Image of Delray’s commercial district in 1890, from David Lee Poremba, Detroit: 1860-1899 (Great Britain: Arcadia Publishing, 1998).
Delray team: Samuel Hahn, Lauren Hauge, Gerald Logan, Eric Riley, Nancy Sun, Eleni Zaras.
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The history of the neighborhood of Delray, in the southwest corner of Detroit, illustrates how a city benefited from geography as well as how the space in itself has also contributed to many of the neighborhood’s problems. Its location, at the intersection of the River Rouge and the Detroit River, brought traders and settlers; it facilitated growth and gave rise to extended trade routes; it provided essential resources for the industrialization and growth of a manufacturing city. But today, its location, the industries it ushered in, and the policies set up to support them have contributed to pressures operating against Delray’s residents.
Yet the environment has not been the direct cause of Delray’s blight: external forces (i.e. government and large industrial owners) have been able to swoop in and take advantage of the resources for financial gain and set policies to allow industrial growth, regardless of the impacts on the surroundings. It is the constant flux between investment and divestment in the neighborhood that has brought Delray to where it is today. While the residents fight to invest in the community, the greater external powers divest in the residents and invest in industry. While problems such as zoning, racial segregation, lack of city funds, etc. are issues seen today in the rest of Detroit as well, Delray is not just a microcosm neighborhood of the city at large, but rather an extreme example of environmental injustice that has been exacerbated by lax regulations, poor zoning laws, and narrow-minded decision makers.
The following historical narrative aims to explain the historical development of the neighborhood of Delray and to illustrate its growth as well as its challenges.
A Burgeoning Town: the nineteenth century
While Delray had long been the location of Native American settlements and camps, its popularity for white settlers began with the opening of the Erie Canal, completed in 1825, which created a direct route between the Great Lakes and the East Coast of the United States. As part of that route, the Detroit River facilitated people traveling and trading from the East Coast to Detroit and Northern Michigan. Starting in the early 1830s, a large influx of eastern and southern Europeans provided manpower for new industries that took advantage of Michigan’s natural resources. Delray’s waterfront location facilitated easy transport for people and goods, both by water and rail, and boasted the local availability of raw materials, such as sand, salt, and limestone, which naturally attracted a diverse group of industries to the area. Formerly known as “Belgrade,” the village of “Del Ray” received its name on October 14, 1851 by Augustus D. Burdeno, a veteran of the Mexican American War, named after the battle of Molinos del Rey.
By the mid- to late-19th century, Detroit was one of the most industrialized cities in the country. The population of the city as a whole increased by 259% between 1870 and 1900. The Detroit International Fair of 1889 was hosted in Delray because of its accessibility to transportation networks, and helped to jump-start development of streetlights, electrification, plumbing and other city services in and around Delray. By 1895, manufacturing plants had purchased the land where the Fair had been held to take advantage of the nearby shipping facilities and well-developed infrastructure.
These were among the first of what would be a wide variety of industries to settle in Delray, including pharmaceutical, shipbuilding, stoves, steam radiators and boilers, brass goods, chemicals, tobacco products, and garment factories. One of the most industrialized sites would be a point of land now known as Zug Island, southwest of Delray, which had been purchased by Samuel Zug for a planned residence in 1859. In 1888, despairing at the marshy and uninhabitable land, Zug allowed the River Rouge Improvement Company to dig a canal to connect with the Detroit River, turning the peninsula into an island. Connecting the Rouge River to the Detroit River facilitated shipping for the heavy industry interests that increasingly populated Delray. In 1891, while the International Fair was going on just across the canal, George Brady and Charles Noble purchased the island from Zug with the intention of turning it into a industrial dumping ground. However, the growing need for land changed the island’s usage to steel production. Today, the steel mills, now owned by U.S. Steel, remain as one of the few locations in the U.S. where petroleum coke, a toxic input used in steel, is created. Zug Island is off limits to the public and the surrounding areas are scrutinized to high security.
The rapidly increasing trade across the United States and the subsequent growth of business in Detroit attracted residents and was a point of pride in these burgeoning communities. As the village of Delray expanded, some residents pushed to be annexed into the city of Detroit. Growing health and safety issues garnered attention and concern for Delray and in 1906 officials in Lansing officially annexed it to the city of Detroit.
