Resurgent cineribus V: Paradise Valley and Black Bottom

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Looking, as I have over the past few days, at long-abandoned buildings being brought back to life, I am heartened by Detroit’s rise from the ashes.  But there are parts of Detroit that will have difficulty ever rising again, and they deserve more than a passing nod.

The prosperity of Detroit was built around the rise of the automobile.  The great factories of GM, Ford, Chrysler and others drew workers to the Motor City–and none in greater numbers than African-Americans, largely from the South.  They settled around the city, but the adjoining neighbourhoods of Black Bottom and Paradise Valley, on the city’s near East side, became the epicentre for the growth of African-American culture starting in the 1920s.  In an era when hotels were still segregated, the best African-American hotel in the world could be found in Paradise Valley, along with nightclubs that drew the biggest names in blues, jazz, and Big Band music, including Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Billie Holiday.  The Paradise Theater (which had once been called Orchestra Hall, before the Great Depression forced the orchestra to abandon it) on Woodward was one of the most famous jazz clubs of the era. Until the race riots of 1943, whites often visited the clubs and businesses of the area, but became rarer as polarization escalated.  Aretha Franklin’s father founded his church in the area. Black-owned businesses, doctors, and other professionals served a community where prosperity and poverty lived cheek by jowl–the area was particularly hard hit by the Depression, even as the arts flourished, and Black Bottom was the poorest neighbourhood in the city.

Marquee at the Paradise Theatre. Photo courtesy of the Detroit Symphony.

In the 50s and 60s, all of this changed. Many of the factories where residents of Black Bottom worked relocated to the suburbs.   Scandals rocked the area, particularly related to gambling, and racial tensions that would eventually lead to the riots of the late 60s played just beneath the surface.  City planners, largely concerned with the needs of white workers, decided that freeways were needed and that this area where they saw blight and unrest could be sacrificed to progress.  And so, Paradise Valley and Black Bottom were razed and paved over for the Chrysler Freeway.   Renowned architect Mies van der Rohe designed Lafayette Park to replace some of the housing that was lost, hoping to construct a racially diverse community.  While that project was largely successful in retrospect and is seen as an outstanding example of well-executed urban renewal, most of the former residents of Black Bottom ended up not in the relatively upscale residences of Lafayette Park (where 3/4 of the population was white), but instead in huge nearby housing projects.

This whole area is adjacent to Brush Park, which I talked about earlier. The Paradise Theater closed in 1951 and sat vacant for many years until restoration began in 1970, with the goal of eventually providing a home once again for the Detroit Symphony.  The DSO moved back in in 1989, and the facility was expanded in 2003 to add a second performance space and additional facilities.  As the surrounding area has begun to be revitalized, attention has turned to whether Paradise Valley, in particular, could ever be “brought back.”  One of the earliest housing projects, the nearby Brewster Homes, built between 1935 and 1940, was demolished in 1991 and replaced with townhomes. The nearby Douglass apartments, consisting of six huge towers (built in the early 50s) was demolished in 2003 and 2014, leaving a site in the Brush Park area ripe for redevelopment.

Tearing down the Douglass Apartment towers. Photo credit:  Mary Schroeder, for the Detroit Free Press.

In 2016 the City of Detroit specifically asked for proposals that could help “repair the tear in the urban fabric” caused by the demolition of Paradise Valley and Black Bottom.  A $300 million mixed income development including parks and community amenities is now planned for the site. While, as one professor put it, this would only be a small stitch in “repairing the tear”–and that undoing history is likely impossible–he did see it as encouraging that the proposed development would not simply consist of more luxury homes in this newly-trendy area.   In addition, a number of other projects are planned, including redeveloping a few remaining buildings and building new loft apartments.  A boutique hotel and a jazz club are just two of the proposed projects.

The continuity with the past has been lost, but Detroit has realized that Black Bottom and Paradise Valley were a key part of their cultural history–parts that deserve to be remembered and celebrated, even if they cannot be fully reclaimed.  It remains to be seen if what rises from the ashes here can recapture any of that spirit.

In the meantime, I will venture on Sunday into what was once the Paradise Theater to hear the Detroit Symphony play the Shostakovich 8th Symphony.  I will appreciate it even more now knowing the history of the venue and what it once meant to the Black community of Detroit.

This installment originally arose from the reading of two books:  Detroit: An American Autopsy by Charlie LeDuff was the book where I first learned the story of Black Bottom and Paradise Valley. Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story by David Maraniss paints a portrait of the city in the early 60s, just before the calamities that would befall it just a few years later.  In the midst of all of this redevelopment, I wanted to see whether any attempt was being made to remember whole neighbourhoods that were wiped out. “Urban renewal” is often a euphemism for “bringing in wealthier white people” who then “save” dilapidated areas.  Luckily (or not) the properties I have focused on in my articles were all entirely abandoned, so the less affluent are not being pushed out, but there are still many areas of Detroit where poverty still is a significant issue, where there are food deserts, and where basic services are lacking.  It’s my hope that this surge of interest in the city will result in improvements for everyone, not just hipsters with their craft breweries and Whole Foods stores.

More on the history of Black Bottom and Paradise Valley can be found here.

Read the story of the razing of Black Bottom here.

Read about the businesses of the lost Hastings Street here.

This article in Curbed discusses a number of the projects that seek to bring back a little bit of Paradise Valley.