Black Bottom

Image: A street view of retail stores along Hastings Street at the intersection of Mack Ave. Urban Renewal, Black Bottom, Paradise Valley, Detroit. 1960. Streetscapes and Storefronts: City Life in 1960′s Detroit, Detroit, Michigan. Walter P. Reuther LIbrary. Web. 10 Apr. 2014.

Black Bottom team: Tommy Brosnahan, Stephan Bradley, Deonte Howell, Kaitlin Lapka, Catherine Tao.

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Black Bottom (including its commercial district, Paradise Valley) is one of the best-known and most-studied neighborhoods of Detroit, despite the fact that it was physically destroyed more than four decades ago. Home to the majority of Detroit’s African-American population throughout the mid-twentieth century and the site of a world-famous commercial and entertainment scene, Black Bottom vanished before the onslaught of a series of urban planning initiatives designed to facilitate suburbanites’ access to the city center and to alleviate the worst problems of inner-city poverty. Housing and physical space in Black Bottom not only contributed to a strong sense of community, which in fact endured well past the area’s physical destruction, but also to the racial tensions that defined the city in the mid-twentieth century.

One of the earliest records of Detroit’s eastside Black Bottom neighborhood came from the French, who first arrived in Detroit in 1701. They began developing ribbon farms west from the Detroit River in the early 18th century. It is said that the name Black Bottom comes from the French settler’s tribute to the low elevation and rich black soil in the area during this time. This name has since stuck and its origination is sometimes misattributed to the large majority of Blacks that lived in area during the height of the neighborhood’s fame from the 1930s to 1960s.

Before Blacks begin to migrate to Black Bottom in large numbers, the area was an ethnic hodgepodge: home to Irish, Italian, German, Romanian, and Russian Jews living in overlapping colonies. Many of Black Bottom’s early immigrant community arrived in Detroit via the 15-minute ferry ride from Ontario. The view of the industrial riverfront excited new arrivals looking for employment and stability. By the later 19th century, Jewish immigrants had settled around St. Antoine, Hastings, and Rivard Streets north of Gratiot Avenue (roads based off original French names). Near the beginning of the 20th century, Russian and Polish Jews began to arrive. Upon arrival, ethnic groups typically dispersed themselves into many different ethnic and racial neighborhoods: Italians clustered around Paradise Valley, Germans moved toward the Gratiot area, and the Polish and Russian Jews settled the Hastings Street division. The first relatively significant migration of Blacks to Black Bottom began about 1840. The number of Black residents in Detroit grew from 193 in 1840, to 587 in 1850.

After World War I, the total population in Detroit increased from 470,000 to close to 1,000,000. This large influx was in large part due to the growing auto industry as well as a desire of many Americans to move to northern cities for employment opportunities that were unavailable elsewhere in the country. Millions of Blacks moved out of the South as part of the first Great Migration, migrating to cities such as Detroit for work and a better life. With this large influx of people came an even greater housing shortage in Detroit. While auto manufacturers such as Ford began to employ Blacks, landlords were not quite as willing to rent to these new employees because the presence of Blacks in a neighborhood would lower property values. Therefore, there were very few neighborhoods that housed black people, who were instead relegated to segregated areas such as Black Bottom and Paradise Valley (and, to a lesser extent, the Nortown neighborhood of Conant Gardens). Thus, those neighborhoods became Detroit’s hub for African-Americans and their families.

When the stock market crashed on October 29th, 1929 and ushered in the Great Depression, Detroit’s population totaled 993,578 with 120,000 African-Americans, the majority of whom resided in Black Bottom or some area of Detroit’s eastside, and it continued to grow with the ongoing influx of southern migrants. As the neighborhood grew more overcrowded, living conditions declined, bringing about higher disease and death rates, such as high levels of tuberculosis and high-infant mortality. These trends would later “justify” Black Bottom and the surrounding area to be defined as “slums” (and therefore give cause for their removal) during the coming periods of urban renewal in the city.

Despite these problems, however, Black Bottom offered residents a full and vivacious community. Since families lived in close proximity and shared the experiences of coping with the city’s neglect, working, socializing, and worshipping together, the community became close-knit despite the large number of people who lived there. True, the housing was inadequate and city services were awful relative to the rest of the city, but the people who lived there had created a living situation that was fun, safe, and prosperous for their means at a time of great open racism in the United States.

Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Black businesses including hospitalspharmacies, dime stores, and barbershops thrived. Hastings Street, the main commercial drag, and its surrounding businesses provided a solid economic base for the community. The commercial area of Paradise Valley was particularly well-known for its music and live entertainment scene: businesses such as Paradise Theater attracted music legends such as Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, and Billie Holiday, which even Whites came over to Paradise Valley to enjoy (giving rise to Detroit’s first “black and tan” cabarets and nightclubs, where Black artists performed for both White and Black audiences).

