INTERVIEW OF GLENN WASH
Oral History Project of the Westsiders
Interview Conducted by: Louis Jones
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Q Mr. Wash, first of all thanks for taking time out of your schedule to talk with us.
A Absolutely my pleasure; my pleasure.
Q We very much look forward to the discussion.
Just to begin tell us about your parents, where they came from and what they did for a living?
A My parents were Texans. Texarkana, Texas, Texarkana, Arkansas: My father was out of Texarkana, Texas. My mother was out of Texarkana, Arkansas. When they married, they moved from there to Chicago. From Chicago, my father came over and started working here in Detroit at Kelsey Hayes Wheel Company. That is when I came to Detroit, at a very early age. But my first exposure was probably to the public school system in Grand Rapids, which was unusual because at that point in time, I don’t think there were enough blacks in Grand Rapids to develop any prejudice. So I didn’t know I was black until I got to Detroit; it became very apparent, very fast.
Q What became apparent?
A When we moved in here, we moved over in the area of McGraw and Grand River. We lived about four blacks away from the Olympia. The living conditions were radically different from what we had been accustomed to. Not that we lived that well in Grand Rapids, but it was a lot different. We lived in that area, as a matter of fact, I lived on Tillman in the early days right across from the Stinson Funeral Home. We used to hear the pump going on the bodies. We used to sneak over and watch them in embalm bodies sometimes.
Then from there I moved over to 23rd, which was 23rd and McGraw. If I remember correctly, it was 5911 23rd, which was directly across the street from the McGraw Grade School. Now the funny thing when I lived eight blocks away, I got certificates for never being late to school and never missing school. When I moved directly across the street, I could never get there on time, because usually I would lay in bed and listen for the first bell, and try to get dressed and get to school before the second bell. That was the early days there.
Q How did you come or your family come to move from one place to the other, from Grand Rapids to Detroit and then to the different areas in Detroit?
A Well, what happened was, work was somewhat scarce in Grand Rapids. My father was always an entrepreneur. In the early days he had a restaurant in Grand Rapids. Work opened up here in Detroit, and he used to ride the rails between here and Detroit. So then after that he moved the family down with the intent of, you know, trying to get a better way of life for us. But he still, you know, still did things like make candy and so forth. I have to say that my father was always an entrepreneur. As a matter of fact, my grandfather and uncles back in Texas, we never worked for other people. My grandfather had a farm, and he had a small strip mall, a place called, I guess a little city adjacent to Texarkana there. So he supplied that store from his farm, the fruit, the vegetables, the milk, eggs came from there, plus he had a cleaners and then he had a little hardware store. Then he had a little ice cream parlor in the same strip. So we go back a long ways in there.
My uncle ran the cleaners but my father was a little more – he wanted to move a little bit. So he left there and went to Chicago. He came back, he married my mother, they moved to Chicago and from Chicago to Grand Rapids.
Q Was that unusual in some place like Texas for a black man to own a farm and have all of the other businesses?
A Yes, considering the conditions during that period of time, yes, it was very unusual, because most of the people in that area were employees as opposed to employers. He had several people working for him. But we used to go down there in the summertime in later years, and he had all kinds of vegetables and fruit trees and you know, which made it very interesting for us.
Q What was that contrast like, to grow up essentially in the north, in Chicago, maybe not so much Chicago, but in Grand Rapids and then Detroit and then have those experiences in the south?
A We really didn’t start going back south until we got here in Detroit. It was quite a contrast. As a matter of fact, my brother and I were known as the little bad dudes from Detroit. We would go around saying, sir, and that was all that was mandatory there in Texas. We had some unusual experiences during the time I was there. I can remember experiencing the aftermath of a hanging. So there were some things that impressed me about Texas, at that time but our family was, you know, pretty close knit. We stayed pretty much to ourselves, so we didn’t get in to too much trouble after going to town.
Q You said the aftermath of a hanging?
A Yes. They had had some incident downtown in Texarkana. You got to understand that Texarkana is a part of Arkansas and a part of Texas. There had been some incident downtown where somebody was supposed to have done something and the guy got hung. I can remember that, because everybody closed down and stayed at home until things chilled out.
Q Was it a black man?
A Yes, it was a black guy.
Q You don’t remember the incident?
A I don’t remember. All I remember is that he was hung in the area where they shipped cotton out of. That is about as much as I can remember. I was fairly young at that time.
Q It was in plain view, it wasn’t out in the woods?
A Oh, no, it was pretty much in plain view. Things were pretty touchy when I was a kid in Texas.
Q Wow. A lot we take for granted?
A It is not too much better here in Detroit. When I came to Detroit, the blacks lived on the west side of Grand River and the whites lived on the other side of Grand River. If you got caught on the wrong side of Grand River, you just might get your butt whipped.
