The Destruction of Detroit’s Black Bottom

Black Bottom was a thriving neighborhood of African-Americans in Detroit. It was destroyed by gentrifying builders, natural disasters, and a violent riot from its inhabitants. Although there was a certain element of racism in the city’s political system that eventually led to the neighborhood’s demise, it was primarily due to the progressive housing reformers who saw the need for a more diverse community with many black-owned businesses.

The first time they built was in 1890s when Jacob Riis (a New York Police reporter who had a deep understanding of sensationalist journalism) depicted New York’s Lower East Side. The Other Half of the Story as nothing but squalid, showing no interest in the vibrant upward mobility of its immigrants.

Riis was the inspiration for Lawrence Veiller (now a forgotten Johnny Appleseed) who convinced American communities that housing density must be restricted in order to make it affordable without government subsidies. The formula that brought housing within the reach of the poor—what Boston settlement house pioneers Robert Woods and Albert Kennedy rightly celebrated as a “zone of emergence”—would be cast aside.

Its replacement—literally in the cases of Detroit’s Black Bottom, Chicago’s Bronzeville, St. Louis’ DeSoto-Carr, and so many other healthy neighborhoods—would be public housing. These “projects” are still the unripe fruit of seeds that progressive intellectuals planted. Le Corbusier was a pioneer modernist architect who envisioned tall-rise urban campuses that were free from stores and streets. Edith Elmer Wood, University of Chicago socioologist and Catherine Bauer Wurster (self-described reformer) are two less well-known figures but equally important in American housing history.

Wood, in her 1934 paper “A Century of the Housing Problem” led the fatal charge that would lead to New Deal public housing policies. She inveighed against the private housing industry broadly—even arguing against the idea that homeownership was one of the means for the poor to improve their station. Wood said that “the housing problem is an inexorable feature of our industrial civilization” and it does not seem to be a solution. “Supply-demand cannot reach it because new housing costs and income distribution are so high that only about two thirds can provide an actual demand.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.) His aides and he might still use the same words today. Indeed, Data for Progress calls for a new massive commitment to public-owned houses. The natural availability of affordable housing, which uplifts America’s poor, was overlooked by the early housing reformers. These include three-family homes, row houses in Philadelphia, duplexes, Chicago and bungalows in Oakland. The homes weren’t the result of urban planners. Instead, they were vernacular architecture that was built on small plots by small builders. These small-scale buildings were tailored to the wants and needs of those who were more mobile.

Bauer Wurster completed Wood’s vision for the 1934 landmark book. Modern Housing. In her blueprint for public housing, she even took a look at the Rotogravure plates in Moscow’s government-owned high-rise housing. Bauer would gain appointment as a New Deal housing official—and set in motion the death of Black Bottom and its kin. Census data shows that public housing in Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and St. Louis was built where black families could build wealth. Only 49 percent of those structures were cleared by owners. Their modesty offended what might be called the reformer’s gaze—but they embodied what should be recast as black economic empowerment.

The ultimate progressive Eleanor Roosevelt (channeling Wood and Bauer) cut the ribbon to the Frederick Douglass Homes of Detroit and the Roosevelt Towers of Cambridge. The Douglass Homes were explicitly reserved for African Americans—a policy the former first lady championed as benevolence. In the end, however, they would be destroyed because they weren’t suitable for human habitation. They do not allow neighborhoods to thrive without their owners.

In the post–World War II era, private developers exemplified by William Levitt and the modest, owner-occupied homes of Levittown, New York, proved Wood and Bauer tragically wrong. Reformers, however, have not learned this lesson. Instead of examining the ways in which public policies distort and limit private development, they continue to believe that private housing markets are failing. We have disowned and lost the Roman formula to water-resistant cement for medieval architects, as well as the formula for affordable housing. Small homes, on tiny lots with triplexes and duplexes are all the rage. We have convinced ourselves, wrongly, that poor neighborhoods cannot be good neighborhoods—that to thrive, the poor must be relocated to “high-opportunity zip codes”—ignoring so much history demonstrating the converse.

Black Bottom, Detroit is a fondly remembered place by African Americans. It’s even featured in exhibits at public libraries. They are never forgotten.

Black Bottom Thrives

The Black Bottom area of Detroit is the ideal place to view the sad ways that urban renewal and public housing destroyed African-American institutions, and denied residents the opportunity to build wealth. This is a compelling story that Jamon Jordan, the President of the Detroit chapter of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, shared with us in a phone conversation.

