Black Bottom, Detroit

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Black Bottom was a predominantly black neighborhood in Detroit, Michigan, United States. The term has sometimes been used to apply to the entire neighborhood including Paradise Valley, but many consider the two neighborhoods to be separate.[1] Together, both Black Bottom and Paradise Valley were bounded by Brush Street to the west, and the Grand Trunk railroad tracks to the east. Bisected by Gratiot Avenue, the area known as Black Bottom reached south to the Detroit River. To the north to Grand Boulevard was defined as Paradise Valley.[2]

Although the name "Black Bottom" is often erroneously believed to be a reference to the African-American community that developed in the twentieth century, the neighborhood was actually named by early French colonial settlers for the dark, fertile topsoil found in the area (known as river bottomlands).[3] During World War I, Black Bottom was home to many Eastern European Jewish immigrants, but with the Great Migration and influx of southern African Americans, it became one of Detroit's most lively black neighborhoods.[4] As the Black Bottom grew, it soon became known as a lively and bustling area filled with jazz bars and nightclubs. [4] From the 1930s to the 1950s, residents in Black Bottom made significant contributions to American music, including Blues, Big Band, and Jazz. [5]

Despite the rich cultural and musical hub of Black Bottom, however, the neighborhood was plagued with urban poverty. Most of Black Bottom's residents were employed in manufacturing and the automotive factory jobs. Although some black business owners and clergymen operating in the neighborhood were able to rise to the middle class, they quickly fled Black Bottom and Paradise Valley for the more attractive Detroit West Side neighborhoods. [4] For the remainder of black residents, lack of access to New Deal housing benefits and segregation by way of redlining ensured entrapment in Black Bottom's subpar housing conditions.

In the early 1960s, the Black Bottom and Paradise Valley neighborhoods were demolished for the purpose of slum clearance and to make way for the construction of I-375. [4] Although the city's urban planners promised new public housing projects in replacement of Black Bottom, these developments were never affordable or open to Detroit's black residents. The once-thriving business district of Black Bottom was also bulldozed, ceased to exist.[2][6] Black Bottom, as it used to be, exists now only as a symbol for both resilience and tragedy. In the face of deeply unjust housing practices and concentrated urban poverty, the neighborhood's African American residents created and maintained a lively and successful community, only to be later pushed out by city urbanization and highway construction.


Lafayette Park Detroit redevelopment over Black Bottom

Historically, this area was the source of the River Savoyard, which was buried as a sewer in 1827.[7] The river's flooding produced rich bottomland soils, for which early French colonial settlers named the area "Black Bottom".[8]

The area's main commercial avenues were Hastings and St. Antoine streets. An adjacent north-bordering area, known as Paradise Valley in the twentieth century, contained night clubs where famous Blues, Big Band, and Jazz artists such as Billie Holiday, Sam Cooke, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Billy Eckstine, Pearl Bailey, and Count Basie regularly performed. In 1941, the city's Orchestra Hall was named Paradise Theatre. Reverend C. L. Franklin, father of singer Aretha Franklin, originally established his New Bethel Baptist Church on Hastings Street. Paradise Valley housed the Gotham Hotel, known, at the time, as the best hotel for African Americans in the world. Before the Gotham Hotel, African Americans lacked the opportunity to stay in quality hotels in cities. Black Bottom's business district thrived. Filled with African-American run doctor's offices, hospitals, drug stores, and other services,[9] it acted as a robust mini city within Detroit. Before World War I, chiefly, European immigrants populated Hastings Street, which ran north–south through Black Bottom. These immigrants, throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, built the frame houses that black newcomers crowded into, during the Great Migration and following World War II.[4] This meant the homes were far from the pristine quality of the new constructions being erected for whites throughout suburbs surrounding Detroit.

Prior to the mid-twentieth century, European immigrants and blacks lived together, Black Bottom integrated.[4] Coleman Young, the first black mayor of Detroit, moved to Black Bottom with his family in 1923; he remembered his neighbors being Italian, Syrian, German, and Jewish. Young "loved that neighborhood" with all its diversity.[10] Due to whites feeling threatened by the influx of blacks into the city, at the individual level, neighborhoods refused to sell to blacks and coerced blacks to stay within racial enclaves, and, at the policy level, neighborhoods passed restrictive covenants preserving racial homogeneity, and, thus, generated segregation.[4] Federally and locally mandated redlining further perpetuated the physical racial divisions within the city.[4] Resulting from these, by the 1940s the area was chiefly settled by African Americans, who established a community of black-owned businesses, social institutions, and night clubs. Detroit's Broadway Avenue Historic District contains a sub-district sometimes called the Harmonie Park District. It is associated with the renowned legacy of Detroit's music from the 1930s through the 1950s and into the present.[5]

