Hastings Street, Before and After I-75

Urban Renewal and the Destruction of Black Bottom

Image: Hastings Street before and after urban renewal. Images and text from David Lee PorembaDetroit: 1860-1899 (Great Britain: Arcadia Publishing, 1998); original images available at the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University.

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In 1945 a seven-man committee appointed by Mayor Edward J. Jeffries prepared a master plan for the City of Detroit’s transportation systems, in order to keep up with modern city plans of the day, like Chicago and London. The document, entitled “Detroit Expressway and Transit System” and prepared for the Detroit Transportation Board, was supported by both Cincinnati and Chicago consultants, as well as a New York law firm. The document included not only descriptions of the new rail, bus, and freeway transport systems wished for the city, but also architectural sketches and detailed depictions of how the various plans would look and interact with their urban landscape. One picture sketch detailed the plans for the Hastings Expressway, to be paved over the busy commercial area of Hastings Street in Detroit’s predominantly African-American neighborhood, Black Bottom.

Detroit’s Hastings Street was a place buzzing with activity and a hub for African American economic opportunity throughout the mid-twentieth century, where a Black shopper could get anything and everything he wanted. Filled with African American-owned shops, restaurants, theaters, and clubs, it was the backbone of Black Bottom.  Blacks were able to operate hospitals and practice medicine. Some of the other businesses that flourished along Hastings Street included a string of hotels and night spots; a grocery store, a cleaners, and a pool hall. However, the narrative of economic progress for blacks is not the most important component of this street’s rich history. On Hastings Street a Black man could actually feel like a man – he had the freedom to operate his own business and in many ways shape the society around him through the businesses he created. This freedom gave a sense of pride and achievement, which could be celebrated after historical wins by legendary boxer Joe Louis. The connection between Joe Louis and American Blacks was very important; Joe Louis’s success in the ring was often tied to Blacks’ fight against oppression. His victories were especially important to Detroit Blacks since he lived in Detroit.

An image from the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University of Hastings Street during its height as the economic spine of Detroit's Black Bottom neighborhood.

An image of Hastings Street during its height as the economic spine of Detroit’s Black Bottom neighborhood. Tony Spina, (2847) Streetcars, Gratiot Ave, Hastings Street, Detroit, Michigan 1956. Wayne State University photo series, Detroit, Michigan. Walter P. Reuther Library.

As part of the city’s mid-century “slum clearance” and “urban renewal” programs, the homes and businesses of African Americans in Black Bottom were evicted and demolished to build the freeway under the Federal Highway Act, signed into law by President Eisenhower. It broke the neighborhood in two, lowered property values, and imposed significant adverse environmental effects, including noise and air pollution, directly onto the nearby residents. Many left, and were pushed, into the further eastside and the Brewster housing projects. City planners cited their desire to bring easy access to the city from the suburbs and to parallel its transportation with advancing industrial cities across the nation, as a way to clear what they defined as an urban slum, in both racist and environmental terms. Furthermore, much of Hastings Street lost its name – another way to demolish the culture of those who lived there. Today, Hastings Street is simply a memory of “Paradise Lost” (Gunrow) and better known as the Chrysler Freeway.

According to the 1945 plan, the city originally intended to replace the dilapidated housing of Black Bottom with a well-maintained new neighborhood for displaced residents, including public transportation, pedestrian sidewalks, bicycle paths, and landscaping features such as trees and grass medians. The planned new housing, however, along with these beautification features never manifested. Displaced families were given only thirty days’ notice of their evictions and offered no assistance in relocating. About a third of the displaced families eventually moved into public housing, but many were left unable to find new homes, and crowded into substandard housing in the surrounding area that provided no improvement over the demolished neighborhoods.

Aerial View of Hastings Street

Aerial View of Hastings Street, courtesy of Walter P. Reuther Library.

In addition to the freeway, the city embarked on an ambitious urban renewal project that wiped out much of the remaining residences in Black Bottom during the 1960s. In a 1963 informational bulletin, the Detroit City Plan Commission described its plans for “redevelopment” of blighted areas. Blighted areas were defined by age, poor foundations, lack of modern plumbing and heating, overcrowding, lack of playgrounds, excessive traffic, and mixed zoning/land use. The bulletin detailed current and future redevelopment programs in Detroit, with an explanation on each individual project, key maps, and timelines, as well as “tabular” information on acres of redevelopment and its cost in Detroit. Overall, the plan was estimated to affect 90,415 dwelling units and redevelop 7,928 acres.

