The Roaring Twenties in Detroit: A City in the Black—and Purple

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Kevin’s recent illustrated humor post on Detroit’s Museum Yard Sale, about the proposed selling of the city’s more valuable art pieces, reminded me of the last time I visited the Detroit Institute of Arts about 10 years ago (I live in New York so have an excuse for not visiting there more often).

My husband, author Warren Berger, and I were there on a scouting mission. Warren was checking out locations for scenes in his novel THE PURPLES, which chronicles/imagines the rise and fall of the young rumrunner Purple Gang in 1920s Detroit. [Nota bene: The novel started life as a great screenplay drafted by Kevin, Brian d’Arcy James, and Warren all sparked by—in a nod to My Media Diary’s theme—a massive family research file of news clippings compiled by Kevin. A key figure in their Purple Gang story is Harry F. Kelly (photo below), a relative of mine, Brian, and Kevin’s who was a young war hero/prosecuting attorney at the time he took on the Purple Gang and helped hasten their demise.]

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Kevin’s huge research files would be a great boon to any writer, and Warren is eternally grateful for them. But no matter how much research you compile, a historical novelist has to visit the actual setting of his story to get the true flavor of a place and simply to understand how to move around his characters. (Warren grew up in Queens, New York, so had great reason to come several times to Detroit to get to know it better.)

Only problem is that much of the Detroit of yesteryear—what was then known as the Paris of the West in full Henry Ford/speakeasy/skyscraper-building mode—is a mere phantom today. In a page called “Good Old Detroit” on The Purples website, Warren wrote this mixed paean to that former city (in the first-person voice of his protagonist Joe Bernstein, writing from the vantage point of the 1950s):

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I wrote this book because someone had to tell the truth about what happened in Detroit back in the days when it still mattered what happened in Detroit.

A lot of people don’t know this, but by 1920 Detroit had mushroomed into the fourth largest city in the U.S., due to Henry Ford and two dozen other carmakers importing workers to make car parts and assemble ’em. Whilst me and mine were stuck in the stagnant Hastings Street ghetto, the downtown area had skyscrapers going up all around: the Buhl Building, the Fisher Building, and the Book-Cadillac, tallest hotel in the world. They built movie palaces such as the Fox, and big sports stadiums—hell, we even got our own Thinker statue in front of the museum. The papers called Detroit “The Paris of the West.”

It was the cradle of so-called technology. The car assembly lines were humming and so was the pipeline that shipped a million dollars-worth of liquor from Canada to America by way of the Detroit River. Between these two growing industries, opportunity was there for the grabbing. The future was being created each day: riveted, screwed, smuggled, bottled.

There were 20,000 speakeasies in the city—one on every corner and sometimes even in the back of an ice cream parlor. The cops knew about all of them, and about us—but the cops were all well-greased so they played along. As for the mayor of Detroit, he had ties to the Ku Klux Klan (very big in Michigan at the time). This mayor Bowles came into office claiming to have a solution to crime and then announced his plan: “Let the criminals kill each other off.” We were all too happy to oblige.

By ’28 you could see that the city was starting to get too big for its britches. The cars were everywhere (seemed like I was the only person in town still capable of ankling) and all those vehicles created a so-called “vicious circle” in Detroit—meaning that whilst every fool suddenly had the means to move about, no one could get anywhere because of traffic. The population was approaching two million and “experts” said it would hit five million soon. This was predicted by the Detroit Rapid Transit Commission but they should have been called the Detroit Flying Pigs Commission because the city’s population peaked right then and has dropped ever since.

You can blame it on the Depression. Or on the ethnic group of your choice. Or on the selfish and short-sighted car companies. Or you can do what everyone else has been doing for as long as I can recall: Just blame it all on The Purple Gang.

In making the book trailer for The Purples, I dug up a lot of neat old photos from the city’s heyday, and used quite a few of them on the website as well. View the trailer below to see some of them, and for others poke around the website or view this photo album on Facebook.

Looking at those old photos, it’s bittersweet to see how high the city had risen, and how far it’s fallen. People like me, who were born there in the 1960s and left in the 1980s, only remember the riots, the white flight, the forlorn riverfront, and the demolition of so many of the great old buildings, like Hudson’s, my favorite because of Santa Claus. You can tell that reporters writing about Detroit today don’t really remember or believe how interesting a city it was at one time—but where there’s money, great culture follows, as it did in 1920s Detroit with a world-class symphony, theaters, sports teams, and of course, its huge Beaux-Arts, Italian Renaissance–styled art museum built in 1923.

But you know what? When Warren and I went back to Detroit to case out Riopelle Street, Hamtramck, the rumrunners’ highway (the Detroit River), Belle Isle, the Ford plants, and many more of the other sites of old Detroit, we were surprised and pleased to see that more of the city exists than you might think. The Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Opera House, the Fisher Theatre, the sports teams—they’re all still alive and kicking. And so was the D.I.A., with its Rodin Thinker statue situated in front of its doors and the amazing Diego Rivera fresco murals within. (For a gritty current-day take on all of this, check out the 2012 documentary Detropia, now streaming on Netflix.)

While Warren wasn’t able to set a book scene inside the museum (he couldn’t quite find a way to place his gangsters and prosecutors in those marbled halls), he does have a memorable one right outside the museum, a pivotal moment that seals the undoing of the Purple Gang, all under the watchful eye of The Thinker.

Fingers crossed and budget willing that that sculpture and his fellow artworks will be there to ponder the people of Detroit for many more years to come.


Curious about The Purples? You’ll find both more at Amazon at this link.

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About Laura Kelly

Laura is Kevin Walsh’s second cousin on his father’s side. When she first moved to New York, she worked for CBS and at a variety of magazines as managing editor. Later, Laura was VP, Global Editor-in-Chief of Reader’s Digest books series. She now helps creative artists (such as authors, actors, photographers, and print designers) with all things digital; one of her main clients is her husband, author Warren Berger. You can learn more about Laura's business at Laura-e-Kelly.com, and follow her on Twitter @LectriceUSA, Facebook, and Google+.
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