Despite the prosperity that emerged, most of Black Bottom and Paradise Valley remained far from glamorous, Black Bottom being the poorest section in all of Detroit, and a third of black Detroiters living crowded within Paradise Valley to the north.[4] It was not uncommon for homes to have three, even four families inhabiting the space. The name “Paradise Valley” itself acted as an oxymoron; it represented the hopes held by Detroit immigrants and migrants, hopes not generally achieved. Overcrowding, disease, crime, and vermin ran rampant within the boundaries of Black Bottom and Paradise Valley, right alongside prospering businesses, music, and fame.[4] In addition, houses constantly suffered a state of deterioration, as they were the oldest homes in the city. This worked against the majority black populace because they were unable to afford--due to employment discrimination, particularly, income inequality, and high housing costs--repairs or beautification projects, perpetuating the discriminatory idea that lazy, dirty tenants filled these neighborhoods.[4]

Although it was home to one of the most prominent African-American business districts, the highways created through the Federal Highway Act of 1956 destroyed Hastings Street, home to many of the thriving businesses.[4] The highways, such as the Chrysler (formerly Oakland-Hastings) Freeway, bisected the rest of the Lower East Side, including Paradise Valley and Black Bottom. The Edsel Ford Freeway also cut through the northernmost part of Paradise Valley.[4] By 1950, 423 residences, 109 businesses, 22 manufacturing plants, and 93 vacant lots had been condemned for one freeway project.[4] By 2024, Detroit plans on turning I-375 into a boulevard. The removal of this interstate highway responsible for displacing a whole black community to make way for development and new residents sparked and continues to spark controversy.[11]

Following World War II, two-thirds of the physical structures of Black Bottom had been classified as aging and substandard, with many lacking modern amenities or sitting in significant disrepair.[4] The city government considered these areas slums, and because the government used highway construction projects to raze slums, they designated those remaining after the highway construction for clearance through a series of revitalization projects that permanently destroyed Black Bottom and Paradise Valley.[4] Both areas faced removal for the construction of medical and city-run institutions, as well as public housing projects.[4]" The demolition was triggered by the passage of the Federal Housing Act of 1949.[12] Just before demolition, the city sent photographers out to shoot every structure, the area dismissed as a "slum." The result was some 2,000 images documenting clapboard houses, New Orleans shotguns, churches and corner stores, all of which look far tidier than the government's description. These photos, never intended to be made public, are now housed in the Burton Historical Collection at the Detroit Public Library.[13][12][6]

Today, the area once home to Black Bottom is completely unrecognizable as the cultural, economic hub it was for so many people pre-World War II. The city replaced Black Bottom and Paradise Valley primarily with private housing from the Gratiot Redevelopment Project.[4] The City of Detroit also supported construction of Lafayette Park, a modernist residential development designed by Mies van der Rohe and intended as a model neighborhood. It combined residential townhouses, apartments and high-rises with commercial areas. Many of the former residents of Black Bottom underwent relocation public housing projects, such as the Brewster-Douglass Housing Projects (a public housing project built near Black Bottom starting in the 1930s) and Jeffries Homes, which no longer exist, Jeffries Home demolished in 2001 and Brewster-Douglass demolished in 2008.[7][14][15] Most recently came the announcement of a new project being undertaken by the University of Michigan taking the place of initial plans to build a penitentiary on the site terminated in 2013. Located at 1400 S. Antoine St., at the intersection of Gratiot Ave. and I-375, the 190,000 square feet structure will be well within the boundaries of what previously stood as Black Bottom territory.[16] "Residential units, a hotel, a conference center and a business collaboration and incubation space" will exist alongside the center.[17] The project comes funded, largely, by billionaires Stephen M. Ross and Dan Gilbert, and the announcement incited great contention. The intentions of the project remain vague, outlining the general goals of fostering economic, business, and technology innovation in the city. Esteemed scholar, in the University of Michigan's Department of Afroamerican Studies, Professor Stephen Ward acts as one of the project's greatest adversaries, who signed a petition, entitled "#UMichRegentrifiers: Invest in Detroiters", created by a university student opposing the project.[18]

In 2000, the final three structures of Paradise Valley fell victim to demolition.[19] A Michigan Historical Site sign on the former intersection of Adams Avenue and St. Antoine St., near Ford Field, exists as the last physical marker of the once lively black community.[20] The marker shrinks in comparison with the looming buildings surrounding it.

