Sentenced to Death: Oakwood Heights

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.

gonellasNow 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.

oakwood8No, that’s it. I’m not joking.

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.

oakwood2He knows.

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.

oakwood7Imagine waking up to this every morning.

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.

oakwood6Hey, at least it wasn’t BP.

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.

oakwood1Don’t worry, Marathon said. We have a solution, they said.

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.

oakwood5Thanks Detroit!

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.

29 thoughts on “Sentenced to Death: Oakwood Heights

  1. I haven’t spent a lot of time downriver and didn’t know about this SW Detroit community. It was fun reading out it and doing some follow-up research. One thing is for sure: if residents eat that sandwich for breakfast and need air to survive, then their health isn’t doing so well.

    Also, what will be the “cost of progress” if/when the Marathon refinery decides to close down the site and get out of dodge?

    Nah, the cost of polluting and doing business in Detroit is too cheap.

  2. Downriver has a lot to it, and it gets unfairly ignored. Yes, there’s tons of boring suburban tract homes, but you’ve got vintage Roaring Twenties industrial cities like River Rouge/Ecorse and Dearborn (the latter of which has a lot of history and culture thanks to Henry Ford), historic towns like Wyandotte and Trenton, and tons of great vistas along the river. Grosse Ile is kind of interesting, too, an elitist island complete with toll bridges for entry.

    So, yes, head to Downriver. You won’t regret it. Just don’t get lost in Taylor, Romulus, Garden City, Wayne, or Southgate.

  3. Garden City and Wayne are not part of Downriver. I say this as someone who grew up there and still has lots of family in the area.

  4. No, but you can certainly end up in those cities while exploring Downriver if you’re not careful.

    In fact, technically, Dearborn isn’t even in Downriver, but I’ve always considered East Dearborn an extension of the region.

  5. Oakwood Heights Born and Raised(Oakwood as we call it), I Remember it all ! Lots of Great Memories for me. If you are on Facebook , search( Oakwood Blue Jackets )and you can read all about the history and the people who lived there.

  6. They also ruined the rest of the area around too . I grew up right there worked the local car wash me and my friends always ate gonnelas stopped in at the blue jackets hung around good times . Marathon and everything else over there has been killing that area for decades . Lime company no different cleaned many cars for years that were dusted and and covered in that crap. Then there was the tar and gas car accounts too. Always has been bad , so sad .

  7. Interesting article for those that are not familiar with the start of the Oakwood community, however a large portion was left out in the article, many of the original Italian families eventually moved out and a new generation of Mexican American families moved in. Which turned out to be the families that were forced to move out and move on due to many health and crime related issues. And played a large roll with those original Italian families that protest a resolution to the air population issue and crime related problems. Also the Gonella’s business is not the original owners. The bakery and restaurant Giovanni are businesses that have been handed down from generation to generation. This is yet another community or area of Detroit that was forgotten in the large scale of the Detroit downfall. Best wishes for those left on the land of the forgotten.

  8. Born a raised on bayside and dumfries….. It’s sad …. And the original gonnellas is on outer drive just past Pelham I think….. Vince sold the oakwood one years ago…. It’s nasty now

  9. I thought the Oakwood Heights location was in decent shape given the location. I’m sure it doesn’t get the business it used to, which is going to present maintenance issues.

  10. My parents were born and raised there. My paternal grandfather spent his last days there; my paternal grandmother stayed until she could no longer care for herself. Like my paternal grandfather, my maternal grandfather died there as well and my maternal grandmother still remains. I spend many days and weekends there and almost every Sunday during my youth after attending church in the neighborhood.

    While Marathon may not have helped, the decline of Oakwood (as we referred to it) happened many, many years before they expanded. As the years progressed the streets were less safe, stores we frequented closed their doors, and as the “old-timers” left us younger families moved in that just didn’t seem to care as much as the families they replaced.

