The Black Bottom, Slum Clearance, and Detroit’s Self-Destructive Desires

Created by: Sam Johnson
Time Period: 20th Century
Topic: Architecture, Community and Reform, Culture, Infrastructure, Politics, Poverty, Race and Ethnicity, Remaking Urban Space

The Black Bottom Neighborhood

Black Bottom was among the oldest neighborhoods in Detroit prior to its demolition. Although bearing a large immigrant and Jewish population by the turn of the 20th century, factors such as the Great Migration, new job opportunities, and redlining resulted in an explosion of Black Bottom’s African American population. Over the first half of the 20th century, the neighborhood, alongside the bordering Paradise Valley, would see an explosion of culture, particularly focused towards music. Particularly geared towards jazz, bars and night clubs popped up across Hastings, St. Antoine, Winder, and John R. Streets, with names such as Sportree’s, the Flame Show Bar, and Baker’s Keyboard Lounge, the last of which still operates today.

Urban Renewal and “Slum” Clearance

But by the 1940’s, there was a growing push on city and federal level governments for “slum renewal”, through a combination of urban renewal and the growing prevalence of the automobile. However, the direction that cities would proceed in was a particularly specific one. In the case of Detroit, Black Bottom became a focal talking point, as land that needed to be cleared; Detroit’s 60th mayor, Edward Jeffries, referred to these neighborhoods specifically as “old structures.” Many would end up referring to slum removal as “negro removal”, with neighborhoods bearing large African American, Jewish, and immigrant populations being demolished. Although Black Bottom and Paradise Valley objectively had higher levels of poverty and uncleanliness than surrounding areas, things were not unravelling and anarchic, as many claimed slums were, for they had their own concrete cultures and ways of life. Initially, the city was unable to perform any large-scale demolitions due to a lack of funding, albeit some buildings on the outskirts were still brought down. Following the passing of the Federal Housing Act, however, Detroit rolled out plans to construct the John C. Lodge Freeway, which was to run right through Black Bottom. For those who lived “in the way”, they were often unable to sell their homes and property at anywhere near a good price, due to the land being viewed as worthless. While some were able to get into public housing conglomerates, the majority were left on the street with nowhere to go. While the John C. Lodge Freeway itself did not erase Black Bottom, it was now cut in half, with its businesses and cultures entering a free fall, with only more slum removal on the horizon.

Detroit’s Unique Renewal

A point to be raised, however, is the unique nature of Detroit’s urban renewal. Long before the post war environment, many in the Motor City desired to modernize it in ways to reflect its growing industrial might. In 1922, Mayor James Couzens created the Detroit Rapid Transit Commission, with a 1923 expanding its powers, to solve the rapidly growing city’s transportation needs. While plans from the 1920’s called for intensive subway expansion, these slowly shifted into a preference for the automobile. While much of Detroit’s renewal plans from this era certainly feel utopian and Metropolis-like in their scale and concept art, it feels particularly sympathetic for itself. Its growing desire for “super-highways” were not just meant to support the growing population and automobile industry, but to glorify said industry. It was meant to state to the world “this is who we are, this is Detroit.” And much like said automobile industry, these plans would fall short, and have dire consequences despite their much smaller scale.

I-375 and Sprawl

Referring back to Black Bottom, its death blow would be the 1956 National Highway Act, and Detroit’s next large-scale development: I-375. This interstate highway would demolish practically the last few remnants of Black Bottom and Paradise Valley, with its six lanes running across the Lower East Side into Downtown. Finished in 1964, what few remaining properties would slowly shutter with no remaining culture and economy to keep them alive. And yet, I-375 brought a new problem upon the Motor City, that being sprawl. With all of this land no longer capable of being used for residential purposes, and many public housing districts being shuttered as well, the land became vehemently aggressive towards public use. You had to own a car to navigate what was once vibrant-if-poor neighborhoods, thus pushing people far away from any residential areas around it. All in all, although Detroit had cleared its slums and “modernized” as it saw fit, it had only succeeded in transforming Black Bottom into true “wasted land”, that people can only access if used in a particular manner.