Q Do you didn’t venture too much on the other side?
A Well, no, you didn’t go over there too much. Grand River was sort of the dividing line. A little later things got little better. There was an A & P there. In the early days we used to shop at A & P. One of our first ventures in business was carrying groceries home from the A & P.
Then I got in to the manufacturing business of making pushcarts for other people to carry the groceries home.
Then I had a little jigsaw and I used to make whatnot shelves and different things and sell them in the neighborhood.
Prior to that we were selling candy for my dad who made candy, and we used to go out with baskets and sell candy to the neighbors.
Q It sounds like the entrepreneurial spirit carried on from generation to generation in your family?
A Well, yes, I have always been — I never went to work for anyone with the intent of being their employee. I was there with the intent of finding out what was going on and try to learn as much as I could. It turned out to be a pretty good policy. My father always said, don’t get hung up with the money, that will come later, just learn what you can about what was going on. That is what we did.
Q How did you choose some of these ventures. I heard that you built birdhouses and carts as well as shoe shining. How did you determine those would be good businesses for you?
A Well, I have always loved woodwork. That has been a natural with me, a nail and a saw, and it was always something. I happened to get a jigsaw for a present for Christmas. From there I got my little sander and so forth. So I was fairly apt in the woodwork shop back in those days. In school you had like Manual Training and then you had College Prep. I was in Manual Training so I learned how to use all of the tools and things. So, I made a few things and people seemed to like them. My mother belonged to a lot of different clubs and things, when they would come over and see these things, they would say, oh, I would love to have one of those. I said, oh, boy, here is a chance to do some good. I look back and there were some major catastrophes, the birdhouse, I never did get the birdhouses big enough for the birds to get in the birdhouses. People bought them and encouraged me that way.
Then when we moved up to McGraw and Warren, we lived right next door to a poolroom and across the street from a poolroom. The neighborhood was predominately black. We had a drug store in the area. We had some shows and things. I can remember back in that period of time that some of the theaters and things you had to go in the balcony. We were not permitted on the first floor, the first theaters that I remember going to in Detroit.
We had a place there on McGraw, and I guess we expanded by, we had a big basement. So then we started having little dances in the basement and we kind of worked that out, because we had the musicians that used to come over and practice in our basement. This was in the later years. The Donald Byrds and the Barry Harris’s and Yusef Lateef and what is the guitar player’s name? I forget. I can’t think of his name right now. We had all of the local musicians used to come over; even Miles came over one time. All of the different guys used to practice in the basement. So in turn, we would have a little dancing and I think it cost a quarter.
Q You would charge them?
A Oh, yes. Yes, you had to make money. Then my dad had some brillant idea. It was a shoe shine stand built against the back wall of the poolroom that was next door. We shined shoes there. I guess one day my dad was out and he saw a place over on Milwaukee and Woodward, and he talked to the gentleman there. It was right behind the bank. We decided that we would put a shoe shine stand over there. We had the shoe shine stand there. From there we were looking at behind Cunningham which was over on East Grand Boulevard and Woodward. There was a Cunningham store there. In front of Cunningham at that time were lavatories that were underground, men’s and women’s lavatory. It turned out to be quite an adventure and it was about the time that I was getting ready to go to high school. We had a shoe shine stand there. As a matter of fact, most of the guys on the west side know my first employee, he was one of my dearest friends, who died not too long ago, Tommy Tyler. We made quite a bit of business there. We made quite a bit of money. I put my first thousand dollars or so in the bank across the street from there, shining shoes. You can imagine at fifteen cents, a piece and shining shoes, that is a lot of shoe shining. Tommy and I,I guess in the summer we shined shoes there and had quite a bit of business because down the street from us was the Latin Quarter. So in the evening it got to, I learned to drive on the parking lot. So we got to parking cars and I used to park cars on the weekend for the Latin Quarter. There was a parking lot behind Cunninghams’ and I, so on the weekends that is what I did, besides shining shoes.
Then we setup a business, we were doing very well. Then we setup a business whereas we would with the other parking lot guys, the people would leave their shoes in the car and we would go and get them, shine them, put them back in the car. We gave the guy a percentage for handling it for us, the parking lot attendant. So that kept us in business during the week. We worked seven days a week doing that.
Q What were your peers doing, your other friends that you grew up in the neighborhood with, and went to school with?
A Unfortunately, in retrospect, I guess I didn’t have too many friends, because most of them were out playing basketball and doing other things, not that I didn’t have the opportunity at times to do some things. I was predominately in the summertime, it got to the point there was a great dependency on us being there. A lot of our people were dependent on us being there because they would wear the same shoes in the factory that they wore to church. We learned how to shine shoes that had grease on them. That got to be a good thing. We normally shined shoes at fifteen cents and we normally got about twenty-five cents for the shine.