To address the housing crisis in Black Bottom, the first public housing in Detroit, the Brewster Projects, were opened for Black residents in 1935 and provided many families with comparably “luxurious” living conditions adjacent to Hastings Street. Nonetheless, this provided only limited relief for the housing crisis, and racial tensions in the city grew worse when several factories refused to hire Blacks for anything other than low-paid unskilled work, barring them from more highly-paid skilled jobs. This discrimination, which paralleled that going on nationwide, led many civil rights leaders to challenge the defense industry, and by 1942 the racial tension on the shop floor was higher than ever before. Combined with the ongoing housing shortages, poor conditions, and housing discrimination across the city, the Black population grew increasingly frustrated, creating “a keg of powder with a short fuse and any one of many possible incidents, fairly insignificant in themselves, may be [have been] the match put to the fuse.” The keg exploded in the race riots of 1943.

City planners viewed neighborhoods such as Black Bottom as places with little to no social value and disregarded the communities that had been built there, often based on statistics instead of personal knowledge of its inhabitants. The city only saw the community for its deplorable living conditions, which they refused to rectify.

After World War II, as the country’s population boomed, the national government turned to “slum clearance” and urban renewal as a holistic strategy for defusing racial tensions and overcoming problems of inner cities. By wiping out “slums,” it was thought, city planners could clear people out of their unhealthy homes and into newly-built public projects or private low-income residences. With this in mind, Detroit Mayor Edward Jeffries created plans for Detroit’s urban renewal, which among other goals included the complete destruction of the Black Bottom neighborhood. Shortly thereafter, the City of Detroit began construction on the I-375 and I-75 freeways that would run right through Black Bottom, building directly over Hastings Street, as well as causing major problems for other low-income neighborhoods such as Delray. Later, construction of the Lodge Freeway and the Edsel Ford Expressway caused an additional 4,000 buildings to be removed. Today, the city is considering the removal of the freeway that once destroyed Black Bottom, demonstrating a significant shift in thinking.

Rather than build low-income housing for displaced residents, the city replaced Black Bottom with the Lafayette Park luxury apartments, so the urban renewal project in fact dramatically worsened the housing situation for Blacks in Detroit. Because of this, the Detroit Urban League and community members have referred to urban renewal practices as “Negro removal,” especially since the neighborhoods that were often targeted were Black communities and were not often replaced with adequate replacement housing for those residents. Urban renewal programs and plans may have been created on the basis of making the city a better place to live and work, but in practice they worsened the conditions for those who lived in areas defined by those in power as slum, dirty, or in most cases, simply Black. Tensions arising from the displacement of African Americans from the dismantled Black Bottom area into traditionally white neighborhoods contributed to the outbreak of the infamous and deadly 1967 Detroit Riot/Rebellion.

Despite being one of Detroit’s lost neighborhoods, Black Bottom remains historically and culturally important, and many previous residents and friends are still eager to talk and reminisce about their memories. The amount of research, fame, and personal connection given to this land over any other neighborhood in Detroit show that Black Bottom and Paradise Valley continue to hold an important place in the cultural memory of Detroit, and will likely continue to do so as it becomes re-defined and re-shaped once more. Black Bottom was not only the physical space of the area, but also the way people formed lasting bonds with each other and with the land itself in Detroit. Black Bottom still has an important story to be told through the lens of environmental history, to help even better understand its immense legacy, and our research goal is to supplement this legacy by sharing, chronicling, and analyzing another layer to the story of Detroit’s most deserving neighborhood: Black Bottom.

Please look through our various oral histories, narratives, and timeline on Black Bottom & Paradise Valley. Thanks for stopping by!

  • “DAAHP Timeline.” DAAHP Timeline. http://www.daahp.wayne.edu/timeline.php (accessed April 9, 2014).
  • Detroit Black Writer’s Guild. 1998. Paradise Valley Days: A Photo Album Poetry Book of Black Detroit, 1930’s to  1950′s. Detroit, Michigan: Detroit Guild.
  • Detroit’s Near Eastsiders: A Journey of Excellence Against the Odds, ed. The Near Eastsiders       (Detroit, MI: The Detroit Black Writers’ Guild for the Near Eastsiders, 2008).
  • Gallaugher, John. “No more I-375? Detroit to study removing freeway in favor of walkable surface street” Detroit (MI) Free Press, November 24, 2013. http://www.freep.com/article/20131124/BUSINESS06/311240072/I-375-downtown-MDOT
  • Martin, Elizabeth Anne. “Detroit and the Great Migration, 1916-1929″, Bentley Historical Library, http://bentley.umich.edu/research/publications/migration/ch1.php (accessed February 14, 2014).
  • Motor Cities National Heritage Area, “Detroit’s Black Bottom and Paradise Valley.” Last modified January 28, 2008. Accessed March 13, 2014. http://www.motorcities.org/Story/DetroitsBlackBottomandParadiseValley-37.html.
  • Scott, James C. Seeing like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (Durham, North Carolina: Running Feet Books for Yale University, 1998),    29-33, 73-76.
  • Thomas, Richard Walter. Life for Us Is What We Make It: Building Black Community in Detroit, 1915-1945 (Blacks in the Diaspora) (Indiana: Indiana University Press, November 7, 2003), 17-19.
  • Williams, Jeffrey. Detroit: The Black Bottom Community (Images of America) (Arcadia Publishing 2009).