woman of the Baha'i faith and convert, the church continued to influence his poetry. And in 1937, the church's Paul Robeson Players staged the only performance of Hayden's play Go Down Moses.
 
Historic Detroit Police Department headquarters
1300 Beaubien


 
Elmore Leonard lurked around here starting in about 1978, in hopes of catching on to how officers spoke and worked. For weeks, he trailed the homicide team, and he wrote a long article about it for the Detroit News Sunday Magazine. On the page, as well as in real life, "1300" shows up frequently in Leonard's fiction.
 
The grand nine-story building designed by Albert Kahn opened in 1923. Today, it is vacant and falling into disrepair; the police moved into brand-new headquarters in 2013. At press time, the city's proposed bankruptcy settlement has the building being granted to Syncora, one of the feistiest of the city creditors. Syncora would be obliged to redevelop the prime downtown real estate -- though not to preserve the building.
 
GM Renaissance Center
E. Jefferson Avenue at Beaubien
 
"..She could never find her way out of the complex with all its different walks and levels and elevators you weren't supposed to use…" - Elmore Leonard
In "City Primeval: High Noon in Detroit," Elmore Leonard's 1980 novel, the then-new RenCen complex of mirrored towers -- "massive dark-glass tubes" -- is a laughable luxury in a tough town. The sun reflects with absurd flash. The "Buck Rogers monument over downtown," it's called. Elsewhere, it is "all rough cement, escalators, expensive shops and ficus trees." In this novel, you'll meet a woman who worked as a cocktail waitress at restaurant in the RenCen, but quit after six months because "she could never find her way out of the complex with all its different walks and levels and elevators you weren't supposed to use…" Locals will enjoy the fact that this restaurant was called Nemo's.

Renaissance CenterInside the Renaissance Center
 
Michigan Central Station
2405 W. Vernor Hwy.
 
This majestic gateway into the city is hardly the domain of any single author. In Harriette Arnow's "The Dollmaker," a finalist for the National Book Award, this is where Gertie Nevels meets Detroit. She is ushering her children north from their Kentucky home to live in factory housing at "Flint's Motor Company," where her husband works in the final year of World War II. They arrive on a brutal winter day. Outside, her son reports, "I seed Dee-troit, Mom…I seed a million cars."
 
The train station is also a point of reference in Joyce Carol Oates's "them." The Wendell family also migrates to Detroit, albeit by bus. They first move to 20th Street, but when that house is slated for demolition, they move to Labrosse Street in Corktown -- "closer now to Tiger Stadium and not far from the New York Central railroad terminal, a great gothic building with hundreds of windows."
 
Corner of Rosa Parks and Clairmount

Park at Rosa Parks (12th Street) and Clairmount

 
It was at this near-westside intersection where police raided a blind pig in July 1967, igniting five days of fatal civil unrest. A major sequence in Jeffrey Eugenides' Pulitzer-winning "Middlesex" traces the tanks that drove through city streets. The riot/rebellion is also the climatic finale of Joyce Carol Oates's "them," told largely through the eyes of Jules Wendell, but it is her portrayal of restless young people around the Wayne State campus, full of anger and adrenaline in the hot days before the blind pig raid, that is especially unsettling. And Dominique Morisseau's Kennedy Prize-winning play, "Detroit '67," makes the July unrest the backdrop in her tale about an after-hours business run by two siblings.
 
The Alternative Press
4339 Avery
 
"Allen Ginsberg, Anne Waldman, Robert Creeley, Diane di Prima, and many others stayed with us during those years in Detroit." - Ken Mikolowski
Ken and Ann Mikolowski founded The Alternative Press in their Woodbridge home in 1969. They published Detroit poets as well as famed Beat and Black Mountain writers, including Charles Bukowski, Robert Creely, and Allen Ginsberg. Rather than traditional books, the work appeared as unbound art, hand-printed on a letterpress built in 1904 and weighing half a ton. Printed poetry was then beautifully packaged as mail art, and posted to subscribers.
 
As Ken notes, "Allen Ginsberg, Anne Waldman, Robert Creeley, Diane di Prima, and many others stayed with us during those years in Detroit."  Ken also published his books "Little Mysteries" and "Thank You Call Again" at this time. The Alternative Press lived on Avery for six years before moving to Grindstone City and Ann Arbor for another twenty-four.
 
Detroit Artists Workshop
1252 W. Forest
 
The credits of the Warren-Forest Sun (Photo from the Ann Arbor District Library)John Sinclair founded the Artists Workshop here on Nov. 1, 1965 with 16 charter members. The avant-garde collective staged free Sunday poetry events that could bring out hundreds, as well as nationally-known literary names. It also printed lefty magazines, books, pamphlets, and the Warren-Forest Sun newspaper. They gave away poetry in an effort called "Free Poems Among Friends."

Seven months later, a fire destroyed the house. The workshop moved to a storefront at 4865 John C. Lodge, with the press in the neighboring building. Three years after that, Sinclair was famously given a 10-year sentence for two joints, a cause taken up by John Lennon.
 
