Afrourbanism, Detroit's Black history and future
A bustling area of the country’s most chocolate city razed to make way for Highway I-375. An idyllic “Black Eden” designed as a safe haven of relaxation and entertainment in rural Yates Township. Remembering Idlewild and Detroit’s Black Bottom is an important part of contextualizing Michigan’s Black history, and they can provide the blueprint for creating future spaces with black people in mind.
This type of blueprinting is a part of what’s known as AfroUrbanism. Lauren Hood, an urban planner and leading thinker in AfroUrbanist Design, described it as “centering the lived experience, the hopes, the dreams, and aspirations of Black people in the planning and development in Black neighborhoods.” It’s something Hood says has been glossed over in the recent and current planning of recreation and entertainment spaces within the city of Detroit.
“I think we don’t do a good job of understanding the history that got us here,” Hood said. “A lot of my colleagues in planning and development just look at a neighborhood in its current state and assume that the people that are there are at fault. But really it’s a lot of policy violence, a lot of disinvestment, a lot of things that weren’t in our control. It’s not Black Detroiters’ fault that communities look the way they do.”
Take Black Bottom and Paradise Valley, for example. With swinging jazz clubs, beauty salons, schools, doctors’ offices, stores, and families, this thriving community was closely knit until it was destroyed and replaced in the 1960s by urban renewal, partially in the form of the aforementioned I-375. PG Watkins is the founder and director of the Black Bottom Archives, which preserves the memories of the neighborhood. They spoke about how policy violence and “unconstitutional tax assessments” lead to foreclosures and displace black Detroiters in the present and how it all mirrors what happened in the past.
“This process was in the period of urban renewal, right? This federal government program that was trying to, in the same ways that we might see right now, revitalize the city, remove blight, make it more appealing to visitors, to business people, to the corporate class,” PG said. “What’s happening now in Black Detroit and what happened then are very related.”
While many today may look at Detroit and see a place on the up and up, Hood asserted that taking a closer look at revitalization in the city would reveal a different story. Watkins remembered driving around soon after the pandemic began and seeing basketball hoops taken down to stop the spread of COVID in certain communities but not in others. And Hood remembered walking by a new park and counting a number of cameras surveying the area.
“Part of what gets me a little riled up about renewal and revitalization when it comes to recreation and entertainment spaces is that, because so much of it is privatized, people who are actually supposed to be enjoying these places, right -- and we think about mostly poor, Black people who might visit these places -- are often criminalized,” Watkins said.
Hood emphasized that truly equitable spaces for a majority Black city are built with Black people and their history in mind. Her work in Detroit involves speaking with the people who live there, and they don’t always give a straight answer to the question of what they want to see in their community. She said it takes more listening and “encouraged empathy” from those who may come from the outside to revitalize Detroit. To her, it’s a matter of reversing the narrative so many repeat about the city.
“I think we have to kind of shift the narrative about who the protagonist is in the Detroit story, I think we have it wrong. The protagonist is the Black folks. It’s an 80% Black city and we kind of talk about it when we say words like ‘inclusion,’ we’re talking about including Black people,” Hood said. “It’s backwards, the focus just needs to be back on the majority population, for starters.”
PG suggests that focusing on the Black population is rooted in Detroit's history as a thriving Black city that was the target of “supreme disinvestment” over several decades. It means acknowledging and uplifting the needs and dreams of the plethora of Black and Indigenous Detroiters and people of color -- people who, PG says, despite a federal and local government actively displacing and marginalizing their communities, “pulled themselves up from their bootstraps” and stuck with the city.
A rural space created with Black people in mind
On the other side of the state, midway between Grand Rapids and the “pinky” of Michigan sits Idlewild. In the last hundred years, it has been many things. But most remember it as an entertainment and resort space for the who’s who of Black celebrity, including the likes of Louis Armstrong, Aretha Franklin, and B.B. King.
These days, it’s a little quieter, and to some that means it’s bursting with opportunity. Blair Evans and Susan Matous run Experience Idlewild, which supports visitors and residents as they host events, vacation, start businesses, and relocate to the area. Evans has been visting Idlewild since he was in the womb. He brought Detroit native Matous up for a visit and she fell in love with the place, which isn’t hard to do as Evans opined.
“It’s a beautiful place, unspoiled natural resources, clean air, clean water, great recreation, those kinds of things,” Evans said. “It’s got a culture that’s unapologetically Black which is rare to find and it’s got a history of self determination and community building, which I think is very important, not just for the past arc but the point towards what we need to be doing in the future also.”
There are some narratives that Idlewild fell away after it’s “heyday” in the beginning of the 20th century, but that’s not true, Evans said. It’s a new, different type of heyday, with people coming in to stay, whether for a trip or for good, and creating a community all their own.
The community of Idlewild was not left untouched by COVID-19, as it is historically a tourist attraction. And both the tight-knit community and out-of-towners understood the higher risk its residents faced.
“We were very cautious and conservative. Idlewild is a community that has a lot of, the people have a lot of risk factors, we don’t have a huge health care infrastructure, we have an aging population that’s the year round population, usual range of co-morbitities,” Evans said. “And so we were very cautious about having a lot of traffic come into the community during times when we didn’t know what the arc of the pandemic was going to look like.”
With this collective attention to the nuances of the residents and the space, Idlewild is a unique picture of AfroUrbanism. Although it is far from being a big city, as Evans explained, it’s built on the same principles. There’s a collaborative nature to the community, with people collectively owning properties, working together on events and sharing resources. Evans said young people are driving what they want to see in this Idlewild, with an art gallery, artist collective, cultural festivals and retreats, and other businesses they want to create, just like those who founded the area.
“Idlewild was forged during a time of segregation and so in those circumstances, those ideas of a safe space for mental health reasons and a place to build community wealth, and a place to exercise self determination and to allow people to really manifest themselves amongst themselves was something that was very important in Idlewild,” Evans said. “Idlewild was built, nuts and bolts, by the Black folks who inhabited Idlewild. I think the need for spaces that are authentically safe for Black folks is as important now as it was then.”
This article was written by Stateside production assistant Olive Scott