Friday, January 29, 2016

Detroit's Lost Neighborhoods--Black Bottom and Paradise Valley

If suburban Detroit residents were asked what they know about Black Bottom and Paradise Valley, most of them would be clueless. Both of these African-American neighborhoods were paved over in the early 1960s in the name of urban renewal. Rather than upgrade housing and services in those established neighborhoods, city fathers--in league with the Federal Highway Commission--cut an unnecessary 1.06 mile long swatch for Interstate 375 through the heart of these black neighborhoods. The Walter P. Chrysler Freeway is the shortest stretch of Interstate in the state of Michigan.

The Savoyard River ran through the area known as Black Bottom (Fond Noir). The fertile land was named by the original eighteenth century French land grant owners. The area was notable for its dark, rich topsoil. In 1827, the river became part of the Detroit sewer system and was bricked over, covered with fill dirt, and built over. The place name initially carried no racial connotation.

In the twentieth century, Hastings and Antoine Streets were the commercial backbone of Black Bottom and Paradise Valley. After World War I, the established Jewish community began to vacate the area moving west and north of downtown Detroit. Blacks migrating from the South seeking opportunity and factory jobs moved into the aging and inexpensive neighborhood along Hastings Street. In time, African-American entrepreneurs moved into vacated businesses and opened doctors' offices, churches, infirmaries, bakeries, grocery stores, clothing stores, barber shops, beauty salons, bowling alleys, restaurants and hotels serving a vibrant, self-contained, segregated community.

The red-line boundaries for the racially isolated community were east of Brush Street, west of the Grand Trunk railroad tracks, south of Gratiot Avenue, and north from the Detroit River. In 1919, jazz composer and musician Jelly Roll Morton named the "Black Bottom Stomp" after the area. Soon, the Black Bottom dance overtook the Charleston in popularity during the 1920s.

Paradise Valley began north of Gratiot Avenue to Grand Boulevard. This area was the entertainment zone for Detroit's blues and jazz music scene from the 1930s through the 1950s. It was also the center of African-American social life with places like the Horseshoe Lounge, Club Plantation, Club 666, and The Paradise Theater.

The likes of Ethel Waters, Pearl Bailey, Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, Cab Calloway, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Della Reese, and Red Fox were among Paradise Valley's long list of headliners. Traveling African-American performers loved playing Detroit because they could stay at the Gotham Hotel--one of the only first-class hotels in America that served the black community.

Gambling was big business through the Great Lakes Mutual Numbers House and the Frog Club. Whites and blacks mixed comfortably in Paradise Valley until the 1943 race riots. After that, it was rare to see whites venturing into the area--except to cruise for female companionship.

With the passage of the Federal Interstate Highway Act of 1956, the die was cast for the demolition of a long list of urban communities across the country. In Detroit, over 3,500 dwellings and 300 black-owned businesses were condemned and bulldozed tearing apart the social fabric of the community. The Chrysler Freeway opened in June of 1964 paving over Hastings Street and destroying the culture of its inhabitants. Today, Ford Field and Comerica Park stand where once a thriving community lived.

The Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) announced in 2013 it is considering a plan by urban planners to remove I-375. Research data shows the I-75 spur is underutilized and could be replaced with a boulevard to make the area more pedestrian and neighborhood friendly.

The unspoken truth is downtown Detroit real estate is just too valuable and begs for redevelopment. This MDOT pronouncement comes sixty years too late for people who remember Black Bottom and Paradise Valley back in the day.

Victoria Spivey and "The Detroit Moan" (1936): 

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