Q What year are we talking about now?
A Oh, God, I am not too good on years. I guess I was about, must have been around 13, 14 years old.
Q That wasn’t your first business, the birdhouses and the carts —
A It really wasn’t a business. It was something that I did, you know, otherwise. But yes, I guess that was my first business because, of course, all of the neighborhood was in danger, because I would pay for my wheels for my carts. I would go by and see these buggies with no wheels on them. I was slightly suspicious where the guys got the wheels from. That was an early business.
I went to Cass Tech. I shined shoes all the way through Cass Tech and earlier in my first years at U of D, I still had the shoe shine stand; it was fairly profitable. Of course, there were other things that we did on the corner. We handled a lot of different activities. I guess it is safe to say now, we were the lookout for the mafia when they would trading the betting slips in the parking lot behind us. There were different tickets and things that you come through to pick up for whatever, we didn’t know. There were different people picking up tickets, and they would leave. That was a focal point.
So Tommy Tyler and I were there, but we had other employees that sometimes were extremely busy. At that time I tell you how tight Tommy and I were. Tommy lived on Tireman and I lived at that time Warren and McGraw. You got to realize this is East Grand Boulevard and Woodward. The streetcars were six cents and the bus was a dime. We used to walk home. We were that stingy. We enjoyed it. It was summertime, but he and I were working together then.
Q Tell us about McGraw and McMichael and then Cass?
A Well, I went to, as I told you, I lived right directly across from Old McGraw which had the wood floors in the auditorium. I think the toughest person in the school was a girl named Daisy. Daisy could whip everybody in the school. At that time in our neighborhood you did one of two things well, you either ran well or you fought well. You had to learn how to do one of the two.
So when I left McGraw I went to McMichael and it was always kind of amusing because the majority of the classes I was in, there were very few blacks. There were two Glens. There was always a dual between the two Glenns. I was the black Glen and he was the white Glen. So when the instructor would read off the grades and things, it was always Glen. They would wait for the last name or the drop of the foot to see, you know, that was always a good school, though. I went to McMichael.
From McMichael, I went to Cass Tech, and I went into the Architectural Department. I think at the time I went in the Architectural Department it was initially about fifty kids coming into the Architectural Department. It was about four blacks at the time in the class. It was quite an experience going to Cass. We had everything going. We learned. We had the drafting and we had all of the different courses and things, electrical, mechanical. We learned how to wire a house in conduit. We learned a lot, hands-on learning. At the same time you had a good academic program going. When I came out of Cass, I was doing calculus and other things. Cass was a good experience and particularly for networking. I found that a lot of people that I met later in life were people who had gone to Cass. Now, the Mayor knows me, but I am too old. I am a Cassite. I guess I am too old. We have a lot of good experiences at Cass, because it was a lot more, the kids had a lot more in common. I was in the Architectural Department. We had the Architectural Club, and there were some things that happened in the Architectural Club. I can very vividly remember one time I was the President of the Architectural Club and we went out to Cranbrook or we were going out to Cranbrook. We stopped at a restaurant to get some food. I was the only black in the group. I was President of the club. They would serve everybody but me. That was sort of a shocking thing to occur, because then I had buddies they all ordered food and walked out and left it. I told told her to give me six cheeseburgers to go. So when I walked out, I left the cheeseburgers there, knowing when I walked out and left them, that they were not any good. Those are things that you experience and you look back and say that is the way it is.
I had a little hustle going there during the same period of time. There the World War II was going on, and there was a lot of need for housing. So I was doing a lot of drawings and stuff for converting four family flats, you know, and doing work in houses in order to get more room, cut it up for rooms and so forth. So I had a very early experience, down in the Building Departments. So I guess I have been doing this now over sixty years in construction. At that time it was no City Hall where there is. We had a City Hall sitting at the opposite end of where the County Building was, but on Woodward. It was a red stone building. I remember distinctly, it had bird crap all over it, pigeons. Where the Ren Cen sits is where a lot of the Building Department was as well as the Health Department. The building sitting on the corner where the Ren Cen is, and we would go down there to get permits and things. So I had exposure from the time I was in the Cass Tech Building Department to now.
Q Cass Tech, it seems so very unusual for someone from the west side to be at Cass as opposed to Northwestern, which I am guessing is where most high school students went.
How did you get to Cass in the first place?
A I was always interested in architecture, although I am a lousy draftsman. Well, I was a good draftsman, but I was never a good artist. I couldn’t get the renderings and stuff.
What occurred, well, at that time in order to get in Cass you had to have a B plus average. So that eliminated a lot of people. If you didn’t have the A, or B plus average you couldn’t get in Cass. They had a lot of courses and things I was interested in. I was always interested in construction, so that was the natural place to go.