He has a passion for the past and a renewed appreciation for all that was lost after Black Bottom was cleared. Now he is a tour guide to university and high school students interested in seeing the few buildings that still remain from this once vibrant community of 130,000 people, home to more than 300 black-owned business.

Jordan quickly points out that Black Bottom’s name was not racist. Detroit’s dark, rich soil was a draw for early French colonists. This is also why Black Bottom was created as an African American neighborhood. Black people—who had first settled in the area during the Underground Railroad era—had limited choices as to which neighborhoods they could move into during the so-called Great Migration from the South, from the 1920s through the 1940s. This was the time when private deed restrictions often prohibited sale or rental to black residents. They were only declared inconstitutional by The Supreme Court in 1948.

Black Bottom was not a paradise. People were crowded in Paradise Valley and nearby Black Bottom. Some homes lacked basic sanitation. Jordan’s tours show Jordan with unbridled enthusiasm reminiscing the sad stories of what was lost after clearing neighborhoods. At least 20 percent of residential buildings were owner-occupied, he notes—with small multifamily homes and lodgers making the “owner-presence” rate even higher. History brings life to streets lost like Adams and St. Antoine.

Businesses in Black Bottom and Paradise Valley included “the Jesse Faithful and L’il Soul Food restaurants, the Busy Bee Café, the Wolverine barbershop, the Hardin drugstore, tailoring and shoe repair shops, and the Michigan ChronicleJordan explained that “Black News” was a newspaper about the African community. Famous entertainment venues included the Horseshoe Lounge and the Music Aquarium. John Lee Hooker (blues legend) specifically mentioned Hastings Street, Henry’s Swing Club (“I believe I’ll be down there tonight”) on his iconic recording “Boogie Chillun. Joe Louis, the heavyweight boxing champ, and his manager shared an office there.

And there were “mutual aid” associations—self-organized community institutions to help those in need. There was also the Phyllis Wheatley Home to Aged Colored Ladies for widows. Detroit Housewives League (or “sister”) to the Booker T. Washington Business Association was formed to organize boycotts of businesses not hiring African Americans. Both organizations also ran campaigns to encourage Black Bottom residents to support black-owned stores and to help newcomers get jobs. The thriving Detroit branch of the Urban League—established by relatively affluent black citizens to help newcomers from the rural South adjust to city life—was in Black Bottom. And of course there are churches: Catholic and Lutheran churches remaining from when the immigrant neighborhood had once been Irish, Italian, Polish, and German, as well as black churches—most famously New Bethel AME, headed by the Mississippi-born Rev. C.L. Franklin’s daughter, Aretha, was in her 20s when she was on her way stardom and the church had to move. Black Bottom was, in many ways, everything that latter-day pessimists about African-American culture lament—filled with entrepreneurs, small property owners, and self-help organizations.

Black Bottom Dies

Black Bottom’s decline was not caused by riots, unlike other African American neighborhoods in the 1960s. But the fierce race riot of 1943 in Detroit which involved Black Bottom contributed to the area’s destruction. One of Detroit’s earliest housing projects was built to meet the needs of new Detroit defense workers. This triggered the riot. The project was named for Sojourner Truth the black abolitionist. It would be constructed adjacent to an already existing black neighborhood, but it wouldn’t. It was also to be racially mixed, thanks in large part to Eleanor Roosevelt’s insistence.

After the arrival of first black families, violence and cross-burnings followed. After all, the black residents were defense workers. In addition to the obvious racism of this reaction, it was also a post-Depression hangover. Whites wanted to know that they would have employment upon returning from war. Fear and anger were fueled by the fact that black Americans could now work in wartime factories, as a result of President Franklin Roosevelt’s 1941 executive order.

Inclusion of black people in the Sojourner Truth Projects was a catalyst for white mobs that set out to loot black communities and attack their residents. Jordan said, “This was an authentic race riot.” The difference between white and black riots was that blacks were fighting exclusively with whites. Detroit’s leaders did not learn that racial tolerance was a necessity. Black neighborhoods are a powder keg. Black Bottom and Paradise Valley, which were considered safe harbours and bases for their operations, were perceived as instigators of violence by African Americans.

In 1946, real estate developer Eugene Greenhut first proposed their demolition—and the idea found favor with Detroit Mayor Edward Jeffries. “This area [should]Jeffries stated that the city would acquire it and clear all remaining buildings. Jeffries wrote, “The Area [should]It was then re-planned with the aim of selling as much to private companies as possible for redevelopment of housing, commercial and related purposes. After providing enough space for public parks, playgrounds and schools, it would be possible for them to dispose of most of what they have. This was modernist planning.