  11. I grew up in this neighborhood. I went to Gonellas a few years back and it is NOTHING like it used to be. The workers were definitely not Italian, the store bare and dirty. The subs were not nearly as good either. I will notgo back. On the other hand, Giovanni’s used to be a pizzeria back then but the food and service are excellent still.

  12. My husband was raised there since 1955, I married him in 1976 and lived there till 1992. It was a good neighborhood back then and it is sad to see all the homes being tore down

  13. I also lived on the dead end of dumfries my parents were deaf what years did you live there? I was born in 1952 there moved out about 8 years ago ?

  14. I’ve lived in this neighborhood for 16 years, I am now 22. When you’re a kid and all you have is what you know, you don’t see the area as a “small crime ridden place” you know what you know. That was the kids you grew up around, the corner store in walking distance from you, and what you were restricted from.
    When Marathon started building I was pretty young, and didn’t notice until the banging of the building could be heard from my home – the house that original owners of Giovanni’s first lived in – and eventually the air was… Different. We were warned not to plant vegetables because the soil was no longer “usable” and my brother, 10 years my junior, developed asthma to the point of not being able to run even a few steps without stopping over in a heap to cough his little heart out.
    I realize that being a resident I will always be biasted because this was my home, and I will never forget the memories I have of it or the day that I returned after leaving to see my childhood home demolished, for such a meaningless reason. This article sheds such a negative light, then again Im sure no outsider could find any positive in it.
    When Marathon came with the offer for our house, my parents were surprised at the numbers, they literally received 4x as much money than it was worht, like most of us. my home was beautiful to me, wooden floors, this wooden dooes with bevelled glass windows and knobs, a 9 step porch, and a backyard with 2 huge trees that produced the prettiest purple flowers. Some people were so reluctant to leave but all I could think is what an opportunity it was for us all, wether or not we would like to believe it, the reality of the matter was that we had no choice, and our homes would never be the same.
    Gonellas will forever be the highlight of the area, a treat we all still get excited over as adults. To think of what this neighborhood has become, compared to how it was 30 years + before when my dad grew up 3 houses down from where I did, truly breaks my heart. This is a very big, secret story that Im sure Detroit will always stand by because of the millions and millions of dollars that company brings in, just goes to show that dollars are worth more than people in this day, and that no amount of money could ever replace what we had there. It wasn’t perfect, but we made the most of what we had, we have since moved on, and Oakwood Heights is now just a part of our past… but it will always be home.

  15. Lets not forget about Majors resturant, or the old Tony’s gas station that was on the corner of Oakwood and Powell. Next to that was a dry cleaners. Oakwood had a lot of good businesses. It even had 4 local bars within a 3 block radius. School, park, bowling alley in the neighborhood kept all of us kids happy and out of trouble. There is a lot of good memories that came from Oakwood heights. I will never forget where I was raised and no one can erase the good times I had.

  16. recd from a friend. I lived in Oakwood/Married in Oakwood/Had a child while in Oakwood. Worked at Coogans Drug Store, wedding reception at Majors Cafe, Hunter School, and on and on like the song. This was in the 50’s. Graduated in 1952/Commerce. Married 1956 at Our Lady of Mt Carmel. Life was good, life was happy and at that time Life was always safe. Maybe a couple of the neighbors who drank too much and needed help getting home. And, we were taught by our parents to get them home safely…we did not harm them, we did not steal from them. I am now 79 and am so grateful for my life/growing up in Oakwood.

  17. I was born, raised on Luther. Went to school at Hunter, Church at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. Had to be home before the street lights came on or you got your butt smacked. I now am 65 years old and living in Arizona. Looked at the Google map yesterday, and it looks like it’s all gone. A piece of my life has been totally bulldozed. Part of my history has been completely demolished.