Q At McGraw, could you fight or run, which was yours?
A It would depend. I could out run Daisy, so that worked for me. I was pretty good. As a matter of fact in later years I went to Kronk. I was going to try to do some boxing, and my boxing career was cut short by having gone to Brewster. I can always remember the fellow, I think he is about five foot fall. I was at that time about five foot six or seven. I danced around, I hit him every place I could. He finally said, well, enough of this and he was a terminator. He killed my boxing career.
Q Tell me about the block that you grew up on, 23rd near McGraw?
A Yes, 12th Street, at that time the show we went to was the Granada Theater and that was at Junction and Warren. It was a unique theater. At that time when we used to go to the show you would have the two main features, then you would have the news, then you would have the cartoons, and then you have the chapter picture plus they would probably give you a dish. Everybody’s house had all of these different dishes. None of them matched because nobody went back to get a whole matched set. Then they would have the movies, Frankenstein, the Werewolf. That is how you learned to run. You had to go to church before you went to the movies. That is how we got the show fare, either that or bottles. I can remember many a day running from McGraw, I mean Warren and Junction all the way down to 23rd and McGraw, nonstop, from seeing these chapter pictures and so forth. The neighborhood was good. They didn’t worry about us coming in at night. They were always talking about the Hatchet Man in the neighborhood. When the street lights came on, you automatically found your way home early. The parents were talking about so and so disappeared or this guy disappeared, so you were home early. We played baseball, when I wasn’t working, that was in the early days.
Q What kind of rules did your parents have, other than you had to be home before the lights came on?
A My parents were extremely supportive of most anything I ever did. I don’t think I had too much time to generate any real problems and so forth. My father always taught me to do anything you want to do, and that has always been supported. He didn’t have a lot of money and stuff to give me or anything like that, but I always knew he was in my corner on anything I tried to do. My mother, she did a good job early. All she had to do is give you that look and you knew from that look. I go out now and I watch the little kids jump up and down, and I say, boy, if you only knew. My mother would not have tolerated that.
You would go downtown and that was always a big thing downtown Detroit. The street cars, riding down and going to Hudson’s, and Christmas and going to the ten cent store across the street and getting the waffle with the ice cream. These were big times, exciting times; meeting under the Kerns clock; that was all part of being here in Detroit. I think that a lot of what is occurring, a lot of the fault that is happening in Detroit has been the fact that people are not cognizant of the history of Detroit. When they try to build back something and not understand the way it was built to begin with and they are trying to rebuild it back the way it was and times and things have changed radically since that time. That is one of the problems I have currently with the city, and trying to develop here in the city.
Q Back to your — actually your family in growing up and the west side, what kind of things did your family do together?
A Well, my father was working most of the time. My mother at times she did day work, but they had these clubs and things like I mentioned. There were the Craigs, and the Tylers, there were a bunch of families where the mothers belonged to these clubs, which proved advantageous, at times and it was disadvantageous. They had membership all over the city and sometimes you had to go across town. At that time we had what they called the west side group. Then we had the group on the other side of Woodward, below the Boulevard. Then you had the North End which was above the Boulevard on the east side. And sometimes you had to go to other areas, but I lucked out because I went to Cass Tech, so I knew people all over the city, I guess we did the simple things. We just didn’t know that we were deprived, I guess we didn’t know we were poor, because you know, there wasn’t any comparison; you didn’t get out to make a comparison as to what other things were going on. That is probably that.
Q What did these clubs do?
A In the summertime they might go out and have picnics, and they gave the mothers an opportunity to sort of get out get dressed, and get away from things. Sometimes they would have dinners. They would have little dances and things to get the husbands out. You got to understand that there was really no social life for blacks during that period, during that time, unless you went to the night clubs and so forth. So they would have their little social affairs, and so forth. The mothers would get together and have their little social affairs. That was primarily it. I really didn’t stop and look at it, we didn’t have too much to do.
Q In churches: I understand that you went to Tabernacle?
A Yes, my family went there for years, went there for years. As a matter of fact my father was there a long, long time. I kind of fell out with Tabernacle, though, in later years because the churches have not been consistent. They preach one thing and do another. I am in construction and I have a real problem with the fact that a lot of churches when it comes to do their construction stuff didn’t follow through with what they preached out of the pulpit. They took all black money, but didn’t use black builders to build the churches; so that irritated me.
Q When you were at Tabernacle growing up, do you remember any particular sermons or particular preachers that kind of had an impression on you?