Common Council of the city voted in favor and condemned the entire neighborhood. The city did not have the funds necessary to pay property owners. This was even when many were of African descent. Albert Cobo was Jeffries’ replacement as mayor. He opposed the idea that city funds be spent on public housing, and all its associated costs. If it weren’t for the Federal Government and its rich pockets, this plan may have been stopped permanently.

The National Housing Act of 1949—which would vastly ramp up the vision of Catherine Bauer and Edith Wood—included funding for “urban renewal.” Funding for “urban renewal” would also be provided to augment the few existing public housing projects that were built during the Depression or early war years. According to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, this act authorizes Federal loans and advances to help with urban redevelopment and slum clearing. The act also funded funding for the expansion of public housing up to 810,000 units in a period of six years.

The clearance of Black Bottom would allow for the construction of six high-rise, public housing towers called the Frederick Douglass Apartments. These were combined with one previously constructed project that became the Brewster-Douglass Homes. Two seemingly different forces found the plan to be useful: The progressive Democrats from the postwar Truman administration who believed that public housing would offer the “safety and sanitary conditions” needed for many Americans, as well as Albert Cobo (the Republican mayor of Detroit), whose racist campaign promised white communities the same status. It was the Michigan Chronicle characterized it as “one of the most vicious campaigns of race-baiting and playing upon the prejudices of all segments of the Detroit population.”

Cobo had been first elected to office in 1950. He was exploiting hostility toward the Supreme Court ruling that real estate covenants could not be made. But making good on the pledge to keep black people in Detroit from moving into white neighborhoods—keeping them confined and concentrated instead in what amounted to high-rise reservations, modern and gilded before they rapidly deteriorated—would have been unlikely absent the National Housing Act. The progressive housing policy achieved what the racist mayor of Detroit might not have been capable.

Jordan says that it was simple because Black Bottom was already a concentrated and discrete neighborhood. “It was so straightforward to just wipe out it.” Most business owners did not receive any compensation. Jordan understates the fact that public housing was “problematic.” The short-term provided more physical accommodation for the people being moved. A significant amount of people wanted to be included on this list. After years of living in the area, you could only get rent receipts. African Americans will get these projects, while whites become homeowners. Property ownership is the best way to build wealth in America.

Hard and soft bigotry

Black wealth accumulation was not limited to housing projects. There was also the well-documented race discrimination of the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), which made post–World War II homeownership possible by insuring private mortgages.

FHA was designed to aid middle-class families in buying their first house. By insuring mortgage loans equal to 80 percent or greater of the property’s worth, it achieved this goal. Only loans that had a low chance of default would be eligible. The FHA would also do its own appraisals in order to establish eligibility for any requirements that were explicitly racially-discriminatory. Richard Rothstein was a prominent fellow of the Economic Policy Institute. The Color of Law: How America was Segregated by the Government Liveright, “The FHA deemed properties too risky to insure if they are located in mixed racial neighborhoods or white communities near black neighborhoods that may integrate in the future.”

Also, this is how you can say that government involvement in private housing markets has institutionalized racism. So it was that the hard bigotry of the FHA—a New Deal agency built on fears of white reaction to black neighbors and the racism of Southern Democrats—combined with the soft bigotry of housing reformers who believed in herding black residents into high-rise projects.

More positive outcomes would not have been possible without the public housing and slum clearance. Black institutions could have helped to renovate and improve historically black areas in Detroit as Detroit’s black population grew wealther at the same time that Detroit’s auto plant was booming. Competition from other banks could have helped black homeowners instead of being shut out. Both Paradise Valley and Black Bottom were cleared, and Douglass high-rises were opened.

The six towers, which once held 10,000, were in such bad shape that the demolished high-rise towers had to be torn down. Black Bottom was the scene of Clearance. The nearby original site of Paradise Valley, cleared by 1956, lay fallow for years—a large empty lot where a thriving neighborhood once stood.

Detroit civic leaders, led by United Auto Workers President Walter Reuther, ultimately laid the groundwork for the construction of the Lafayette Park apartments—an upper-middle-class complex designed by the pioneer modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe—on the former site of Black Bottom. Clearance was overthrown by the modernist anti-urbanism. Their policy waves had swept away the vibrant world of immigrant African American Detroit. This was a term that could be appropriately called “immigrant African American Detroit”.