The Workshop sold the Mikolowskis the press they used for thirty years as The Alternative Press. A 50th Anniversary celebration of the Artists Workshop is unfolding right now in a series of events that fuse literature, music, and art.
 
Sacred Heart Catholic School
970 Eliot St.
 
Over three years in the 1970s, Donald Goines wrote 16 urban fiction novels, often set in Detroit. This included classics like "Dopefiend," "Eldorado Red," and "White Man's Justice, Black Man's Grief." Goines was admitted to Sacred Heart's kindergarten class on September 2, 1941. This was the designated parochial school for African Americans, including the Goines family, who were middle-class residents of the North End. At Sacred Heart, Goines was held back for third grade. Midway through the 1945-1946 school year, he moved into Detroit Public Schools.
 
Northern High School
9026 Woodward Ave.
 
Robert Hayden attended his senior year here when its student body was largely white. He transferred from the predominately black Miller High School (2251 Antietam) because his eyesight was poor; Northern was considered a "sight-saving" school. As a senior, Hayden worked on a manuscript called "Songs at Eighteen" (which publishers rejected) and won an award for a short story called "Gold." He graduated in 1930.
 
Northern closed in 2008. The Detroit International Academy for Young Women is now housed in the building.
 
232 Cortland Avenue, Highland Park

This is where the multi-family home was located where Donald Goines lived with Shirley Sailor, his common-law wife, and their children. On October 22, 1974, Goines -- then 37 years old -- and Sailor were gunned down. Lore has it that Goines was killed while sitting at his typewriter in the living room. Their two children, who were at home at the time, were unharmed. The murders remain unsolved, though some speculate they were related to debts Goines accrued due to his heroin habit.
 
At some point, the house was demolished and it's now an empty lot on the block between Third and Hamilton, three blocks from the MacGregor Library.
 
Upstairs apartment on Manderson Road in Palmer Park


 
This was the first Detroit residence of Joyce Carol Oates and her husband Raymond Smith when they moved here in 1963. She doesn't remember the exact address, but she does say that they spent a great deal of time walking in Palmer Park: "We were tireless, enthusiastic walkers, hikers, and bicyclists."

2500 Woodstock Drive
 
Oates's second Detroit home was a Colonial house on a corner lot, one block south of 8 Mile and not far from Woodlawn cemetery. She and her husband lived for a "year or two."
 
3460 Sherbourne Road

Oates's final Detroit home was another Colonial on a corner lot, this time just north of 7 Mile. It had a large front lawn, black shutters, and a brick chimney. In 1968, she and Smith moved across the border to Windsor, Ontario, where she began teaching at the University of Windsor.
 
Broadside Press & Dudley Randall home
12561 Old Mill Place
 
In 1965, this Russell Woods location became the first home of Dudley Randall, the historic publisher African American poets including Gwendolyn Brooks, Louise Clifton, and Nikki Giovanni. Randall founded Broadside at a time when traditional publishing houses did not take this talent seriously. This also happened to be the home that Randall shared with his wife, Vivian.
 
McNichols Campus Library
University of Detroit-Mercy
4001 W. McNichols Rd.

University of Detroit Mercy






Between 1969 and the mid-1970s, Dudley Randall was both reference librarian and poet-in-residence here. Today, the University of Detroit-Mercy is the home of the Dudley Randall Center for Print Culture and Randall's archives.
 
Jane and Walter Briggs Liberal Arts Building
University of Detroit-Mercy, 4001 W. McNichols Rd.
 
Joyce Carol Oates taught at UDM from 1962 until 1967, and she had her office in this building. She taught four courses each semester; "I seem to have budgeted my time carefully, and used every minute for teaching, writing, reading, living," she said. The university appears in Oates's fiction several times, most notably in "them." The novel's set-up features a narrator resembling Oates (even sharing her name) who teaches at the school. The narrator receives letters from a former student who failed her class; the student, Maureen Wendell, is one of the leading characters in the book.
 
Durfee Middle School
2470 Collingwood St.
 
Philip Levine, the Pulitzer Prize-winner and former U.S. poet laureate, was a student here in the 1940s. Levine, who grew up around 7 Mile and Livernois, remembers his roots in the poem "M. Degas Teaches Art & Science at Durfee Intermediate School," which he dates "Detroit, 1942." (Hear Levine read the poem.) Levine was fourteen years old in 1942, the year he began working in auto plants. Just over a decade later, after graduating from Wayne State University, Levine left the city for good. Though he's lived in Fresno, Calif. for more than thirty years, he is still associated with Detroit.

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Anna Clark is a Detroit-based independent journalist and a co-founder of Literary Detroit. She is the editor of "A Detroit Anthology" (Rust Belt Chic Press, 2014) and is working on a book about Michigan's literary heritage. Follow her on Twitter @annaleighclark.

Photos by Nick Hagen.

 
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