A Yes, I had a fairly good life there, but I wasn’t that much in church as maybe I should have been. When I should have been in church I was shining shoes. Sunday morning was a big day on the stand on Woodward and East Grand Boulevard. I can remember some of the ministers, yes. I thought that Tabernacle was a real, was a big influence on the west side. Then during the same time we had, socially we had the Nacirema, oh, man when you went to the Nacirema that was high on the hog. I found that rather surprising when I went back there a couple of years ago. I was looking for the rest of it. As you know as a a child you see things one way, and when you get to be an adult you find out they weren’t as big as you thought they were. We had a lot of churches in that west side, in that triangular area. I call it the Golden Triangle. You take Warren and Tireman and Livernois and sort of a triangle. A lot of the prominent blacks in the city came out of that immediate area. We had quite a few churches, now that I look. We had Chapel Hill. We had Tabernacle. We had what is the church on — so we had the churches and things in the area. I guess if you look at that period of time, I guess we would be considered some of the middle class blacks here in the city. Most of us didn’t go — well a lot of the westsiders never went to the east side because they had illusions about what was happening on the east side, that was the bad side of town. I had quite a bit of experience on the east side with my shoe shine stand. In the later years when I was older I used to walk down John R. Walking down John R, you would go past Ann’s Bar and down further to the Chesterfield and the Garfield Lounge and all of the bars and things down there. Of course that was the exciting part being under age and getting in the bar sitting there with the beer in shaking hands, thinking you would be put out any minute. That was a period of time I can remember seeing a lot of people that were legends at those bars back in those days. Street folks. I get rather amused by a lot of the guys that call themselves street people who haven’t the faintest idea of what it was all about; but it was a good lesson.
Q It sounds like when you say networking with a lot of things going on in the city as opposed to some of your peers?
A They were sort of an enclosed area, had a very limited exposure. By having gone to Cass and having a lot of diversified friends that came from all over the city, I got to know a lot of other parts of the city and what was going on and other, different types of people.
Q Looking back on it, was it unusual that you as a young black boy being the President of the Architectural Club at some place like Cass?
A Oh, yes. I think what occurred is that in my early days in Grand Rapids, I found out that white folks were just as dumb and didn’t know no more about things than black folks, so I didn’t let that bother me. I have never gone into anything on the basis of saying, I am black and he is white. It is about, we are both, he is smarter than me or he is dumber than me, but it didn’t go to he is black or he is white. Even when I went to Cass my class, most of classes when I went to Cass, I was the only black in the class. The same thing happened at U of D. I was the standard. You were above Glen Wash or you were below Glen Wash. It wasn’t that you had As, Bs, Cs, or Ds, it was did you beat Glen; that was the word. They kept me in the competitive sense.
I went to Cass and then I went to Highland Park and then I went to U of D. At U of D in the winter time, I worked in the factories at night to go to school. I would come in early, sleep on the drawing boards, and wait for the class to start. My education unfortunately or my parents never really knew where I was in school. So I wanted to be an architect at the time. And at that time most of the counselors said, you don’t want to be an architect. Why do you want to be an architect. It was discouraging. So I probably ended up with more general courses than anybody I know. English Literature. A lot of courses were totally unrelated to being an architect, I ended up getting or having. U of D was an experience and unfortunately during that period of time and as it was I was the only black in the whole engineering school. There was another black guy, he claimed to be Hispanic, so I guess he doesn’t count. It was interesting; it was interesting times.
Q Did you experience any or much racism?
A Well, no. I was cognizant of the fact that there were times, but I didn’t let it bother me. I think if you permitted yourself to, and it wasn’t enough of me. It wasn’t enough blacks to get anything organized and going. I think in the whole school we used to meet at the library, which has just been built at the time I was there. The blacks used to meet in the morning at U of D and sort of discuss things. If it was ten or twelve in the whole school at that time, it was unusual.
Q What kind of things would you discuss?
A Well, you know, how the classes were going, the problems that we were having because we did, you know, we were beginning to understand racism and so forth at that time. They had a co-op system at U of D and when it got down to placement of students and so forth, it got to be a little difficult to try to get a black student into a firm was a little different as such.
Q So how did you openly do it?
You come along and worked with Leonard Jarosz. How did you find it?
A How did I find it?