One of these, and also the largest housing redevelopment program noted in the bulletin, was the Gratiot Redevelopment Area, today known mainly as Lafayette Park.  The bulletin explains that the area was part of the first sector of Detroit’s rebuilding program that stood just east of the I-75 Freeway that was then under construction where Hastings Street had once been — that is, Black Bottom. The plans for Gratiot Area included an intermixture of apartment buildings, and would extend the redevelopment all the way to Jefferson Avenue. It was estimated that the area would accommodate 1,810 families, 350 in-garden apartments and town houses, and 1,460 in tower structures.

There are several important things to notice from this 1963 account. First, Detroit, like many other cities of the time, was interested in the nationwide trend of urban renewal. Choices made during this time could dramatically affect the city and its future. Similarly, it can be understood from this bulletin that the Commission genuinely thought they were aiding in improving the city by eliminating blighted areas and contributing to beautifying others that could be “saved.” Where the Commission saw blight, high crime/disease rates, and poor housing, this account proves they did come up with some sort of plan to “fix” this blight, no matter how flawed modern and retrospective opinions of urban renewal are to us now. Today, there are numerous accounts of those who grew up in the above Gratiot Redevelopment Area (aka Black Bottom) that never saw it as blighted or crime laden. Furthermore, the line in the bulletin that announces the new development as being right next to the Chrysler Freeway shows the discrepancy in thinking of both the era and between those affected and those in power.

Supplementary photo from 1963 Detroit Urban Renewal City Plan

Map of redevelopment projects from the 1963 Detroit Urban Renewal City Plan.

In environmental historical terms, this lack of understanding can be described as “seeing like a state” and dealing in legibility: where those in power create a simplified rationale to centralize control (like with the redeveloping and “slum clearing” of over 200 acres of Black Bottom) without truly understanding the complexities of the area, people, or issues affected. The Commission assumed their solution for Lafayette Park and its expansion took into account all factors, despite most likely not speaking to those who lived there or including them in decisions. As history can then show, assumptions from legibility are often wrong. While Lafayette Park sustains to this day and can sometimes be considered an urban renewal success story just for doing so, it also stands on what is considered the dormant remains of Black Bottom. It replaced a neighborhood that many residents were terribly sad to see go, despite being thought of as an ideal plan of action by city planners.

  • Detroit Urban RenewalDetroit City Plan Commission, 1963 (Detroit, Michigan: The Commission, 1963), 1-22.
  • James C. Scott, 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.
  • Laura Pulido, “Rethinking Environmental Racism: White Privilege and Urban Development in Southern California,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 1 (2000): 12-40.
  • “Streets; Chrysler Freeway; Construction,” Image, 1959, WSU Virtual Motor City Collection, Wayne State University Walter P. Reuther Library, Detroit, Michigan.
  • Thomas J. Sugrue, Origins of the Urban Crisis (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996), 10, 48.
  • Detroit Expressway and Transit SystemDetroit Transportation Board Report (New York: W. Earles Andrews, 1945).
  • Francis Gunrow, “Paradise Lost: Hastings Street Remembered”, TheDetroiter.com,http://www.thedetroiter.com/JUN03/DIGGINGMAY.html (accessed February 20, 2014).
  • Rick Beall, “Forgotten Blues and Jazz Locations in Detroit”, Rick Beall,http://www.paradisevalleyblues.com/tour/hastingsindex.html (accessed February 20, 2014)
  • Karen Williams, Robert J. Haynes, Paradise Valley Days (Detroit, Michigan: Detroit Black Writer’s Guild, Inc., 1998).
  • Walter P. Reuther Library Publication Committee, “Detroit’s Black Bottom and Paradise Valley Neighborhoods”, Walter P. Reuther Library, http://reuther.wayne.edu/node/8609 (accessed February 13, 2014).

Click here to see all narratives about Black Bottom

Click here to see resources for further reading on Black Bottom

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