No physical remnants, besides the marker, of Black Bottom remain, but 28-year-old architect, Emily Kutil, plans to recreate the neighborhood virtually, using photos from the Detroit Public Library's Burton Historical Collection, through a website called Black Bottom Street View.[21] The site will also feature oral histories from past residents.


Historically, the primary business district was in an area bounded by Vernor, John R., Madison, and Hastings. Gratiot Avenue passed through that business district.[8] The business district included hotels, restaurants, music stores, bowling alleys, shops, policy offices, and grocery stores. There were 17 nightclubs in the business district.[22] I-375 highway passes directly over where Hastings Ave. once was.

Notable people[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Black Bottom Neighborhood". Detroit Historical Society. Retrieved 15 November 2019.
  2. ^ a b MacDonald, Cathy. "Detroit's Black Bottom and Paradise Valley Neighborhoods". Walter P. Reuther Library. Archived from the original on 3 August 2014. Retrieved 29 September 2015.
  3. ^ Binelli, p. 20. "The name was not as racist as it sounds: the area was originally named by the French for its dark, fertile topsoil."
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r Sugrue, Thomas J. (2005). The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit. United States: Princeton University Press. pp. 23, 24, 47, 62, 196. ISBN 978-0691121864.
  5. ^ a b Baulch, Vivian (August 7, 1996). "Paradise Valley and Black Bottom". The Detroit News. Archived from the original on February 15, 2013. Retrieved January 15, 2013.
  6. ^ a b "Detroit's Black Bottom neighborhood: See it then and now". Detroit Free Press. 26 Feb 2017.
  7. ^ a b Detroit Historical Society, "Black Bottom Neighborhood," Encyclopedia of Detroit. Retrieved February 20, 2015.
  8. ^ a b Woodford, p. 170. "[...]i became the predominantly black residential section known as Black Bottom, so named for the rich, dark soil on which early settlers farmed."
  9. ^ Wade Goodwyn; Christopher M Cook (directors) (2011). The Sprawling of America (DVD video). Great Lakes Television Consortium.
  10. ^ "Bringing Detroit's Black Bottom back to (virtual) life". Detroit Free Press. Retrieved 2019-11-14.
  11. ^ "I-375 In Detroit Planned To Become A Boulevard By 2024". Daily Detroit. 2019-10-18. Retrieved 2019-11-14.
  12. ^ a b Michael Hodges (9 Jan 2019). "Detroit's Black Bottom resurrected at Detroit Public Library". The Detroit News.
  13. ^ Amy Crawford (15 Feb 2019). "Capturing Black Bottom, a Detroit Neighborhood Lost to Urban Renewal (Scenes From a Historic Community in Detroit Just Before Its Erasure)". CityLab.
  14. ^ "Street near old Jeffries Projects named after Willie Horton | Roots (Community)". The Michigan Chronicle. 2019-05-24. Retrieved 2019-11-14.
  15. ^ "Here's why the Brewster-Douglass Housing Projects were built in the 1930s". Retrieved 2019-11-14.
  16. ^ "Introducing the Detroit Center for Innovation world-class research and education in the heart of Detroit". Detroit Center for Innovation.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  17. ^ Reporter, Madeline McLaughlin Daily Staff. "'U' announces $300 million innovation center in Detroit". The Michigan Daily. Retrieved 2019-11-14.
  18. ^ John, Gallagher (8 November 2019). "Secret deal-making process for new U-M facility in downtown Detroit has downsides". Detroit Free Press. Retrieved 11 November 2019.
  19. ^ "Paradise Valley - MichMarkers". Retrieved 2019-11-15.
  20. ^ "Before Motown: A History of Jazz and Blues in Detroit". Retrieved 2019-11-15.
  21. ^ "Bringing Detroit's Black Bottom back to (virtual) life". Detroit Free Press. Retrieved 2019-11-15.
  22. ^ Woodford, pp. 170-171. "John R. on the west, and with Gratiot cutting through it, was the area's business district. It contained shops, music stores, grocery stores, bowling alleys, hotels, restaurants, policy offices, and seventeen nightclubs."


External links[edit]

Coordinates: 42°20′26″N 83°02′27″W / 42.34056°N 83.04083°W / 42.34056; -83.04083