Guest Post: History of Detroit's Virginia Park Neighborhood

(27720) Cavanagh, Virginia Park Residents, 1967

Virginia Park, now officially a historic neighborhood in Detroit, was at the heart of the 1967 Rebellion. The district sits along Virginia Park Boulevard between Woodward and John R. and is now considered part of the New Center area. The neighborhood was the location of the Algiers Motel incident that sparked the unrest and suffered a great deal of damage in the summer of 1967. The area was already stricken with high unemployment rates prior to those events.

Because of this history, some may not know this neighborhood had an incredibly dedicated group of citizens that fought for better conditions, treatment from the city, and rehabilitation of the area. There are a handful of collections at the Reuther that include letters and information illustrating the Virginia Park Rehabilitation Project and the Citizens Committee that continued to fight for its success.

Mayor Jerome Cavanagh was the mayor of Detroit when the committee was active in the 1960’s. Cavanagh’s papers include a wealth of information on the Virginia Park Rehabilitation Project in the 1960s. Figures, maps, and proposals help to describe the goals of the Housing Commission in Detroit and help paint a picture of the hopes of this project in its earlier stages. The project statistics in the late 1960's called for the reuse of land and housing at 12th Street and Clairmont Avenue for a new boulevard as well as “new housing, recreation and community service facilities and a limited number of shops to serve [the] residential area” (Cavanagh Papers, Box 19, Folder 9). As a government official, the Cavanagh Papers shed light on the numbers behind the plan, but other collections tell the story of the people behind this project.

The voices of the Virginia Park citizens cry out loud and clear in the Mel Ravitz Papers. Mel Ravitz was very involved in the city and held positions on “the Detroit City Plan Commission Director of Community Organization, [and] on the Detroit City Council” (Mel Ravitz Papers, Bio). When Ravitz served as Council President, he received notice of the process of the Virginia Park Rehabilitation Project but also letters from the Citizens Council with strong words that called to action. In 1970, one letter from the Virginia Park Citizens District Council stated that there was “...blatant bureaucratic obfuscation, and perpetual plantation politics exhibited [that were] exactly the same ingredients igniting the July, 1967 Rebellion” (Mel Ravitz Papers, Box 21, Folder 35). The records also include a brief history of the Virginia Park Citizens Service Corporation’s history and accomplishments, including involvement in the 1970 meeting with the Detroit Common Council which resulted in the approval of the Community’s project plan (Ravitz Papers, Box 21, Folder 34). The passion and determination that comes through these letters and calls to action can be felt just by reading them. The papers are kept with the leaders of the city, but undoubtedly there were grassroots efforts to make the neighborhood better for all.

The Cavanagh and Ravitz collections are not the only places materials on this incredible group can be found. The Carl Almblad Papers include information on the citizens groups as well as the Rehabilitation Project from 1961-1969. Also, the New Detroit, Inc. Collection also has information on the Virginia Park Rehabilitation and its committees.

Further research can be found the following online finding aids:

Carl Almblad Papers,
Mel Ravitz Papers,
Jerome P. Cavanagh Papers,
Detroit News Collection,
Wayne State University Office of Religious Affairs, and
Detroit Commission on Community Relations.

This guest post was contributed by Laura Williams, a student in Wayne State's School of Information Science, in Winter semester 2019.