Last week, the City of Detroit unveiled a historical marker to recognize Black Bottom, a thriving, dynamic Black community that was destroyed decades ago. Unlike Tulsa’s Greenwood District, this neighborhood has not received a presidential visit to commemorate it and did not fall to racist mobs.
Black Bottom, and neighborhoods like it — the DeSoto-Carr section of St. Louis, parts of Chicago’s Bronzeville, and Cedar-Central in Cleveland — were the victims instead of political reforms: above all, urban renewal, as authorized by the National Housing Act of 1949, which provided funds to clear neighborhoods and replace them with public housing towers.
In Detroit’s Black Bottom, once home to 140,000 Black residents, the process became known as “Negro removal,” as so-called urban renewal displaced Black-owned businesses and a community that fostered wealth accumulation and upward mobility.
Decades of reform gave politicians federal tools to demolish what they termed slums and replace them with modernist, top-down plans, laying the groundwork for the neighborhood’s destruction. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal began the project of public housing, starting with the Brewster Homes in 1938, which replaced a small portion of Black Bottom and became the first federally funded public housing project built for African-Americans.
But Black Bottom’s fate was not yet sealed. The neighborhood’s heyday as a Black community began in the years after World War I, when Henry Ford’s famous offer of a $5-a-day factory wage drew Southerners, including many Black people, to Detroit. That appeal grew in 1941, when Roosevelt lifted a ban against Black workers in defense industries, including the converted auto plants, growing the population of Black Bottom and nearby Paradise Valley.
Race and racism undoubtedly played a role in Black Bottom’s development — and its eventual demolition. The federal government denied long-term insurance for loans made in areas where the Federal Housing Administration concluded that Black people were likely to move, forcing Black people in Detroit to squeeze into Black Bottom.
Nonetheless, business and civic life thrived in Black Bottom and Paradise Valley. The Michigan Chronicle, Detroit’s African-American newspaper, said that Black Detroiters had “created their own utopia in Black Bottom and Paradise Valley, where hundreds of businesses, churches, nightclubs, clubs, hotels, barbershops and beauty salons were owned by African-Americans.” And Black Detroit boasted plenty of homeowners. Census data from 1950 show that in predominantly Black Detroit neighborhoods, 28.1 percent of residences were owner-occupied.
When a fierce race riot rocked the city in June 1943, Detroit’s civic leaders began to consider clearing Black Bottom. According to the Detroit Historical Society, nine white and 25 Black people died in the 1943 riot, including 17 Black people killed by police. Detroit resolved not to attempt to rebuild and incrementally improve Black Bottom, and Washington funds would make possible both the clearance of Black Bottom and the construction of six high-rise public housing towers, known as the Frederick Douglass Apartments, which, combined with an older project, became the Brewster-Douglass Homes.
True, public housing initially provided better accommodations for those relocated. But, “after years living there, all you would have would be rent receipts,” said Jamon Jordan, founder of the Black Scroll Network, which gives guided tours of the few remaining buildings in Black Bottom. Referring to the Federal Housing Administration’s redlining, Jordan said, “African-Americans would get the projects, whites would become homeowners. And property ownership is the way to accumulate wealth in America.”
Contemporary Black and white wealth disparities confirm that observation. African-Americans occupy 39 percent of public housing in the United States, more than three times their percentage of the U.S. population (12.3 percent). Tenants, on average, occupy subsidized housing for 12 years, as these projects offer little springboard for upward mobility.
Without public housing, one can imagine a different history unfolding for Black Bottom. As Black Detroiters became wealthier and the city’s auto plants boomed, Black small-business owners might have expanded their firms, built wealth and improved historically Black neighborhoods. Had the government not been so heavily involved in the mortgage market, competing banks might have sought out, not shut out, potential Black home buyers.
By 2014, all six towers had been demolished; a vital piece of Black Detroit was swept away decades ago for towers that would be cleared once again.
Howard Husock is a City Journal contributor and author of the forthcoming book “The Poor Side of Town: And Why We Need It.” This piece is adapted from a larger article that originally ran in City Journal.