Why the destruction of these Detroit’s Black Bottom and Paradise Valley still matters

Boxer Joe Louis Barrow came of age in the Black Bottom neighborhood

1930s Detroit: Childern pose outside a store in the black bottom neighborhood that has longsince been erased in the name of urban renewal Reuther Library photo by EDWARD STANTON


Named for the dark, fertile soil seen by French explorers, Black Bottom was a predominantly African-American neighborhood in the city of Detroit.

It was finally demolished in the early 1960s to make way for the Chrysler Freeway and Lafayette Park – all in the name of urban renewal.

Paradise Valley was the business and entertainment district located just north of Black Bottom, approximately where Comerica Park and Ford Field stand.

Renowned musicians such as Sam Cooke, Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald performed in the night clubs of Paradise Valley. Some of the neighborhood’s African-American residents, like Aretha Franklin, became known for their contributions to American music.

The area had numerous young, successful African-Americans as it once boomed with African-American-owned businesses and nightclubs.

Joe Louis was raised in Black Bottom after his family moved from the South to get away from the Ku Klux Klan.

During the first Great Migration (1916-1940), Black Bottom changed from a heavily Eastern European Jewish community to a predominantly African-American one, as the city’s black population surged.

But the reality was that African-Americans weren’t welcome in much of the city of Detroit..

Informal segregation restricted African-Americans to the neighborhood’s old housing, which often lacked amenities such as indoor plumbing. Black Bottom was also the poorest area in all of Detroit.

Black Bottom’s decay started with the Great Depression.

Residents of the neighborhood felt the economic decline more than most since many worked in the auto factories.

Detroit lead an urban renewal program to address “urban blight,” in response to the American Housing Act of 1949. The act detailed slum clearance along with urban renewal projects.

Employment discrimination and the razing of Black Bottom to make way for the freeway system were the result of the city’s de facto policies.

This forced many residents to relocate to public housing such as the Brewster-Douglass and Jeffries housing projects.

The former Black Bottom neighborhood now consists of Lafayette Park and the Chrysler Freeway and a few remnants, includig the closed Brewster Center where Joe Louis trained as a teen.

Detroit consistently gets attention for its “comeback,” an insult to the residents who never left.

Why am I, a white guy from the suburbs, writing about Black Bottom?

I have never lived in the city of Detroit, but learning and appreciating its history is important – more important than affirming every business taking advantage of once-cheap property in downtown, Midtown and Corktown as a “comeback” story. This brings me to my next point.

It is easy to talk about the 3.3 mile Q-Line street car or the Little Caesars Arena project transforming Cass Corridor into an assortment of parking lots.

It is uncomfortable to talk about the imprudent demolition of an African-American neighborhood.

Black Bottom’s history still matters today.

To ignore such stories is to sweep them under the rug.

Imagine how (un)healthy your relationships would be if you looked past every issue.

David Ikard, a professor at Vanderbilt University, gave a Tedx Talk on “The Dangers of Whitewashing Black History.”

Ikard quotes acclaimed novelist Toni Morrison: “If you can only be tall because someone’s on their knees, then you have a serious problem.”

Everybody’s skin is different not their bones.

As well-intentioned as it is to say “I don’t see color,” it is to deny African-Americans of their history in an America that was not accepting to begin with and still isn’t.

The color of one’s skin should not matter, but it does.

Recognizing each other's differences enables us to have conversations that matter. Our actions, or lack of, speak for our societal values. It wasn’t until Dec. 19 that the United States Senate unanimously passed legislation that made lynching a federal crime.

It is hard to get people to care about issues that don’t directly affect them.

In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Dr. Martin Luther King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

If we allow injustice to happen to some people, we endanger everyone. We allow people to think that it is alright to act unjustly towards others.

Words have power.

Most of us can recall learning about Rosa Parks, an old lady, tired from a long day of work, who didn’t give up her seat on the bus to a white man.

In reality, Rosa Parks was a 42-year-old seamstress who worked six hours that day. By profession she was a seamstress, but Parks was also a secretary for the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP and investigator of sexual assault cases.

Students don’t learn in school the history of people but often a perversion of reality.

That in itself is an injustice.

So what can you do?

Put value on people’s stories and try to understand the perspectives from which they’re told.

You may feel like it won’t affect you, but I promise that it will make all the difference.

Marcon is a VN staff member and opinion columnist.