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Blight by Association: Why a White Working-Class Suburb Changed Its Name

The stretches one Detroit suburb made to justify a name change — the ‘burb’s supposedly colorblind arguments were anything but.

Coleman paid particular attention to East Detroit—a white, working-class, border suburb on the city’s northside. It was a landscape of cookie cutter frame houses and small industrial shops populated by retired autoworkers, local factory workers, and, increasingly, retail and healthcare employees. In 1982, a group of East Detroiters organized to change the name of their town, first to Erin Heights and later to Eastpointe. George Lawroski, leader of the Name Change Committee (NCC) and a retired tank plant supervisor, explained that they were tired of being associated with Detroit. “We should have our own identity,” Lawroski argued, so that the suburb could disassociate with the “crime and financial difficulties facing the big city.” But the large green lawns and stately manors of the Grosse Pointes—the wealthy, “old money” suburbs of Detroit—seemed far away from the light industry and tract housing of East Detroit. The only similarity was that East Detroit, like the Grosse Pointes, was overwhelmingly white; only 87 of the 35,283 residents were black. However, organizers advocating the name change never said a word about race.[2]

The rhetoric around the name change was highly racialized despite Lawroski and the NCC’s colorblind language. It was quality of life, they argued, and not racism that motivated the name change campaign. But historians of postwar metropolitan America have pointed out how seemingly “colorblind” issues—such as the name of a city—were, in fact, about discrimination and segregation. David Freund argued that suburban whites learned to view racial discrimination as a “legitimate response to the needs of the market,” and thus worried that changes in the racial geography of the region would bring urban problems, like crime and blight, into the suburbs. Earlier strategies to enforce racial segregation, such as intimidating new black homeowners through violence and protest, failed. Racial transition occurred in spite of the violence, but also the changing national conversation on race in the late twentieth century made violent efforts unpalatable to a population increasingly accustomed to racial diversity in popular culture. These working-class suburbanites had to stretch to find new, seemingly race-neutral ways to articulate their anxieties over racial integration and their solutions to preserve segregation.[3]