Asbarez: Three Days in Detroit

St. John Armenian church in Southfield, Michigan


What a better time to arrive in Detroit. It was mid-September and the daytime temperature was around 70 degrees Fahrenheit. The leaves on the trees throughout the city were just starting to change to fall colors.

My trip to Detroit began with a 4-hour train-ride from Toronto to Windsor, which is a border city in Canada. However, I needed to cross a one-mile tunnel under the Detroit river to arrive to the United States and to go through the passport check. 

At the train station in Windsor, I took a taxi and asked the driver to call my contact, Ned Apigian, with whom I had made prior arrangements to show me around and introduce me to the Armenian community in Detroit.

All went as planned and Ned and his lovely wife picked me up from the Courtyard Marriott in Detroit, where the taxi had dropped me off.

Ned Apigian at his desk

Detroit was the last leg of my 2022 trip to document Armenian communities in diaspora. Ned was very generous with his time, driving his wife and I around and showing me the different neighborhoods of Detroit — from the rundown slums to the upscale quarters.

He gave me an overview of how Detroit went from a booming Metropolis to a shrinking city for the following reasons: closing of the factories, the decline of employment, and the urban flight. 

He explained how, because of the recessions, the properties were left abandoned in downtown Detroit and homes went into foreclosure due to unpaid taxes or mortgages, and thus, the city became deserted.

My own research taught me that the exodus and the downfall of Detroit began in 1960s, when a building boom in the suburbs pushed people out of downtown Detroit. The exodus quickened in 1967, following racial riots. After two hours of cruising in different neighborhoods of Detroit, he took me to Dearborn, to the Airbnb where I had made a reservation to stay. I dropped my luggage at the Airbnb and he and his wife took me to an Arab restaurant for a succulent dinner.

Here, I should mention that Dearborn is home to one of the largest Arab-American communities. A recent survey suggests that the city could be more than half Arab. Dearborn’s sizable Arab community consists largely of Lebanese families who, in the 1920s, immigrated to work in the auto industry. The recent surge has been from Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.

The largest mosque in the U.S., situated ext to St. Sarkis Armenian church

Dearborn is also home to the largest mosque in the United States, which is built right next to the St. Sarkis, Armenian Church and the Armenian center in Dearborn.

The first Armenian Apostolic church in Michigan, built in 1931

During the next two days, Ned continued to introduce me to the Armenian life in the suburbs of Detroit, such as Dearborn and Southfield. He also took me to the old neighborhoods, where early Armenians had settled. He drove through Salina street, which was known to be an Armenian neighborhood. Now everything in the area is dilapidated.

We also drove by the ARF community center, the “Yeridasartats Agoump” (Youth Club), and a few Armenian coffee houses. Today, all those buildings are abandoned and they look like ghosts from the past, and no longer belong to the Armenian community.

He also showed me the first Armenian apostolic church, built in 1931, which had a cultural center next door. Today, the church no longer belongs to Armenians.

We also crossed another cultural center, a red brick building that was originally a Masonic Temple. On the façade of the building, I could see “Hay kentron,” or “Armenian Center,” carved out of white stone, in Armenian.

Ned, as a young boy, had frequented those streets and knew the history of every building. I also I learned about the early arrival of Armenians and how they settled in downtown Detroit.

A masonic temple turned into an Armenian cultural center A close-up of the masonic temple, which has ‘Armenian Center’ written in Armenian

Now, a little bit about my friend Ned and his background. His real, Armenian name is “Nishan,” but he’s known by his nickname Ned. He was born in Niagara-Falls, on the American side. 

Ned’s father, arrived in Canada in 1908, from Keghi, a village near Erzurum in today’s Turkey. He was 19-years-old. However, four years later, he decided to return home and was faced with WWI and the extermination of Armenians by the Ottoman Turks. However, he was able to return to the United States and to start a family.

Now, let’s have a look into the early arrival of Armenians to Detroit. The Armenian community of Detroit, around that time, was almost wholly populated with young males. When in 1914, the famous automaker Ford announced the five-dollar workday, a new wave of young Armenian men, in large numbers, arrived in Detroit. They mostly arrived in the Eastern United States, with the hopes of earning money and returning to their homes in Middle East. However, WWI and the Armenian Genocide buried their hopes.

The Armenian community, which began to organize around 1909, was composed mainly of Armenians from Turkish provinces in Anatolia, such as Kharpert, Sebastia, Keghi, Gesaria, Izmir, and Van. 

Most of the young Armenians arriving in Detroit didn’t have proper education — they were sons of peasants. Although many knew how to read and write in Armenian, most were unfamiliar with the English language. In 1912, a few Armenians got together, and obtained permission from the YMCA to use some of their rooms to teach young Armenian men the English language.

Dr. Ashod Raffi Aprahamian in his book “Remarkable Rebirth,” which is about the history of the Armenians in Detroit, writes about the situation of those early Armenian communities.

“The only social outlets at the time were the political parties and the ‘one’ Armenian coffee house then operating in Detroit. At that early date (before 1908) two of the political parties had organizations in Detroit. The Dashnaktsutyun or Armenian Revolutionary Federation had organized its Detroit branch in 1904. The Hunchak party’s branch was organized three years later in 1907. The men would sit in the coffee house or in the rented political clubroom and talk politics for hours end,” Aprahamian wrote.

