Last week, the Michigan Department of Transportation sponsored an open house for what they’ve dubbed ‘I-375 Reconnecting Communities,’ the project to convert the freeway into a surface level boulevard. This event was part of a series of community engagement that MDOT has planned as a requirement for a project of this scale.
Hosted at Eastern Market’s Shed 5, the space was full of maps, renderings, surveys, printouts, and video presentations. Opportunities to give input included tables with maps, posters, a lot of sticky notes, and project officials standing by to chat. There was no shortage of opinions, discussions, or information from MDOT about how they plan to carry out the project, but the shortage of excitement or imagination for a project with such transformational potential was palpable.
I left the open house discouraged and I don’t believe I’m alone.
I’m a Black urban planner who’s dreamed of tearing down freeways that destroyed vibrant neighborhoods like Black Bottom and confronting the negative impacts of cars in our cities. I’ve been a vocal advocate for better public transit in our region, better land-use policies, safer streets, parking reform, and truly affordable housing. A project like this should be a slam dunk for me to champion. Instead, it feels like Detroit is poised to squander an opportunity that we can’t afford to miss. It’s difficult to express just how unimaginative, limited, and tone deaf this project felt up against the realities of history and the very real issues facing our city and Black Detroiters today.
MDOT says they plan “Historical acknowledgments of impacts caused by the original building of the I-375 freeway and honoring the past” on the project’s website. The city’s I-375 framework mentions one of the project goals is to “determine how diversity, equity, and inclusion can be used to create opportunities for Detroiters, taking the history of the land into consideration.” These stated goals are vague and seem out of line with how the project’s design and outreach are actually being carried out. A lot of important design and planning work has already been carried out without community guidance. This is a massive traffic engineering project that was never rooted in justice, equity, or reparative action and it’s an insult to watch it be packaged like it was or ever could be.
I talked with attendees who had ties to the historic neighborhood. Each of them had stories about how displacement and dispossession impacted their lives for decades after the freeway came and the heartbreak their parents and families experienced when they were moved.
It’s true that it’s already too late for us to make things right for most of the Detroiters who suffered, but it’s unacceptable that we don’t seem to have the courage or care to go about rebuilding in a way that could inspire and uplift the many Detroiters who still have connections to the rich community that existed in the footprint of the freeway. If equity and justice were principles of this project, their stories would already be a part of conversations and decision-making around what making things right would take. Further, the project would recognize the urgency of documenting oral histories, researching the freeway’s full impact, and developing a responsible design for its eventual replacement. The only priority here is the “performance” of the roadway.
The similarities between MDOT’s present-day approach to this project and the type of destructive development that destroyed Black Bottom and got 375 built in the first place are uncanny. Coming to the community with a “preferred” alternative based around a harmful road design, ignoring opportunities to address more pressing transportation equity concerns, and making vague promises about addressing previous harm are parallels to what transpired in the lead up to Black Bottom’s demolition and Detroit’s period of urban renewal.
We must fully embrace and tell the truth about how the city used freeways and urban renewal to disrupt the social, cultural, and economic ecosystems that allowed Black Detroiters to thrive. Black Bottom and Paradise Valley are the reason Detroit became such a key destination during the Great Migration. Their destruction was an intentional blow to our ability to build community for ourselves. Their absence has caused generational losses and destroyed key parts of Black Detroit’s cultural heritage in the built-environment.
In Atlanta, you can visit the Sweet Auburn neighborhood and walk the streets Dr. King did, see the church that he pastored and his home. In Philly, you can go to Paul Robeson or Marian Anderson’s historic homes, both preserved as museums. In Detroit, we’ve demolished institutions like Aretha Franklin’s families’ New Bethel Baptist Church and the legendary Black show bars that lined Hastings Street. This is at the root of the absence of Black Detroiters in downtown development and an overall lack of cultural infrastructure for us. We replaced meaningful structures and streets with speeding cars and parking. If we’re willing to acknowledge the fact that Black communities were targeted for demolition, dispossession, and displacement then, we should be ready to make the connections between that history and how Detroit looks now.