  18. I’m doing research on a building at 462 S. Bayside, at the corner of Ormond. It’s a small 2-story commercial building that someone told me is the original location of Gonella’s. Owners in the 1920s and 30s were Luigi/Louis and Lydia Rogna. The building is very close to the Bayside/Oakwood/Powell location that others have mentioned as the original location. Can anyone confirm this for me?

  19. I believe the original location was on Bayside closer to Sanders Avenue across from the Oakwood health club. Behind the old LuPone’s restaurant on Oakwood and two doors down from the old fire station on Bayside.

  20. I lived in Oakwood from 1948 to 1975
    The original location of Gonella’s was next to the fire house it was run by Raymond’s mother and father, The building on the corner of Ormond and Bayside was a Soda Shop in the 50’s at that time it was run by the Edith Nardini.

  21. My grandparents built their home at 519 S. Waring in the mid 1920’s. I lived there and started kindergarten at Hunter. until 1948.. We continued to return to the neighborhood until my grandmother had to leave her home because of her age…and the house was sold. The last time I checked the address on Google, it showed the house as a pile of rubble. Made my heart cry. I remember the Oakwood Blue Jackets..and going to ball games. My mother was a member of the women’s team…and they had blueish satin shirts to wear. I also remember going to Muzzin’s Grocery Store and Pulletto’s and the sounds the chickens made when they were brought there to be butchered…I LOVED going to Muzzins store.. Bruno would always let me reach into the almond candy jar and get as many candies as my little hand would hold. I still love those candy’s to this day. My grandparents had a general/icescream store but Nana encouraged grandpa to shut it down because he felt sorry for people and gave too much away during the depression. I remember going to the Oakwood Bakery with a nickel to buy a cornetti… I also remember our neighbors had a long grape arbor and I was allowed to sit in this wonderful tunnel and eat the concord grapes they used for wine. I also remember taking our shsoes to the shoemaker on Oakwood Blvd..and all the shoes lined up with tags on them.. They had all been repaired and polished to a high shine.. Almost like getting new shoes. I remember going to the underpass at the end of Waring and making a Woo Hoo sound just to hear it echo. ALSO…all of the kids would pick up the chunks of salt that fell out of the trucks when they came out of the gate for the salt mine. I am thankful that just a few years ago, my daughter took me to the “old” neighborhood…and none of the houses were gone yet.. We even got bread from the bakers.. Sad that I can’t go back for memories now……

  22. I often Drive through Oakwood and I can`t Believe How things have Changed , I lived in Oakwood for 41 years I made a Lot of friends and Lost a lot too . I was Glad when Marathon Brought the Houses it was a God Sent They offered me More Money then if I was to Sale to Someone from a Realty Co So I took it and Now I am in a Smaller House But Less Bills and I don`t Hear GUN SHOTS , and People Houses getting Shotup, The Drunks and the Drugs Adducts walking Down the Street . I am Happy to Live the Rest of my Life in Peace and Quiet .

  23. Lived on Colonial st from 1966 till 1975. This was a great neighborhood in the 60s. It was clean, all the houses in good repair, Hunter school was the best. Many factors led to its downfall. Drugs, segregation,white flight, gas going from 29 cents to 1.60 overnight was the death of jobs.

  24. I lived on flora st in the 70’s and have a lot of good memories from those days, moved there from sw Detroit. We thought we’d gone to heaven compared to where we came from. I moved to Alabama in 1980 and haven’t regretted it at all I was there back in June for a visit and man was I shocked!!!!!!!!!

  25. I lived on Luther with my parents and sister. My girl friends Sherryand Diane lived on Colonial. We attended Hunter School and my Uncle Joel Kesler was a gym teacher there. It was a great neighborhood school. Then it all went to hell. The school closed the bowling alley fell in disarray and so did the whole area. The pollution was as bad as the drugs and the druggies that used them. The houses were burnt down such as mine. I Worked at Givonies Itallian and remember Majors French fries with gravy for a .25cents. Lots of good memories turned bad. Time never stops!

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