Can Reparative Investment Finally Heal the Wounds Left by I-375?

For many Detroiters, Interstate 375, or I-375, has long been just another stretch of urban highway, a concrete artery connecting different parts of the city. To some, it’s a mere convenience; to others, it’s an unremarkable part of their daily commute. However, there’s a deeper, far more troubling story beneath the surface of this seemingly ordinary freeway—a story of pain, displacement, and the lasting impact on Black Detroiters.

The tale begins in what is now Lafayette Park, once known as Black Bottom—a neighborhood rooted in African-American culture and history. Named after its dark, fertile soil, Black Bottom flourished during the mid-1900s, nurturing the dreams and aspirations of prominent Detroiters like Coleman Young, Joe Louis, and numerous other Detroit legends. But in the name of urban renewal in the 1950s, this vibrant neighborhood was systematically dismantled, erased from the map, and replaced by a lifeless stretch of asphalt.

While the residential areas bore the brunt of this demolition, the heart of Black Bottom, its thriving business center, remained largely untouched. Restaurants, theaters, clubs, and bars—the very places that brought Detroit’s Black community together—were concentrated around Hastings Street, the epicenter of African-American culture in the city.

Then, in a cruel twist of fate, Hastings Street, too, was obliterated a few years later, making way for the construction of I-375. This marked the final blow, sealing the fate of Black Bottom and signaling the beginning of the end for Paradise Valley, the Black business district that had been the lifeblood of the community.

It’s a history marred by pain, injustice, and economic devastation. More than 130,000 residents, primarily Black, were forcibly displaced. Families were uprooted, generational wealth was obliterated, and a thriving community was torn asunder. The wounds inflicted by I-375 run deep, transcending the physical barrier of a freeway to penetrate the very soul of Black Detroiters.

This painful legacy can be traced back to the nation’s interstate highway program of 1956—a program that aimed to connect the country but often did so at the expense of marginalized communities. In the case of I-375, it meant carving a path through the heart of Black Detroit, reinforcing segregation, and perpetuating inequality.

For one to aptly recognize the harm caused by such projects, it is vital to note that some of the planners and politicians behind those projects built them directly through the heart of vibrant, populated communities—oftentimes to reinforce segregation and sometimes as part of a direct effort to replace or eliminate Black neighborhoods.

But now, after decades of enduring the scars of I-375, there is a glimmer of hope on the horizon. Plans have been unveiled to transform this once-divisive freeway into a vision that seeks to right the wrongs of the past while heralding a new era of inclusivity and community revitalization.

Fueled by more than $100 million from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and other partners, this ambitious project aims to create jobs, remove barriers to economic growth, and reconnect the neighborhood with the rest of Detroit. It is a step towards mending the wounds inflicted on Black Detroiters and restoring a sense of belonging that was so callously torn away in the past.

The I-375 Boulevard Project is about more than just correcting historical injustices; it’s about redefining the future. It will connect downtown Detroit to surrounding neighborhoods, bridging the gap that was placed upon the city decades ago.

Today, the resurgence of Paradise Valley stands as a testament to the indomitable spirit of Black Detroiters and the enduring legacy of Black excellence. This historic district, once a vibrant hub for Black businesses and culture, is experiencing a renaissance that harkens back to its glory days. The destruction of Black Bottom may have torn apart a thriving community, but the resolute determination of a new generation of entrepreneurs and visionaries is reclaiming that lost legacy.

In the heart of Paradise Valley, Black-owned businesses are not just flourishing but thriving, offering diverse services, products, and experiences that pay homage to the past while paving the way for a prosperous future. From jazz clubs to soul food restaurants, the Black Press, and art galleries to fashion boutiques, this revival is breathing life into the very essence of what once made this neighborhood a vibrant cultural epicenter. It’s a resurgence that extends beyond brick and mortar; it represents the resurgence of a spirit that refuses to be subdued.

