Timeline of Nortown

Nortown

Nortown team: Zachary Fogel, Jessy Luke, Donavan McKinney, Kayla Montgomery, Ryan Schechtman.

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The area known as Nortown is located in Northeast Detroit, and is bounded by Eight Mile Road to the north, I-94 to the south, Gratiot Avenue to the east, and the Mound Rd./Mt. Elliott Corridor to the west. The land it occupies includes the historic Village of Norris and encompasses highlights including Mt. Olivet Cemetery, the P.W. Norris House, the Conner Creek GreenwayDetroit City Airport, and French Road, all marked on the map below.

Google Maps of Nortown neighborhood with important landmarks highlighted in red

Google Maps of Nortown neighborhood with important landmarks highlighted in red

Northeast Detroit (as well as the rest of the city) was first explored by Europeans when French fur traders arrived several centuries ago, and the first Europeans to move into the area were French settlers.  These settlers started the move from fur trading to farming as the state’s primary economic activity by building ribbon farms in Native American territory along the Detroit River, stretching into the area that is now Nortown.  At the time, the area was mostly forest, except for where the trees had been cleared to make way for farms.  Conner Creek, which used to run from what is now the City of Warren to the Detroit River, once flowed through ravines and valleys as it wound its way to its mouth. The creek flooded each spring, so the surrounding land’s only value was in its suitability for crops and the river’s usefulness lay principally in powering mills.

For the first several decades of the 19th century, Northeast Detroit was mostly French. Following the Great Detroit Fire of 1805, Congress appropriated 10,000 acres of land for the creation of public buildings in Detroit.  Hamtramck Township (named for a French colonel and not a German or Polish army leader as many believe), including the area that would become Nortown, was surveyed by Joseph Fletcher in 1817, and the entire tract of land was sold to Eastern speculators who became absentee owners.  However, more immigrants began to settle in Northeast Detroit, and in 1825, the first wave of German immigration to Detroit began; the Irish began to arrive in 1830.  For the next several decades, the area was still mostly farmland, but it was beginning to gain a sense of identity as a village.

While the original French settlers remained in the south end, the majority of Hamtramck Township was uninhabited when Colonel Philetus W. Norris moved there in 1865. Norris remains somewhat of an enigmatic figure due to the lack of extant accounts from settlers who knew him. Norris was only in Detroit for twelve years, but he had a major impact on the area. On January 24, 1874, he declared a portion of the Township to be the independent Village of Norris, and spent the next three years working tirelessly as a real estate agent and land speculator. He drained marshes in the area to make room for farms and began to build on top of Conner Creek, allowing very young industry to start sending out roots in Detroit. He was also instrumental in bringing both plank roads and the railroad through the village, which was strongly opposed by some residents but proved key to attracting new settlers and, later, industries.

Starting in the 1890s, industry really started to grow in Nortown and the rest of Detroit, and factories began to replace the area’s mills and farms.  Many of the Polish immigrants that were still flowing into the area began to work in these factories, as did the Germans, Irish, and other residents of Northeast Detroit. As the mills and farms disappeared, Conner Creek’s usefulness in providing irrigation and water to turn paddle wheels declined.  As a result, it was gradually covered up, and in 1924, plans were made to turn much of the creek into a sewer, and the project was completed soon after.

Simultaneously, Detroit, like many northeastern cities, experienced a huge influx of blacks migrating from the South, attracted by the prospect of new jobs in industry. Between 1910 and 1980, the African American population increased a hundredfold. Conant Gardens, just outside of Nortown’s boundaries, was one of the only places in the city where African Americans were permitted to purchase land, and became an important residential area for Detroit’s growing Black middle class. This led city and national planners to assume local residents would not object to the siting of a new housing project for African American defense workers in the early 1940s. This assumption was proven to be erroneous when white residents rioted to prevent African Americans from moving into the Sojourner Truth Homes, a housing project intended for black defense workers, and forced them back into overcrowded neighborhoods in the inner city.

During this time, the City of Detroit built the Detroit City Airport in Nortown between French Road and Conner St. City Airport’s storied history began in 1922, when city leaders launched a search for a site for a new municipal aircraft, eventually settling on the location near Conner Creek on the City’s eastside. Five years later, City Airport was formally dedicated, with the first aircraft landing at the airport in October of 1927.  In 1929, the first hangar was erected and by the 1930s Detroit’s City Airport was the premiere airport in the Detroit area.

Starting in the 1960s and 70s, the auto industry, which had been a huge part of Detroit for much of the 20th century, began to leave the Motor City in favor of cheaper labor in the South.  As a result, the small plants in Nortown that had been major suppliers of iron and car parts for the auto factories suffered greatly.  Since then, factories in the previously thriving industrial areas of Northeast Detroit, especially along the Mt. Elliott industrial corridor, have largely been replaced by firms that are permitted in the area– which is now zoned as “light industrial”– such as junkyards and repair shops. A plan to expand City Airport has resulted in the condemnation by eminent domain of several formerly residential blocks along French Road, producing almost complete abandonment in what is known as the French Road Mini-Take. In this and other ways, Nortown suffers from many of the problems plaguing Detroit as a whole.

In the face of many challenges, the Nortown Community Development Coalition remains active and optimistic, and is working to increase awareness of the area’s long history as a means of renewing interest and neighborhood pride.

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