delray docks

Industrial Growth and Decline in Delray

Image: “Scott Paper Dock,” Delray, ca. 1930. River Rouge Historical Museum.

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By the early 1900s, encouraged by the success of the International Exposition and Fair, a growing number of companies had recognized Delray’s industrial potential. In May of 1901, M. J. Murphy, owner of Murphy Chair Company, purchased 50 acres of land in Delray, stretching from River Street to the channel bank of the Detroit River. One of his neighbors, F. E. Driggs, a partner in the prominent law firm Driggs & Meddaugh, leased 30 acres of land along the river bank, and planned to use the site for larger manufacturing plants to take advantage of the nearby shipping facilities. The 20 acres of land west of Mr. Drigg’s property was sold to Swift & Co., a meatpacking company. Pre-auto industries in the area included pharmaceutical, shipbuilding, stoves, steam radiators and boilers, brass goods, chemicals, tobacco products, and garment.

The opening of many major industries in Delray accelerated the development of the district. Immigrants eagerly streamed in for work, largely from Hungary, and Delray rapidly grew into a largely self-sufficient neighborhood. Delray welcomed the coming of these industries: local boosters touted the local availability of natural resources, such as sand, salt, and limestone, as well as the accessibility of transportation by rail or water in the hopes of bringing jobs to residents.

delray edison

First Detroit Edison plant in Delray, 1904. River Rouge Historical Museum.

In March of 1921, the Detroit Free Press announced plans for the opening of a technical high school in the Delray district in the southwest of the city. While a plethora of unskilled workers inhabited the area and were eager to work, there was a noticeable lack of skilled laborers. The major industrial companies hired many Delray residents, but because of the lack of skilled hands, they had no choice but to also seek able workers from out of town. The district hoped to change this by opening this new school. It would train boys for work at local businesses such as the Solvay Process Company, Ireland & Mathews, the Michigan Malleable Iron company, the Henry Ford factories, and others. The school was established to “meet the needs of the district.” The city favored the establishment of the technical school.  In addition to this school, the site was also to serve as a community center with sports fields and courts, an auditorium, and spaces for public meetings.

Delray’s rapid growth paralleled that of Detroit more broadly, and like the city it struggled to remain relevant as manufacturing industries declined. By the end of the second World War, the relationship between workers and factories had began to change. Workers no longer needed to be walking distance from the factories, and the suburbs began to grow. Pollution and factory closings pushed many out, leaving only the poorest residents, overwhelmingly poorer Blacks and Latinos, in the polluted industrial neighborhoods of Delray.

By 1963, a siting feasibility study for wholesale food distribution center described Delray, once a thriving working-class community, as “a blighted and deteriorating residential neighborhood with considerable intermixing of commercial, warehousing and industrial uses.” The residential areas surrounding industrial sites were described as “substandard.” By redeveloping the area for the “proposed purpose,” the report argues, investors could benefit the economy and employment in the local area. In fact, it would go beyond helping the local community and help the city as a whole, since the distribution center would be providing the majority of food for the city.

The irony of this proposal lies in the fact that urban renewal projects like this often helped to further degrade the city for residents, displacing them from their homes and transforming neighborhoods. Moreover, by the late twentieth century Detroit was often referred to as a “food desert” for its lack of grocery stores and fresh food, and the failures of redevelopment and urban renewal plans like this one exacerbated Detroit’s problems. Studies have repeatedly found that more than half of all Detroit residents lack access to healthy food options. Plans like the 1963 report looked to address the issue of food availability in the city while bringing back jobs, but ultimately were unsuccessful. In places like Delray, a combination of the lack of fresh food and the presence of heavy industry added to the blight and illness in the community and ultimately contributed to its downfall.

  • “Another Industry for Delray,” Detroit (MI) Free Press, May 26, 1901, A6.
  • Parkins, Rogers, & Associates, “Siting feasibility study for Union Produce Terminal,” 1963.
  • CROSS-CITY CAR LINE INTO DELRAY NEED OF WEST END: Workingmen Residing in Northwest Section Forced to Ride Downtown and Transfer to Fort Street Line to Reach Factories, Says E. L. Stimson.,” Detroit Free Press, January 5 1908, 33.
  • “Delray to Get Work School: Industrial High to Train Factory Men is Planned for District,” Detroit (MI) Free Press, March 26, 1921, 16.
  • “Development of a Great Industry in Detroit,” Detroit Free Press, April 14, 1901, 10.
  • Detroit 1701, “Zug Island”, Detroit 1701, http://detroit1701.org/Zug%20Island.html (accessed March 8, 2014).
  • Thomas King, “Railway Cars, Bricks, and Salt: The Industrial History of Southwest Detroit before Auto” (Presentation, Marygrove College, Detroit, November 5, 1999).
  • University of Michigan, “Delray Neighborhood Lawsuits Against Local Polluters”, University of michigan,http://www.umich.edu/~snre492/Jones/delray.htm (accessed April 05, 2014).

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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