When Italians first immigrated to Detroit, they generally headed in one of two directions: east up Gratiot Avenue, or south through the downriver area. And though Detroit’s Italian-American communities have since left for greener pastures in the metro area’s far-flung suburbs, remnants of the vibrant neighborhoods they called home are visible in the city’s many Italian churches and restaurants, from the historic Holy Family Roman Catholic Church on Chrysler Service Drive to Buddy’s Pizza on Conant.
Probably Detroit’s most obscure Italian-American strip is on Oakwood Boulevard in polluted, crime-ridden southwest Detroit. In the old days, the surrounding neighborhood of Oakwood Heights supported a wide range of locally owned Italian businesses, from Wally’s barbershop to Edith’s candy store. Visiting felt like walking into an impromptu family reunion. It was always about more than business.
Now only two Italian business survive on Oakwood, Giovanni’s and Gonella’s, both near the corner of Powell and Oakwood, and most of the patrons don’t exactly have last names that end in -li, -lo, -ni, or -no. Greasy truckers and gas-soaked workers from the Marathon Oil Refinery around the block are the main clientele.
Then again, I guess there’s still Oakwood Bakery on Waring Street, too, if you want off a path that’s already well off the beaten path. But, really, that’s it.
For my money, Gonella’s is what it’s all about. Sure, Giovanni’s is great if you love high-priced chicken parmesan or ravioli with portions that’d have Chef Boyardee laughing. You just can’t tell me it’s more fun than ordering you sub by the layer. Yes, that’s right – do you want 6 layers of meat, or 12? Or how about 18? There’s enough salami, ham, and mortadella on Gonella’s 18 to send the entire offensive line of the New England Patriots to the hospital, and the way the bread soaks up the olive oil and vinegar is pure poetry.
Yes, all that wrapped in wax paper, for a mere $8 tops.
Gonella’s is a classic neighborhood corner store, a squat brick building with apartments upstairs. Blessed were the people that used to live up there, because downstairs you’ve got all the necessities of life, from chips to pop to a campy reproduction of Michaelangelo’s The Creation of Adam, and a deli where you can get a quick eat.
There’s only thing missing, really. The neighborhood. It’s not that the Italians left. That happened decades ago. No, it’s that about everyone has skipped town, forced out with a gentle shove by everyone’s favorite corporation, Marathon.
Marathon owns Michigan’s only oil refinery, conveniently located right off I-75 in a remote corner of Detroit, and a stone’s throw from the Rouge River. It was originally built in 1930 by the Aurora Gasoline Company and was never much of a problem until Marathon dramatically expanded production capacity in the 2000s, turning a huge chunk of Oakwood Heights into a steel jungle.
The resulting pollution was, as you’d expect, near intolerable. A strange dust coated awnings and sidings. Occasionally, something exploded.
What’s worse, the city couldn’t have cared less, it appeared. Locals started protesting in desperation.
Not too long after that, Marathon started buying up homes for two or three times the assessed value and leveling ‘em wholesale. In the blink of an eye, entire blocks vanished. You’d wake up one morning and – whoops! – there went the Joneses, there went the Smiths, hopefully bound for those green pastures west of Telegraph.
Perhaps it’s a fitting end for Oakwood Heights, an area the city has long and unjustly ignored. Back in the 1940s, the predominately Italian residents pitched in interest free loans to build a clubhouse, the Oakwood Blue Jackets, to give the kids something to do besides “juvenile deliquency”. Soon enough, the neighborhood was host to over a dozen youth teams, and had its own bowling alley, bocce court, and drive-in. Almost out of guilt, the city finally installed new traffic lights and made other infrastructural improvements.
What the city never did, however, was stop the grimy tentacles of industry from suffocating the tiny enclave. Over the course of the twentieth century, what was once a pastoral land with creeks and streams that overflowed with perch, bass, and carp slowly turned into an industrial nightmare. People escaped when they could.
Them’s the cost of progress, they tell us.
Maybe Gonella’s will be the last one to shut off the lights in Oakwood Heights.