Black Bottom, Detroit
Black Bottom was a predominantly black neighborhood in Detroit, Michigan. The term has sometimes been used to apply to the entire neighborhood including Paradise Valley, which reached from the Detroit River north to Grand Boulevard. In the early twentieth century, African-American residents became concentrated here during the first wave of the Great Migration to northern industrial cities. Informal segregation operated in the city to keep them in this area of older, less expensive housing.
The name of the neighborhood is often erroneously believed to be a reference to the African-American community that developed in the twentieth century. But it was named during the colonial era by early French colonial settlers for the dark, fertile topsoil (known as river bottomlands). The Black Bottom–Paradise Valley became known for its African-American residents' significant contributions to American music, including Blues, Big Band, and Jazz, from the 1930s to the 1950s.
Located on Detroit's near east side, 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. The old, substandard housing of Black Bottom and Paradise Valley was eventually cleared and redeveloped for various urban renewal projects. The neighborhood ceased to exist by the 1960s.
Historically, this area was the source of the River Savoyard, which was buried as a sewer in 1827. The river's flooding had produced rich bottomland soils, for which early French colonial settlers named the area "Black Bottom".
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 was home to the Gotham Hotel, which was known as the best hotel for African Americans in the world. Its business district was filled with African-American run doctor's offices, hospitals, drug stores, and other services. Before World War I, Hastings Street, which ran north-south through Black Bottom, had been populated chiefly by European immigrants. The frame houses that black newcomers to the city crowded into had been built by these immigrants throughout the second half of the nineteenth century.
Due to continuing ethnic succession, 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.
Despite the prosperity that emerged, not all of Black Bottom and Paradise Valley was glamorous. Black Bottom was the poorest section in all of Detroit, and a third of black Detroiters lived crowded within Paradise Valley to the north. The name “Paradise Valley” itself was an oxymoron; it represented the hopes that immigrants to the city expressed but were not generally achieved. Overcrowding, disease, and crime ran rampant within the boundaries of Black Bottom and Paradise Valley, right alongside prospering businesses, music, and fame.
Although it was home to one of the most prominent African-American business districts, the highways that were created through the Federal Highway Act of 1956 destroyed Hastings Street, home to many of the thriving businesses. 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.
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. The city government considered these areas slums, and thus designated those remaining after the highway construction for clearance through a series of revitalization projects that permanently destroyed Black Bottom and Paradise Valley. Both areas were removed for the construction of medical and city-run institutions, as well as public housing projects." The demolition was triggered by the passage of the Federal Housing Act of 1949. Just before demolition, the city sent photographers out to shoot every structure in what was officially 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, which were never intended to be made public, are now housed in the Burton Historical Collection at the Detroit Public Library.
The city replaced Black Bottom and Paradise Valley primarily with private housing from the Gratiot Redevelopment Project. 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 were relocated to large public housing projects, such as the Brewster-Douglass Housing Projects (a public housing project constructed over Black Bottom) and Jeffries Homes.
Historically, the primary business district was in an area bounded by Vernor, John R., Madison, and Hastings. Gratiot Avenue passed through that business district. The business district included hotels, restaurants, music stores, bowling alleys, shops, policy offices, and grocery stores. There were 17 nightclubs in the business district.
- 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."
- 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.
- 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.
- "Detroit's Black Bottom neighborhood: See it then and now". Detroit Free Press. 26 Feb 2017.
- Detroit Historical Society, "Black Bottom Neighborhood," Encyclopedia of Detroit. Retrieved February 20, 2015.
- 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."
- Wade Goodwyn; Christopher M Cook (directors) (2011). The Sprawling of America (DVD video). Great Lakes Television Consortium.
- Sugrue, Thomas (2005). The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit. Princeton University Press.
- Michael Hodges (9 Jan 2019). "Detroit's Black Bottom resurrected at Detroit Public Library". The Detroit News.
- 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.
- 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."
- Binelli, Mark (2012). Detroit City Is the Place to Be (1st ed.). New York: Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company. ISBN 978-0-8050-9229-5.
- Woodford, Arthur M (2001). This Is Detroit, 1701-2001. Detroit: Wayne State University Press. ISBN 9780814329146.
- Lafayette Park/Mies van der Rohe Historic District
- Paradise Valley Marker
- Walter P. Reuther Library Article on the history of Black Bottom
- When Detroit paved over paradise: The story of I-375
- 1930s and 1940s photographs of children in Black Bottom and Paradise Valley at the Walter P. Reuther Library