It took over five years, including a pandemic pause, to bring one of Lansing’s least known but important and wrenching stories to the screen, and now it’s here.
“I’m still finessing it, but it’ll be ready,” filmmaker Craig Derek Jones promised.
“They Even Took the Dirt,” an hour-long documentary premiering at Lansing’s Public Media Center Sunday (July 9), brings to life the vibrant Black neighborhood wiped out by Interstate 496 in the late 1960s.
The film draws upon over 130 interviews with people who lived in the neighborhood along St. Joseph and Main streets (now Malcolm X Street) and vividly recall its close-knit, vibrant community life. It’s a deeply moving mix of warm reminiscences, thoughtful reflection and straight-up tragedy, told in kitchens and offices of people who appear to have moved on, by necessity, but haven’t forgotten.
The film is also a potent antidote to a poisonous and persistent lie. Notices in the local press hyped the demolition of the near westside neighborhood as a rare “opportunity” to break up “ghetto” patterns of city life.
That image bears zero resemblance to the bustling, closely knit community brought to life in the film. Today’s urban planners would kill to create such a “15-minute city,” where everyone knows everyone else and every need is within a few blocks’ walk, as thriving and vibrant as this.
The ladies who paraded down Main Street and West St. Joe in their finest every Sunday, the kids who stopped at Wright’s Grocery on West St. Joe for a Polish dog after school, the music lovers who bought Ray Charles tickets at Johnny’s Record Store — the auto workers, doctors, city employees, bar owners, dry cleaners, barbers, students at Lincoln School, the neighbors and friends and sports teams and so many others who lived here — never got the chance to call bullshit on that “ghetto” lie in front all the world — until now.
The Olds Freeway, or I-496, makes a gash 11.9 miles long through the middle of Lansing, from west to east, from Delta Township to MSU, including the 3.4-mile “Pine Tree Connector” from Kalamazoo Street near East Lansing to Interstate 96.
Between 1963 and 1970, about 800 houses and businesses between Main and St. Joseph streets, just south and southwest of downtown, were wiped out by I-496. About 35 streets that once wove the neighborhood together were bisected and dead-ended.
Kenneth Turner’s boyhood house at 1131 W. Lenawee St. was demolished in 1971, shortly after the freeway was built, as part of a reconfiguration of nearby streets. Turner had just graduated from high school. He lived in the house since he was 2 years old.
About once every month, he finds himself rambling over to the empty spot.
“I just sit in the place where my house sat, and reminisce a bit,” he said.
In spring 2018, Turner got a call from Bill Castanier, the president of the Historical Society of Greater Lansing (and a regular contributor to City Pulse). The group had just received a grant for $39,400 from the National Parks Service to research local history. Castanier had an idea on how to use the grant and was assembling a group of co-conspirators.
Nationwide, urban historians were belatedly scrutinizing the clear pattern of targeted devastation wrought by crosstown expressways. In Tennessee, Interstate 40 was routed through Nashville’s flourishing Jefferson Street corridor, home to about 80 percent of the city’s Black-owned businesses. Miami, Kansas City, New Orleans — the list is long, and Lansing’s case is straight from the textbook.
Anthony Foxx, former U.S. secretary of transportation, called such neighborhoods “communities of least resistance.”
“We now know, overwhelmingly, that our urban freeways were routed through low-income and minority communities,” Foxx declares in the film. “So, instead of connecting us to each other, in some ways, our highways have represented a separation.”
In March 2018, the nascent Pave the Way team met at Harry’s Bar, not far from Sexton High School, where Turner spent many hours in the library, researching potential inductees for the school’s Hall of Fame. Turner was not only valuable as a researcher. He had a video camera and the skills to use it.
Also in attendance at the Harry’s Bar summit was a retired state employee, Adolph Burton, who lived in the neighborhood wiped out by I-496 as a youngster.
“You know what’s so ironic about this whole thing?” Burton quipped. “I’m a retired draftsman in bridge design for the Department of Transportation.”
Burton’s father, Frederick Richardson, was a photographer for General Motors. When Richardson died in 2017, he left behind a trove of 35,000 pictures documenting African-American life in Lansing — houses, stores, restaurants, parties, businesses and their owners, weddings, proms, you name it.
The photos became the nucleus of a critical visual record of the Black neighborhood wiped out by I-496.
A mutual friend, former Lansing Councilman and current Ingham County Register of Deeds Derrick Quinney, suggested that Burton and Castanier get together.
“And we’ve been in love ever since,” Burton quipped.
The initial grant for the Pave the Way research project called for 25 interviews and a brief film, but it soon became clear that there was a much bigger story to tell.
Burton and Turner had hundreds of connections to the members of the Black community who lived in the demolished neighborhood. They made a list and got to work.
For the project to succeed, it would be essential to earn the trust of the Black community. Many people wanted their stories told, but were wary of exposing themselves to manipulation or ridicule.
Burton, who conducted the interviews while Turner operated the camera, had plenty of skin in the game. As a young man, he lived in the heart of the demolished neighborhood, next door to Spag’s party store and the offices of Dr. Clinton Canady, Lansing’s second Black dentist. His grandmother lived a block away. Lincoln School, also demolished to make way for the freeway, was two blocks away.
“Now I got my school, my grandmother and my dentist, all within two blocks,” he said. “Two more blocks away was the doctor who delivered me.” (That was William Harrison, Lansing’s first Black doctor.)
“So you see what I lost.”