Detroit City Councilman Fred Durhal III, representing District 7, where Eastern Market resides, told the Michigan Chronicle, “It’s still very early in the process, MDOT is still developing the plans. But from the surface level, it is a $300 million project close to Detroit’s Eastern Market area in what was once called Black Bottom, which was a mecca for Black businesses back in the day. Folks have stated in recent press conferences that they wanted to bring some level of vitality and some diversity, equity, and inclusion to something that pretty much tore apart a Black community over 50 years ago.”

Furthermore, this project represents a potential economic boon for the city. By eliminating the concrete chasm of I-375, it will free up a valuable piece of property in a high-traffic area, ripe for development and new businesses. This opportunity for growth and investment has the potential to uplift the entire community.

“Primary discussions of what people would want to see and their input in this project is really happening right now in those communities in the surrounding areas such as, folks from the Detroit Eastern Market Partnership, folks in Greektown that would be affected by filling in 375, community organizations in that area and residents,” said Durhal.

Yet, the importance of this project extends beyond infrastructure and economics. It is a chance to heal, to acknowledge the pain, and to honor the resilience of Black Detroiters. It is an opportunity to reclaim a piece of history and ensure that the mistakes of the past are not forgotten.

In a recent report, Detroit Future City (DFC) is laying it all out. A full-throttle effort to reclaim what was lost in Black communities like Black Bottom and Paradise Valley—places once teeming with Black life, culture, and commerce. DFC’s CEO, Anika Goss, minced no words: “The report calls for creating an investment environment that will result in reparative outcomes. This is an opportunity to create wealth now and for future generations of Black Detroiters, where wealth was intentionally extracted.”

This isn’t just a stroll down Memory Lane; it’s a call for reparative investment to make things right. In the past, urban renewal policies tore down these vibrant communities and left their residents stranded. That’s why DFC is all in for a “major restorative process,” one where the real stakeholders, Black Detroiters impacted by these policies, have a say in how future investments roll out. Goss insists that “private investment, venture capital, philanthropic funds and other investments that will leverage Federal resources should be led by and benefit Black Detroiters.”

But what does this look like on the ground? DFC is advocating for increased homeownership among Black Detroiters living in these neighborhoods. They want existing residents to have support for home repairs to strengthen the housing stock. They’re also pushing for Black developers to have the necessary investment and access for spearheading development opportunities. And if that isn’t enough, the plan also envisions a business district buzzing with Black-owned enterprises and entrepreneurs, not to mention land-use-based climate resilience solutions that help the community withstand the challenges of climate change.

DFC isn’t alone on this mission; they’re tipping their hats to organizations like Black Bottom Archives and Detroit People’s Platform. These groups have been on the front lines, documenting the systemic harm done to Black Detroiters over generations. They’re also championing the idea that reparations should be a cornerstone of investment strategies, including the initial I-375 Reconnecting Communities Project.

It’s not just a Detroit issue; it’s a blueprint that could ripple across the U.S., showing how to remedy deep-seated racial injustices in our cities. So, in a nutshell, DFC’s report is more than a plan. It’s a rallying cry for action, rooted in justice, to restore communities and create lasting change. As Goss said, now is the time for an “opportunity to create wealth.”

“Looking forward now as Detroit continues to grow and particularly as we expand development throughout the city, it’s important to recognize the process in how inclusion will play a role in what this city will look like for generations to come,” expressed Durhal. “I think it’s very important that we get the input from those folks who are affected in that district and all Detroiters in that matter but particularly those who are African-American.”

As Durhal mentioned, the expectation for construction will most likely prepare to break ground in 2025; it stands as a symbol of progress and a commitment to a more equitable future. But the journey ahead is not without its challenges.

This presents a unique opportunity to rectify past wrongs and promote racial equity. Suggestions like having developers contribute to a racial equity fund or providing 0 percent interest loans for Black-owned businesses are steps in the right direction.

It is a commitment to righting the wrongs of the past, to healing the wounds inflicted on Black Detroiters, and to building a brighter, more equitable future for all. As construction gears up to begin in 2025, we stand at the threshold of a new era—one in which the legacy of I-375 is transformed from one of pain and division into one of hope, unity, and progress.

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