Little by little more Armenians arrived from the old countries. Also, young women were brought over to marry the Armenian men. Therefore, Armenians gradually started to establish their own families in Detroit and later in its suburbs, such as River Rouge, Dearborn, and, in the later years, in Southfield, West Bloomfield and Livonia. In the 1950s, there were about 15,000 Armenians in Metro Detroit.

Here, I should mention that the largest gathering of Armenians in the history of Detroit was on July 7, 1935, when an estimated 5,000 Armenians participated in a garden party at the Michigan State Fair Grounds. That was a groundbreaking event on all levels.

Before I finish the account of the early arrival of Armenians, I’d like to tell you a story that I read many years ago about two Armenian survivors of the Titanic ship. Of the five Armenians, the two who survived the wreckage of the Titanic, were Davit Vartanian, 22, and Neshan Krekorian, 25. Vartanian eventually settled in Detroit.  

On August 10, 2009, the Armenian Weekly published the story of Vartanian, how he survived the wreckage and how he settled in Detroit. It’s a compelling story.

Today, around 50,000 Armenians have made their homes in the greater metro area of Detroit, which is the fourth largest in the United States, behind Los Angeles, New York, and Boston. 

On Sunday morning, my third day in Detroit, Ned took me to St. Sarkis Armenian Church in Dearborn. The Apostolic church under the auspice of Cilicia was opened in October of 1962. The church sits on 15 acres of land which used to comprise of a school, a gymnasium, and a banquet hall. There’s also 151-unit low income/senior housing facility behind the church.

Ned told me that the board of directors of the church made a smart move by buying the 15 acres of land. Unfortunately, the Armenian school, due to low attendance, was shuttered. 

This building has been rented to the Dearborn Academy, but has kept the right to hoist the Armenian flag outside of the building. There is an ARF Coat of Arms symbol visible A close-up of the ARF Coat of Arms symbol on the building

The buildings are now rented to a non-Armenian academy. However, the church carries the right to hoist the Armenian flag outside of the academy building. The Armenian center, adjacent to the church, still operates for different events.

After a short visit to St. Sarkis church, Ned drove me to St. John Armenian Church in Southfield. This church had a very impressive and intricate architectural design, built as a round church with a gold plated dome. It was nothing short of awe inspiring. The construction of the church was completed in 1968. St. John Armenian Church offers numerous educational programs and opportunities. The varied ministries include: Children’s Sunday School, Altar training, Junior and Senior youth groups, Bible Studies, Women’s and Men’s groups, Senior Citizens and their needs, the learning of sacred music, and a choir named after Komitas. 

The center also offers a Research Library and the Alex & Marie Manoogian Museum, which I visited briefly and found it imposing, with professionally designed display cases filled with artifacts.

AGBU Alex & Marie Manoogian School principal Dr. Torossian and Catherine Yesayan The AGBU Alex & Marie Manoogian School in Michigan

Ned and I attended the liturgy and afterwards he took me to visit the AGBU Alex & Marie Manougian School campus, which was next door. We met the principal of the school, Dr. Hovsep Torossian, an educator, who gave us a tour of the school. 

The school was founded by Alex and Marie Manougian in 1969. The school opened with 20 students and two teachers. Ned’s daughter, Heather, was one of the very first students. In 1996, the Elementary, Middle and High School was converted into a Charter School, authorized by the Central Michigan University. Today, the school receives $10,000 in government funding for each student, for the whole year.

In 2012 and 2013, US News & World Report ranked the high school as one of the nation’s best schools. From pre-k to 12th grade, the school has 460 students. 

Dr. Torossian, the school principle, was a soft-spoken guy who explained that, during the pandemic, a building, for technology purposes, was annexed to to the main school. The new center was supposed to be officially opened by a ribbon cutting ceremony in the fall of 2022. 

Michigan’s Woodlawn Cemetery

After we left the church and the school, we stopped at Woodlawn cemetery where a section is dedicated to the Armenian community. It was another interesting aspect of Armenian life in Detroit.

Detroit has two Armenian radio programs, “Heritage of Armenian Culture Radio” and the “Armenian Radio Program.” Both have long supplied cultural content to the local Armenian community and beyond. 

The Armenian Radio Hour program is the oldest Armenian radio show in the country and perhaps one of the oldest ethnic programs in the United States. The Armenian Radio Hour first aired on May 22, 1943 on WJLB-AM (1400), founded and hosted by tar-player Haig Ohanian, who, at the time, had recently relocated to Detroit from New York.

Catherine Yesayan

As I’m finishing this report, my mind goes to a French song by Gilbert Bécaud, called “Nathalie”—1964. The song is about a guy who, during Soviet times, visits Moscow and has a guide named Nathalie who takes him around Moscow and finally, at the end of the song, the crooner says: “I know that one day in Paris it will be me who will be Nathalie’s guide.”

And, I say, “I know that one day in Los Angeles, it will be me who will be the guide to Ned and his wife.”

Catherine Yesayan is a regular contributor to Asbarez, with her columns appearing under the “Community Links” heading. She can be reached at [email protected].