One resident after another describes the neighborhood as a tight community and a safe and friendly place.
“It was self-sufficient,” Turner said. “You could walk six to eight blocks in any direction and get what you needed.”
That’s using the broadest definition of “basic needs.”
There were more than 20 beauty shops and barbershops in the neighborhood, with exotic names like Fashionette and the Bird Cage. Wright’s Grocery, between Sexton High School and West Junior High, had a Polish dog, a bag of potato chips and a Tahitian Treat pop for 35 cents. Fred and Bill’s specialized in broasted chicken. Silver Bells Bakery was the place for pastries.
Matthew’s was known for foot-long hot dogs.
Fashionable African-American women went to Lett’s Fashions, on St. Joseph, for wedding dresses, cotillion gowns and clothes for working in state offices.
Johnny’s Record Shop on Logan Street was unique, not only for new album releases and concert tickets, but also for tinted nylons, hair treatments, hats, shirts and other products for Black customers.
It didn’t matter if you didn’t know the name of the record you wanted.
“You could go in there and hum a few bars, ‘doo doo doo, doo doo doo — that’s the Temptations,’” Burton said.
Black residents had four dry-cleaners in the neighborhood. (Many white-owned dry cleaners did not accept business from Black customers.)
The freeway forced more than 10 churches to move and regroup, including Friendship Baptist Church.
“Our front door was open all summer long,” Lansing resident Albert Kelly says in the film.
Lansing artist James “Jet” Davis recalls picking fruit from peach trees and cherry trees on the way to Lincoln School. Other residents remember plum trees, pear trees, apple trees and grape vines.
It was beyond galling for residents to read a newspaper notice hyping the relocation as a “a chance to break up ‘ghetto’ living” that “may not come again for many years.”
“It pissed me off when they put that in the Lansing State Journal,” Burton said. “’We’re going to get rid of the ghetto.’ There was no ghetto in there.”
As Burton and Turner painstakingly gathered their growing cache of interviews, they knew the clock of mortality was ticking. “They Even Took the Dirt” has a memorable clip featuring Frank Spagnuolo, owner of Spag’s party store, one of several white-owned business in the Black neighborhood lost to I-496. Spagnuolo, who died in December 2022, sponsored the first Pop Warner tackle football team in the neighborhood. Hundreds of fans came to see the Sunday games.
In the film, Spagnuolo recalls taking a phone call in his store while talking with Canady, who stopped by regularly on his way to the office. As Canady stood there watching, the lady on the phone threatened to burn Spagnuolo’s store and his house down for sponsoring an all-Black football team.
“I will never forget his words,” Spagnuolo says in the film, quoting Canady’s reaction: “See, Frank? That’s what we put up with all the time.”
The historic photos, interview footage, artifacts and documents gathered by the Pave the Way group have already been used in several exhibits, including a window exhibit at the Knapp’s Centre and a large-scale exhibit on automobile culture at the MSU Broad Museum in 2021.
However, the group’s most cherished goal has always been to make a finished film good enough to be shown at festivals, broadcast, streamed and used in educational programs.
Knowing this, the Pave the Way group approached Dominic Cochran, director of the Lansing Public Media Center and the Capital City Film Festival, for help. Cochran knew just who to tap.
Craig Derek Jones, a digital media specialist based at Lansing Community College, has filmed everything from sports events, music festivals, ballets and operas to (fictional) flesh-eating zombies.
Jones writes, films, edits, does voice-overs and even appears on camera in a pinch. In short, he is a wizard — just what was needed to bringing the project to the finish line.
Over the past two years, Jones donated countless hours and several of his many talents to whip hundreds of rough hours of video interviews into shape.
“They had a great idea for a project, but they’re not filmmakers,” Jones said. “They didn’t have any money and they needed to finish the project.”
Jones did the editing and the voice-over work and focused and polished the script.
“What I like most about the movie is the authenticity, how these people tell their stories,” Jones said. “They’re strong, and they came through it, but it still disrupted their lives, and you can tell it’s still a part of who we are.”
Although Jones left the Public Media Center six months ago to pursue his own work, he kept working on the project in his spare time, for free.
“After a while, they just trusted me,” he said. “I said, ‘Just let me do what I do.’ It’s been a great partnership.”
“I felt like I really owed it to those people that passed away to have their story told,” he said. “I don’t know who else would have taken this story on.”
It’s been a long slog — Jones has been working on the final edit for two years — but he doesn’t measure his pay in dollars.
Jones was deeply moved by much of the footage gathered by Burton and Turner. He singled out a moment when Lansing artist James “Jet” Davis describes returning to the block where he used to live and looking into a hole so deep he couldn’t even orient himself.
“They even took the dirt away,” Davis said, giving the film its title.
“All of these anecdotes hurt me,” Jones said. “I went through 100 hours of footage and listened to everything they had to say. They went through it, and it changed them, and they kind of changed me.”
From Castanier, Turner and Burton to Jones, the power of the story sweeps the volunteer flame along. Burton, a lifelong musician, plays the drums on the film’s jazzy soundtrack, performed by local musician Natalie Riddle and her band, Riddle Me That.
Jones tapped Ryan Holmes, a local artist and teacher known locally for his cosplay ghostbusters charity work, to add some sketches and drawings to enhance the film.
Holmes saw a rough cut, got excited about the project and agreed to help.
“We all know we’re not going to get paid,” Jones said. “We’re all doing it for the love of the survivors of a horrible thing that happened, and want the story to be told, and want to do our part.”
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