I don’t believe it’s too late for this project to recover and reorient itself toward better outcomes for our city and Black Detroiters. Doing so will require a pause in how this project is moving forward now and more attention to the ways that we’re still prioritizing cars above people in our approach to urban development.
MDOT needs to understand that the community and people who care about the future of our city reject their preferred alternative. They must develop a more responsible and sustainable design that supports stronger opportunities for the project area. We should design for the type of traffic we want, not what exists now. Otherwise, we may find ourselves with a short-sighted, poorly designed area for another generation.
The City of Detroit, MDOT, and the Federal Highway Administration should collaborate on an official acknowledgement of past harm that quantifies to the fullest extent possible the losses in housing, businesses, and economic opportunity that have occurred because of I-375’s existence. There are precedents for this research in places like the Rondo neighborhood in St. Paul, Minn., or Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Okla.
These numbers can help paint a full picture of what was lost while we begin to imagine what reparative action and redevelopment could look like. They can also be efforts of good faith toward understanding the role that transportation infrastructure has had on Detroit’s decline and the social and economic disparities that Black Detroiters still bear as a result. An example of this is the disproportionate number of traffic and pedestrian deaths Black populations suffer on our roads as a result of poor design and a lack of safe alternatives. A Boston University and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health report on 2017 crash data found that Black Americans are killed at more than twice the rate (2.2) per mile walking, and nearly twice the rate (1.7) per mile driving or riding in a car than white Americans. Gratiot Avenue is one of the most dangerous roads in the country for Black drivers and pedestrians and MDOT is responsible for that.
MDOT and consultant HNTB have a stated desire to support efforts to honor the legacy of the community in their ‘Community Enhancements Plan.’ They can make good on that by investing into ongoing efforts by community-led Black Bottom Archives to collect oral histories and complete research on the history of the project area. This can help develop a more full historical record of the area and the displacement that occurred when the freeway was built. That record can help inform what types of outcomes for the future of the area could actually move us toward an idea of justice for the decades the neighborhood has been lost to I-375. It will also enhance the stories we can tell through new memorials, museums, and other interpretations in the replacement neighborhood.
In order to be a more effective and impactful project, there must be a renewed focus on adding regional, rapid transit options in downtown Detroit. Our existing road network and MDOT’s preferred design for the replacement boulevard create a negative feedback loop where driving becomes the most accessible option by design. This means larger, more dangerous roads, more space dedicated to parking, and limited regional mobility for Detroiters.
As the base of one of Metro Detroit’s busiest corridors, the new boulevard should be a part of plans to improve regional connections to the north. Car dependency has disproportionate economic and social impacts on Black Detroiters. Developing strong transportation alternatives is a proven way to alleviate those impacts and should be a part of this project.
Finally, we must be thoughtful and strategic in imagining the kind of redevelopment that can happen with the area we’re able to reclaim from the freeway.
Black Bottom and Paradise Valley were some of the most densely populated portions of the city with a wide variety of housing types and strong collection of businesses. While we can’t recreate the district as it was, we can use zoning, parcel sizing, incentives, building code modifications, and a phased development timeline to ensure a neighborhood of unique development in a way that worked there before. This will also ensure a wider availability of opportunity for developers at different scales and experience levels while also preserving opportunity for younger Detroiters to be involved in the neighborhood’s future.
Paul Jones III has been organizing with the Detroit People’s Platform and other groups and serves as board vice president for Transportation Riders United. Jones earned a master’s degree in urban and regional planning from the University of Michigan and formerly has worked in the City of Detroit’s Planning & Development Department and the mayor’s Innovation Team. He is passionate about the intersection of history, urbanism, and social justice in Detroit and empowering communities with knowledge of how the built environment impacts daily life.