The rain fell in sheets, and there was a patina of gloom on the buildings on 9 Mile. Cars drove by carelessly, the drivers disinterested.
“Hey! Hey! I’ll beat yo ass, white boy! I’ll… beat… yo… ASS, white boy!”
I looked to my right, surprised. On the other side of 9 Mile, three black teenagers with backpacks glared back at me. I pretended not to notice and walked on. Somewhere, in a nearby garage, a Confederate flag hung proudly on the back wall. You can see it whenever the white owner works on his truck.
Welcome to Metro Detroit, where racial harmony is often a thin veneer.
On my way to the Morley’s Candy Makers factory outlet store near the intersection of 9 Mile and Kelly, I saw more CLOSED, FOR RENT, and WE BUY GOLD signs than I cared to count. Across the street from Morley’s, the big sign outside Pete & Frank’s Fruit Ranch that used to advertise the price of milk and other essentials now thanked the community for their patronage. Yep – closed. And a sign on Morley’s door revealed another unwelcome surprise: the store was moving in a couple days, and nearly everything was 75% off.
As Bob Dylan said, the times they are a-changin’.
Morley’s started up in 1919 in East Detroit, Michigan, the brainchild of husband-wife duo Erwin and Julie Morley. The company’s Pecan Torties are a regional institution, made from 50 pound blocks of copper kettle caramel that are cut into pieces, thrown on a bed of pecans, and then smothered in chocolate. It’s a nice treat, if a little too sugary – I’d say the palpable nostalgia is the real flavor that keeps so many people coming back for more.
These days, Morley’s is based in the northern Metro Detroit suburb of Clinton Township, and East Detroit is called Eastpointe, a name change that was decided by popular vote in 1992 to associate the city with the affluent, old money Grosse Pointe communities also near Detroit. According to Morley’s, the Eastpointe store had to be closed and a new one opened on 13 Mile and Harper in neighboring St. Clair Shores because the “current store doesn’t have any windows, and there’s no room for an ice cream counter [and] we wanted to include all of those things in the store.” Never mind that Morley’s had already rented out half of the Bavarian-themed Eastpointe store to DeRonne True Value Hardware, explaining the “lack” of space, and that it’s not exactly impossible to add more windows to a building.
An associate at the Eastpointe Morley’s, meanwhile, said that the store was closing because “there wasn’t enough traffic here anymore.” But judging by the amount of cars I saw whizzing by on 9 Mile, that didn’t quite add up.
Of course, unmentioned in all this is the sticky situation surrounding Eastpointe’s changing demographics. From 2000 to 2010, the city’s African American population increased from just 4.7% of the total population to a whopping 29.5%. St. Clair Shores, in contrast, is still 92.7% white. Judging by historical trends throughout Metro Detroit, Eastpointe’s population will likely be over half African American within a decade or two, and you have to wonder what role that played in the move.
Not that it gets talked about much. The media is usually color blind when covering such stories, and at any rate it’s hard to actually prove if a decision to move was racially motivated in some way unless someone blatantly admits to it. It’s a sentiment you feel more than you see, an occasional, choking stillness that can send a chill right down your spine.
When I entered Morley’s Eastpointe store that wet and strangely warm January afternoon, the shelves were basically bare. Not much was left except for some out-of-season chocolates, the platoons of radiant chocolate Santa Clauses and ivory snowmen still standing in their orderly lines, ready for action. Unable to resist the lure of a 75% discount, I nabbed few and rushed to the counter back in front like some kind of sugar-crazed kid.
A kindly white-haired lady bagged my loot, and as we got talking, she ended up telling me she was retiring after the store closed, and that she planned on taking a trip back to West Virginia with her husband sometime soon. Both, I discovered, had been part of the huge migration of white Appalachians that swarmed Metro Detroit in search of factory work during the Big 3’s heyday. Her husband had put in his 30 odd years “working for the union” and the two were ready to enjoy their twilight years.
Some blame the Appalachian population for igniting racial tensions in Metro Detroit, which visibly exploded in the 1960s and 1970s. Whenever infamous segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace ran for president, for example, Michigan always provided one of his strongest bases of support. It’s an embarrassing and rarely mentioned aspect of our state history, but it shouldn’t be forgotten.
Leaving the store with my white paper bag, I couldn’t help but almost ask myself: could she be…? No. I didn’t dare. It wasn’t fair; it wasn’t right.