May 10, 2010
The land where the Detroit Medical Center (DMC) now sits was not always vacant. It became vacant through government destruction of the most important black communities then existing in Detroit: Black Bottom and Paradise Valley.
Black Bottom was where most of the black population first settled when they came north for jobs in the auto industry, during the Great Migration from the South in the first half of the twentieth century. The black population then expanded into what became Paradise Valley and then from there into the North End. The Detroit Plan Commission put the black population of Black Bottom alone at 140,000 by 1950.
Black people were concentrated in these three areas, especially due to exclusion from other areas – by realtors and by attacks carried out by white people in areas when someone black tried to move in. Black Bottom and Paradise Valley may have been slums, due to the lack of available housing and the overcrowding that produced. But they also were an intensely solid community of the people who lived there.
By the 1930s, Black Bottom had a vibrant social and political life. The Communist Party was active there, the Nation of Islam’s first mosque was located there, and many black churches were community centers. It was a thriving community. Contrary to the usual image that is given of black neighborhoods, Black Bottom had the highest proportion of home ownership of any area in the city.
Paradise Valley, in part of which the DMC now stands, was just to the north of Black Bottom. It was Detroit’s center for jazz in its heyday, with dozens of jazz clubs showcasing jazz greats from around the country and from Detroit.
Black Bottom and Paradise Valley were the heart of the black community. Their destruction began with so-called “urban renewal” programs that took the land under the guise of “slum clearance” and better housing for the residents. In fact, Detroit broke all its promises to construct or find housing for the poorer people who had lived in the area. The main housing built was for the wealthier middle class, not for the people who had been pushed out. Most of the displaced were forced to find their own housing in other parts of the city. With housing at a premium, it meant they were forced to double up in already densely crowded areas.
The final blow to Black Bottom and Paradise Valley was the state’s decision to use federal funds to tear out Hastings Street to build the I-75 freeway. Hastings Street had been the heart of the black community – its commercial center and its gathering place. In ripping out the center of the community, the city left behind a few blocks of houses divided on either side by a six-lane expressway, spelling the end of Black Bottom. Tens of thousands of people were pushed out rapidly.
Another casualty of this “urban renewal” were the black hospitals that existed there. Those hospitals existed precisely because the hospitals that became the DMC had traditionally refused to accept black patients and black physicians.
The destruction of Black Bottom and Paradise Valley was a tragedy, and one of the major crimes of the politicians of that time.