Diverse Populations and Increasing Pollution: The Early Twentieth Century
While the new industries produced significant smoke and other pollutants of the local air and water, residents continued to flock to Delray well into the twentieth century. In addition to internal migration within the nation, the arrival of thousands of immigrants from Eastern Europe into industrializing Great Lakes cities greatly contributed to Detroit’s, and specifically, Delray’s growth. Armenians, Slovaks, Hungarians, and Poles flooded into Delray, creating an ethnically diverse area. The majority of the inhabitants of Delray prior to World War I were Hungarian, coming from either other US cities such as Cleveland or Toledo or directly from Hungary. But by the end of the war, they had accumulated the initial wealth from the first big industrial boom and could afford to move further away from the factory jobs and into nicer, higher-class neighborhoods, such as Allen Park. The homes they left behind were then quickly filled by blacks, southern whites, Mexicans, and Puerto Ricans, who faced harsh discrimination in white-dominated parts of the city. Dust from dirt roads and railroad cars drew negative attention, but up to the 1950s most residents pragmatically maintained the attitude that “everyone makes money, and that’s what counts.”
The neighborhood was not only transforming demographically, but also physically. As bridges and tunnels began to spring up in other parts of the world in the late 19th century, the McMillian Bill outlined the plans for the construction of an international bridge between Windsor and Detroit and this project became the center of discussion. Prior to the construction of the Ambassador Bridge, which began in 1927, it was the responsibility of the railroads to meet the ferries that connected Windsor to Detroit. The bridge to Canada became an artery of commerce by expediting and simplifying trade, as it eventually connected I-75, I-96, and Hwy 3. As the suburbs began to grow, expressways into and through the city doubled as trade corridors, at the cost of subdividing and transforming the city below them. Ultimately these construction projects divided the neighborhood and contributed to Delray’s growing isolation from the rest of the city.
Transforming the Neighborhood: Isolation and Abandonment in the late Twentieth Century
In 1961, Interstate 75 divided Historic Delray with West Fort Street to the south and Lafayette Boulevard to the north, and created what the City of Detroit’s planners called a “natural boundary” between the industrial and residential quarters. The area to the south, comprising the bulk of historic Delray, was recommended for heavy industrial use by the city despite the fact that thousands of people still lived there. Prior to the freeway’s construction, the long stretch of Fort Street, from Boyd Street to North Vinewood, had been lined with commercial properties. The placement of the Interstate cut off the Fort Street businesses’ customer base, leaving them with little choice but to shut their doors. Directly across the street from the heavy industries on West Jefferson, residents still live side by side with the smoke stacks. While Delray’s industries continued to grow, the residents in these mixed-use areas were essentially abandoned by the city.
Evidence of inadequate city zoning is still evident in Delray. Despite high-density residential settlement for most of its history, Delray was never zoned as residential and, over time, this excused inadequate environmental and public health restrictions on the businesses and conditions in Delray. As a result, brownfield sites and asthma slowly encroach on the remaining population
In 2006, Delray was officially labeled as an Industrial Zone M4, restricting land use to manufacturing, cleaning, packaging, processing, repairing, or assembly of goods. While busineses continue to locatie their factories within Delray, homeowners have not been bought out by the companies or the state. The community is boxed in by a major expressway, a waste treatment facility, an industrial hub (directly upwind), and abandoned industrial lots. Compounded with the already unsanitary conditions of Delray, the residents have yet another pressing issue that will cause many to be displaced from their homes: the state is getting ready to build another bridge to connect Delray and Windsor, as a safety precaution in case anything were to happen to the already existing Ambassador Bridge. Much of the neighborhood stands in the way of this new bridge and its accompanying customs plaza. This plaza will displace over half of the residents of the area with minimal compensation and will leave the rest amidst a 128% increase in traffic pollution, depleted property values, and a continually depopulating, isolated neighborhood. Most of the affected residents are low-income minorities and have expressed disempowerment and desperation.
Delray had a taste of success in its history, but for years has had to also grapple with the costs of rapid industrialization. The story of Delray is one of investment versus divestment. The current residents struggle to either leave the neighborhood or to improve their conditions by renovating their homes and yards. But on the other hand, industries slip by with gross environmental infractions and the city does not provide basic services to help clean the community or make sure that it is safe. The area itself is still of huge importance to not only Detroit, but to the entire Nation, yet the residents are often ignored. Our nation has grown reliant on the operations hosted in Delray, but leaves the community itself largely overlooked. As the neighborhood is slowly being swallowed up, it is important to not only listen to the voices asking for well-warranted recognition and community benefits from the state, but also to preserve and remember what the neighborhood used to be and how it became the environment it is today.
 Thomas Klug. “Railway Cars, Bricks, and Salt: The Industrial History of Sounthwest Detroit Before Auto.” Marygrove College, Detroit. Old Delray. Web.