A Well, I was out and I started getting, actually I worked in an architectural firm first, Nesbor & Williams (ps). It was out on Gratiot, the other side of Harper. I worked there as a draftsman in an architectural firm, and I did a lot of design and building in Dearborn. They had buildings all over the town. A lot of guys were building strips of offices. That is what I was doing at that particular time. One day I was there and I decided, enough of this. I went and made application for employment at that time, to tell you how far back, there was no John C. Lodge. I went and made application for a couple of places and went to work for a guy named Leonard Jarosz who was the ultimate of entrepreneurs. This guy was smart; this guy was super smart. He was a real hustler. Anything he touched or went into was something. He took up guitar and in three years he was giving concerts. He took up skiing and after a couple of years later he was one of the top skiiers for his age bracket in town. I learned a lot from Leonard. He built offices and developments and so forth. He gave me the opportunity but he always said, I made him a lot of money, so don’t thank me. With him I learned or was given the opportunity to go out and stake out property lines and build buildings as a builder, as a General Contractor. One of the first jobs or some of the first things was warehousing and stuff over on Meyers, on the other side of 8 Mile. Well I put up, worked on the Bell Telephone Company and a worked on a few other buildings, and that is what got me started going into construction. From there I went to two other firms with the intent of really learning what they were about.
I went to A.G. Etkin, Alex J. Etkin, he was a General Contractor. I was going to school at night and I was working for Alex J. and I learned a lot from him. He kind of took a personal interest in me. He gave me a lot of opportunity. As a matter of fact one of the jobs that I did, I was Superintendent on Housing in Battle Creek, Michigan on military housing. I learned quite abut about concrete and such.
From there the opportunity came up to work for a company Practical Homes. With Practical Homes we did a lot of housing developments and so forth. That was intentional because I wanted to know about housing and shopping centers and so forth. So I got experience in that area.
From there there was a company, H. L. Vokes out of Cleveland Ohio. I guess the last thing I built in working with Vokes was the Howard Johnson, which has since been torn down. I always had a suspicion that they found out that it was a black guy that built it and so they tore it down. That was the last job I really kid. It was always with the intent of having my own corporation down the line.
Q What was it about the owners of the companies, Etkin and Jarosz and so forth that took an interest in you and saw it was okay to hire a black guy to supervise and have a kind of responsibility?
A Well, I found it rather flattering. I was sent by Practical Homes to Benton Harbor to build a project and they wrote about it in Ebony at that time. That was biggest project that a black guy had built in the country and so forth. We have been very fortunate in being first and doing different things. We obtained the largest bond a black guy had up to that date in time. I think we broke the barriers because we didn’t let the racial – social aspect cut us back.
For example when we do deals with a corporation, we don’t get hung up with the fact that we are black. We go there with economics and we tell the bank how we are going to do it, how we are going to pay them back. That is all they want to know. Are you going to be able to pay it back. That has been our approach relative to doing things. When I worked for the firms I did not shuffle. I don’t shuffle. I came in, I came up front and hustled and worked, with the intent to learning the business. I was always volunteering for something, anything. Saturday, you need someone to work on Saturday, I will work Saturday. If they needed somebody to go and do that, I did that. I was always trying to learn and they appreciated somebody that was willing to do that. That is what I was willing to do.
Q The first job in that area, construction area, was with Jarosz?
A Yes, Leonard Jarosz.
Q He sees you walking in the door, I know this is during the era when there was a lot more racism than we experience now?
Q Why did he realize this was a good idea to hire you?
A I wasn’t exactly so naive. I brought something to the table. By the time I got there I knew how to survey, layout, I had worked in architectural firms. I knew how, not only to draw plans, I knew how to read the prints. I read electrical, mechanical, I read all of the plans. I brought that talent that a lot of the white guys didn’t bring. Whether or not, he was Jewish, Austrian Jew, and we got along fine. We didn’t have any problems. I fulfilled his needs and made him money.
Q That is always key.
A That is key, now. That is our problem I think one of the problems black folks have, we offer a socialist, not understanding the environment is capitalism. Make the money first and then donate. Too many people try to take the social agenda and try to make money, and it just doesn’t work. You are out here playing chinese checkers and everybody else is playing chess.
In this city this is the big problem. We have a social agenda which is contrary to what we are involved with. The dominance of the area is capitalism: General Motors, Chrysler, Ford and all of the other people are capitalists. We have a social agenda. We are trying to feed everybody, house everybody, but we should be concerned with employment, getting them a job or even better, I think too often we think in terms of employment as opposed to being employers. I am more interested in being an employer. I am more interested in being a leasor; more interested in being all of the other things as opposed to being a subordinate.
Q Your role as a Board Member in New Detroit, how have you leveraged your influence within the Board?
A Oh, I understand. I am known as, I don’t cut what I think. It is very fortunate from the point that most of them don’t have any influence over me. If I don’t like something, I say it. I am not independently wealthy, but I feel I have enough skills, I don’t have to subordinate or kiss up to any of them. It has been a good experience. New Detroit is not what it was initially. It is sort of watered down from what was done initially. New Detroit, you got to understand was sort of an insurance policy and not having an instance occur where these people all sold their money: Chrysler, Ford and General Motors. Unfortunately the end result is that it gives them an opportunity to get out-of-town. As you probably noted that General Motors got all of their plants out-of-town. Everybody got their plants out-of-town, to the extent that even Chrysler moved out of Highland Park.
