Black Bottom back in the day
Detroit’s historic Black Bottom neighborhood was home to thriving Black businesses and growing Black families. Running from I-75 on the north, to Jefferson Avenue on the south, Grand Trunk railroad and Brush Street to the east and west, respectively, Black Bottom, near the city’s east side, was erased from Detroit history. Plans of community redevelopment and expansion arguably laid the foundation for Detroit’s economics and relationship with its Black citizens.
Getting its name from the black rich soil in the area, Black Bottom residents were mostly renters but had a space to call their own. Not just the homes in the community but local businesses were also exclusively Black creating a network of self-sustainability and independence. Despite its strong African American presence, the neighborhood was also home to early immigrants before becoming exclusively Black.
“It was a first stop for a lot of immigrants coming in. A lot of Jewish people lived in the neighborhood, Eastern European people lived in the neighborhood, Italians. It wasn’t until the 20th century where it becomes primarily a Black community, primarily the 1920s and 30s,” William Winkel, assistant curator for the Detroit Historical Society, says.
Demolished in the 1960s, the Black Bottom neighborhood was replaced by what is now known as Lafayette Park and I-375 highway. Sitting amongst another historically Black community to its north, Paradise Valley, separate from Black Bottom, would be yet another neighborhood destroyed by white commercialism.
Black Bottom now
Black Bottom, a section of the city already laden with blight, would soon see its residents and businesses forcibly relocated and the community destroyed. Already suffering the economic effects and racial discrimination in Detroit, homes in the community were not equipped with modern amenities.
“Even going into the 1950s, some homes didn’t have bathrooms, they had outhouses,” Winkel says.
The African American population in Black Bottom surged during the 1920s and 1930s. During World War II, Black Bottom was hit especially hard as the auto industry took a dip causing workers to lose their wages.
Before its demise, Black Bottom saw the likes of jazz legends such as Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald. With music in its DNA, Detroit’s small all-Black community acted as a backdrop for thriving clubs and bars. With about 350 businesses in Black Bottom, it was dubbed Detroit’s Black Wall Street.
“If you needed anything, you could get it on Hastings Street, which was the primary artery that businesses were on,” Winkel says. “There were bakeries, insurance companies, doctors, tailors, dentists and it was all wiped away by 75.”
As Black families begin to move into the neighborhood, white developers and homeowners launched a full-scale attack on Black Bottom residents. Homeowners Associations, unlike the associations of today, were used to help invoke fear to maintain home equity.
“They got people fired from their jobs for selling homes to Black families, they threw bricks through windows, they stormed into homes when people weren’t there and destroyed them. It was completely aggressive, it was fear-based and they kept Black families contained to their smaller neighborhoods,” Winkel says.
Once inhabited, the success of Black Bottom and its residents would be short-lived. Under the mayoral direction of Albert Cobo, a divisive and controversial leader for which the former Cobo Hall shared its name, redevelopment plans for the city meant the once-thriving Black Bottom community would be leveled and replaced with a new road, a highway.
“He ran his mayoral campaign on stopping the Black invasion of Detroit and shutting down housing projects,” Winkel says.
Bulldozing an entire neighborhood and forcing its poor and impoverished citizens to relocate laid the blueprint for the Detroit of today. With the recent influx of white residents returning to the city, Black residents are being pushed out by high housing costs and economic redevelopment.
“The destruction of Black Bottom was one of the really big catalysts for the making of modern Detroit,” Winkel says.
Still enamored with white capitalism, modern day Detroit is now home to new businesses, gentrification and closing Black residents out of the American Dream. The once-bustling city full of Black-owned businesses is being replaced by big bank corporations and the deliberate transformation into a metropolis void of color.
“There was a lot of money to be made and there was a lot of it made,” Winkel says.
A city on the rise, how can Black residents fight for and maintain an exclusive space, like Black Bottom, to circulate the Black dollar? Staying just six hours in the Black community opposed to 17 days in the white community, the Black dollar accounts for $1.3 trillion dollars in gross national income according to the Black Star Project, but only two percent of that money is recycled through its community. Although 80 percent Black, Detroit accounts for just 400 Black-owned businesses in the city, according to Huffington Post.
“As Detroit progresses and as this divide continues, I think it’s important to establish, foster and maintain Black businesses in the neighborhood,” Winkel says. “The age of 300 businesses on the strip is largely over, but there is a way to recreate that.”
Now, there are no obvious remnants of the once thriving neighborhood. Completely buried by concrete, Black Bottom exists as only a memory to older Detroiters. Going through a constant state of reinvention, the city’s resurgence, or lack thereof, is rooted in moments like Black Bottom and the Black community’s dedication to belong.
“I want more people to know the story of Black Bottom and why it’s not here anymore. Before you criticize the city, I want them to learn the story of Black Bottom and learn the fact that things were imposed on the city, that destabilized the city, are incredibly hard to overcome,” Winkel says.
Standing tall, descendants of the Black Bottom neighborhood, born from displacement, are working to build a permanent space in the city and will continue to rebuild after every storm.
“The fact that Detroit is one of the largest Black cities in the country is not reflective of the city being welcoming to the Black community. It’s reflective of the tenacity of the Black community in Detroit,” Winkel shares.