How the razing of Detroit’s Black Bottom neighborhood shaped Michigan’s history
What is lost when an urban area is “renewed?”
That’s the question being asked by an exhibition called “Black Bottom Street View,” on display at the Detroit Public Library's Main Branch through March 15.
University of Detroit Mercy School of Architecture professor Emily Kutil used a treasure trove of old photographs to recreate the long-gone Detroit residential area known as Black Bottom.
The neighborhood was the center of the city’s black community until it was torn down in the 1950s as part of an "urban renewal" effort that eventually included the construction of Interstate 75.
Kutil’s display groups photos by location to simulate the experience of walking through the streets of 1940s Black Bottom.
Stateside’s Cynthia Canty met up with Detroit historian Jamon Jordan, who runs Black Scroll Network History and Tours, for a walking tour of the recreated neighborhood.
Jordan says that the pictures give you a view of what the Black Bottom neighborhood looked like just before it was destroyed.
“In fact, that’s why these pictures were taken,” Jordan explained. “These pictures were taken so that they could plot the areas that are going to be first demolished in the urban renewal program.”
What was Black Bottom?
Black Bottom was a neighborhood in Detroit’s East Side until its demolition in the mid-20th century. The neighborhood had a large number of African-American residents, and was also home to various immigrant communities.
Who lived there?
An early wave of African Americans moved to the neighborhood before the abolition of slavery in the 1800s. Many more arrived during the Great Migration in the early 20th century.
“These were people, people who had jobs, had thoughts, had aspirations to do something great. Many of them had left Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana — the Jim Crow South — to make a way for themselves in the city of Detroit, and they’re going to. They’re going to make a way for themselves and they’re going to transform Detroit,” Jordan said.
A range of European immigrants — including Germans, Italians, Irish, and more — also settled in Black Bottom.
Why was it destroyed?
In 1944, Detroit Mayor Edward Jeffries and the city council proposed a plan to tear down “old structures” around the city.
“It’s really a form of urban renewal which, for many African-Americans, they called ‘negro removal’ because many times, they would be the first group of people whose homes and businesses would be taken,” Jordan said.
But the city didn’t have the funds to carry out that project until the federal government passed the National Housing Act in 1949, which gave states and cities the money necessary to demolish these “old structures.”
“After the passage of the National Housing Act in summer of 1949, within two months, they begin tearing down the first buildings in Black Bottom,” Jordan said.
The demolition of Black Bottom continued through the mid-1950s, and was made more extreme in 1956 when President Eisenhower passed the National Highway Act. That act funded the construction of Interstate 75. The construction of the highway would destroy Black Bottom as well as Paradise Valley, a center of black business in the city.
“So now, Paradise Valley is going to be part of this urban renewal, and the land is going to be taken in Paradise Valley, which was the black business district, which had over 350 black-owned businesses by the 1930s,” Jordan said.
After the destruction of their community, wealthier black residents paid extra money to move to “white areas” of the city, while many members of the working class ended up moving to a neighborhood on Detroit’s West Side.
What was the neighborhood’s lasting impact?
Jordan says that you’d be hard pressed to find an area in Detroit that isn’t somehow connected to historic Black Bottom.
“Because you have the Jewish history there, you have German history there, you have Italian history there, of course, African-American history there. All of that history is encapsulated in this lower East Side neighborhood, and that’s going to go on to create all kinds of other places,” Jordan said.
Listen to Stateside’s full conversation with Jamon Jordan to hear more about Black Bottom, including some of its notable residents and structures. You can visit the exhibition at Detroit Public Library’s Main Branch through March 15.
This post was written by Stateside production assistant Isabella Isaacs-Thomas.