Q What do you do as a Board Member of New Detroit. What do you do exactly?
A Well, at least you get the ears of corporate America.
When I first became a Board Member, only the heads were there at that time I was supposed to be a prominent black businessman. So I represented the blacks as far as business, but at that point in time when New Detroit was first put together, you could only be the top person at the corporation. I could cancel Henry Ford’s vote out, or I could cancel the vote of the Chairman of Chrysler, Ford, General Motors. All of the colleges and all of the major corporations, like Hudson and all of those people, those were the people that I was associating and dealing with, as such. The only thing wrong is that the blacks during that period asked for the wrong things. They were asking for the social agenda instead of the economic agenda. They let the major corporations get out-of-town without compensating for taking away the tax base and employment. The biggest thing though was tax base.
Q How do you stop a company from doing that?
A I don’t know that you could stop them, but you should be compensated if they did do it or come up with an alternative of what was to be done. I am watching the City and getting very disgusted and very discouraged. We have taken the position here in the city that most time we hear a lot of verbalization relative of what should be done, and no one ever does anything. I have watched the current trend as opposed to trying to get an economic base going in the city, in which the ministers have chosen to become Egyptians and start building pyramids, massive churches, putting the burden on their congregation as opposed to, how can you go out and cry about we don’t have anything here in the city and we put our money into momuments or nonfunctional buildings or buildings that only function on Sundays.
So I am really at the point of saying I will be going to Atlanta, and from there I will go down to North Carolina, and South Carolina and look at Florida; I am thinking seriously of attempting to leave the area. It is just too heartbreaking.
Q It has gotten that bad?
A It has gotten that bad.
We are attempting right now, we have two projects that we have been working on and attempting to do. We can’t get the cooperation we need in order to do it. We are talking about multi-million projects.
Q It seems like a no-brainer, what is the problem?
A I can’t talk about it too much because of the people I am trying to deal with, even more so. But when we were saying that they couldn’t build shopping centers here in the city, we built a shopping center. 7 Mile and Livernois, CVS, Boston Market; National City Bank; Standard Fed: We built that.
When they said housing was difficult, which it is. Housing is not going to come back into this City, we keep hearing our politicians talk about housing. What the hell are you doing when you build a house for $150,000 and sell it to somebody for $75,000 and then you give a twelve-year tax abatement. Everytime I look up my taxes are going up, because you are giving out abatements. If you don’t develop a economic base as you try to redevelop the city you are not going any place with it. If you don’t let free enterprise or private sector people come in and develop and work with them you will never redevelop the city. I am watching that go on. I understand it. I have been in this construction over sixty years now. I have watched it and every time we get a new mayor in, he comes in with a whole new agenda, and throws out the baby, bath water, and everything else and starts all over. There is no continuity for the city. I worked and had offices in Cleveland; I have worked in Atlanta; and I have worked in other places and everybody even Toledo has a Master Plan. It doesn’t change every time they get a new mayor or change every time they get someone new. But we don’t have the consistency. That is the part that gets discouraging. I don’t get the kind of cooperation that I feel that I should get. If I am willing to put up the dollars to do something, support me in doing it, and particularly a black guy in this community because I feel very frankly as opposed to telling the black youth this is what you should be doing, we should be showing them what can be done. When I try to be a role model relative to doing that, I don’t know how successful I have been at that. I hear them talk, but I am really a pussy cat.
Q You said or you made reference to a role model. Other than your folks what other kind of role models did you have growing up?
A None. I don’t need Jesse Jackson. I don’t need the guys. All I have seen them do is to runaround and talk about things. I look at these things that come on on Sunday morning, we got a whole bunch of people sitting up on the stage talking about what should be done.
But even like now, I heard somebody the other day being very critical of Bill Cosby. At least Cosby has contributed something material. The rest of the people have done nothing but come with the intangibles as to what should be done or how it should be done. We don’t need no more studies. We know what the problem is. You don’t need no more studies. You need to go out and do something about what needs to be done. We need to get people in that know what they are doing. Our political situation in this city is absolutely disastrous. I anticipate the City going into receivership and it might be a good thing. It might be a good thing because it may be like the phoenix, and we can come up from the ashes and evolve into what it could be. When you travel around the rest of the country and see what is going on. Like I said, I just came back from China, everybody in the world is building except Detroit it seems to me. Go to Atlanta, they just built a whole new city inside of the city. Every where you go when you go downtown, you see nothing but cranes going. We got a place in Destin, Florida, all you see is cranes going. Everybody is growing. Don’t even go to Vegas, they fastest growing city in the country. But you know it is just not happening here and there are very obvious reasons; very obvious reasons.
