1960s Delray with I-75

Fisher Freeway (I-75 ) Through Delray

Image: Detroit Views, “Ambassador Bridge,” Photograph, 1960’s, 2005.085.001, Detroit Historical Society

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Delray residents have been living with the roar of 18-wheeler trucks and congested morning commutes off Interstate 75 since 1961. The interstate divided historic Delray, with West Fort Street to the south and Lafayette Boulevard to the north, which created what the City of Detroit called a “natural boundary” between the industrial and residential quarters. At first glance at the land use map prepared for the Master Plan of Detroit of 1950, placement of the interstate appeared reasonable. South of the proposed freeway, land use was largely industrial, including big names like The Solvay Process, United Fuel Supply Co., Michigan Malleable, Delray Salt Co., and the mysterious, heavily contaminated, and privately owned Zug Island.

The Wayne County Road Commission’s process for determining the freeway’s route involved a massive effort to balance the city’s need to connect the growing and increasingly wealthy suburbs with the city center. Central Detroit’s population was no longer growing, but the areas around it were, and they had resources to move. In the years prior to the construction of I-75 traffic jams were a major issue and the Ambassador Bridge was locked behind neighborhoods like Delray. The project was an effort to allow for the suburban commuters to enter the city, but also to facilitate the massive flow of resources through and into the inner city.

The recommended location and design was developed with full consideration given to existing and proposed land use, to urban renewal and industrial redevelopment projects and plans, and to all elements of the official Master Plan of the City of Detroit. As the Wayne County Road Commission points out in its location study for the Fisher Freeway, Detroit’s Master Plan of land use wrote off Delray, historically a mixed-use area and still home to several thousand working-class residents, as industrial. But some residential and commercial areas remained scattered among the industries, with families living side by side with smokestacks. The location study reinforces a theme that was clear in both the Master Plan of the City of Detroit and the Fisher Freeway Route Location Study: industry trumps all. While Delray’s industries continued to grow, the residents in the mixed-use areas were left unconsidered.

In 1943, the long stretch of Fort Street, from Boyd Street to North Vinewood, was lined with commercial properties. The placement of the interstate cut off Fort Street’s customer base, leaving the local businesses with little choice but to shut their doors, and isolating Delray from the rest of Detroit. The freeway’s construction led to the destruction of 1,954 residencies (including more than 400 multiple-family homes) and thirty-three industrial sites. The freeway had concrete impacts on local health, as well as the aesthetic and economic value of Delray neighborhoods. The Fisher Freeway was completed in 1959, and in the following years asthma and lung infection rates in Delray greatly increased. In part, this can be attributed to the increase in traffic, especially the diesel-run semi trucks that made up a large part of the international commerce and which emitted large amounts of carbon monoxide. Air pollution has been linked to morbidity and mortality from several diseases, including diverse conditions such as coronary disease and Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. In terms of the effects on respiratory disease, exposure to air pollution has been linked to the aggravation of chronic respiratory symptoms and increased mortality from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. More recent declines in pollution and improvements in public health do not compensate for what Delray residents have had to endure for decades.

While I-75’s path can to some extent be defended as a somewhat natural one, it is not a coincidence that its route (like those of other Detroit freeways) weighed most heavily on a relatively defenseless community. Delray, Black Bottom, and other low-income communities represented a path of least resistance for urban planners: the people were largely poor, uneducated, and unable to put up a significant political fight. Industries along the river were largely unaffected by construction, as were the wealthier urban communities, while the suburbs and industry that constituted the bulk of the city’s tax base were aided by the additional connectivity.

The highway was the first major blow to the Delray community. The neighborhood would face similar subjugation with a remodeled Waste Water Treatment, and to this day faces the challenge of industry over community.

Click here to see all narratives on Delray

Click here to see a timeline of events in Delray

Click here to see resources for further reading on Delray

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