Q Backing up a little bit: The Nacirema Club, you mentioned before?
A Oh, yes; yes.
Q You had events there?
A The Nacirema Club was sort of the place, it was the place, we had the little coming out parties for the girls. You had the high school parties, high school affair or something, after the prom you might come to the Nacirema. It was sort of the elite of the elite; that was a whole different story. Must blacks we had a period of time when we had the elites and then there were guys my color. It was a whole different period in time.
But I guess it is like most things after it is dead you only remember the good things. It is like going to the funeral and sometimes you are sitting there wondering who is in the casket when you get the description of what they did do or what they didn’t do. As it is now, I can only remember the good things about the west side, and the people and so forth because it doesn’t do any good to remember the bad things. I think that I am a much better person for having been born and experienced and grown up on the west side where I did grow up.
Q Joe Louis: What comes to mind when you think about Joe Louis growing up?
A Joe Louis comes to mind, YMCA downtown Detroit, me hanging on his muscle without washing my hands for a week. Joe Louis brings to mind when I was a kid and I was in Grand Rapids, I will tell you how it was. He fought Max Schmelling. A matter of fact we were out there in bloomers, my brother and I, we were boxing. Joe Louis was our idol. There was a period of time when we had wagons with horses, junk men and so forth, but Joe Louis was symbolic and had a real impact on us. He was the Mohammed Ali of his day, more so, because for blacks that was the only shining star out there. We have a lot of shining stars out there now. Back in that day, Joe Louis was quite a guy. Then you got a chance maybe to go out to Joe Louis’s farm in later years. It was a good experience.
Q How did you come to leave the west side or your family come to leave the west side?
A I guess we really never really totally left the west side. I was probably the first to leave the west side, married a young lady out of Chicago and I moved to the Vernor and VanDyke area. That was the first east side experience for me. I would dare say that my parents ended up 90% of their life was west side. 90% of their life was west side after they got here in Detroit. We are old west siders.
Q The community has gone down a little bit, what is responsible for that?
A Well, a lot of things occurred: the economy, this city overly simplified relative to what occurred here, we lost our rapid transit system; General Motors; Firestone and some of the other companies decided to kill that off. We lost our tax base, with all of the plants and things moving outside of the city. It is just a lot of things that have occurred here in the city that has caused its downfall. And unfortunately we have not had administrations – they were good socialists, Coleman used to come here in my office next door which burned down at that time, but I knew Coleman personally. Coleman was a hell of a socialist. He was a good union man and so forth and so on, but he was not a good capitalist. I don’t think we have had any guys thus far that had the entrepreneuralialship that is necessary to run a three billion dollar corporation. You can’t three days before have difficulty balancing your own personal checkbook and then step up and try to run a three billion dollar corporation; and never have run a candy store or run anything in your life and have illusions relative to how you think things should go.
Then anybody other 50 years old is decrepit and is not useful.
It is not just with this current administration, I go back to Jerry Cavanagh and come back through. This is one of the cities that Council and Mayors and things have not done us well.
Q That is unfortunate.
Q Going back, you mentioned jazz in your basement?
A Oh, yes.
Q That is a little different.
A Kenny Burrell, that was the name I was trying to think of. Kenny Burrell, a guitar player. He will tell you that he did not play in my basement but I got news for you; Barry Harris and Kenny Burrell and Little Red; Big Red and all of the guys. Jazz was the thing. I still love jazz. I still go up to Bakers Lounge. I see some of the guys that used to play in my basement.
Q Did you interact with them at all?
A I can play the radio. I wanted to play drums, but my mother decided not to have me play drums. It made too much noise. I just enjoy good music; that is all.
Q Did you have a relationship with them; did you get to know them?
A Oh, yes; yes, I got to know those guys very well, very well. It is always good to be around guys who are super talented.
Q Did that inspire you?
A Being around people that are ambitious and talented doesn’t hurt you at all. If you surround your people, put yourself around people there, you know, depressing so forth, then that is where you are going to be as such. I have been very fortunate, I have had some good philosophers. I have always been taught that most people who dislike you, don’t dislike you for showing up what they haven’t done. My business philosophy is basically, show me the money. Then the other one is don’t get mad at somebody giving me a shafting in a business deal. You have to be in the position to get it done. So you don’t waste a lot of time worrying about what could have been, should have been. The old one is,it is not how many times you get knocked down, but how many times you get back up. I have probably lost more money than most people will make in life.
Q Why do you keep on getting back up?
A That is the way I was taught; that is how I was taught.
It is like exercising with weights. The more resistance you get, the stronger you get in developing, so that has been pretty much it.
Q Seems like a good way to end the interview.
Mr. Wash, thank you very much.
A Thank you.