March 29, 2016

Black Bottom Archives as a Model for Legacy Preservation and Community-Building

The Black Bottom neighborhood in Detroit was located on the Near East Side, inscribed by Gratiot Avenue, Brush Street, Vernor Highway and the Grand Trunk railroad tracks. From the early 1900s until the 1950s, the neighborhood was Detroit’s burgeoning Black cultural hub. Following the mass migration to the North by Southern Black people, Black Bottom housed much of the Black population of the city and boasted hundreds of Black-owned businesses. Though the neighborhood was formed due in large part to racism and segregation, Black Bottom residents created an oasis of Black culture with the many nightclubs, theaters, grocers, schools, barbershops and stores that lined the residential and commercial streets and made up the popular strip on Hastings Street. This self-sustaining community of Black people in Detroit was an example of the success and vitality that are possible when community members support each other socially and economically.

Urban Renewal and the “New” Detroit

In 1954, the city’s call for redevelopment in the name of “urban renewal” and “beautification” spurred the construction of the I-375 freeway. The freeway, still there today, runs downtown and cuts directly through the area once known as Black Bottom. This development destroyed the neighborhood and the community that had been cultivated over decades. It caused hundreds of Black people and businesses to be displaced and created the first major diasporic shift of Black people in the city. Many Black people moved to other neighborhoods around Detroit, where they experienced racist lending and housing practices. One glaring example of segregation was the 8-Mile Wall, a six-foot structure erected to literally separate Black residents from white homeowners. The wall still stands today, and though no longer used as a racial divider, it serves to remind long-time Black residents of the displacement and separation that are part of the city’s legacy.

View of Chrysler Freeway in 1964, looking east from the roof of the City County Building. | Credit: Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State

This type of displacement is not unfamiliar to the Black Detroiters of today, as our city’s current revitalization creates another “new” Detroit. This present-day “rebirth” is causing the displacement of the (mostly Black) long term residents, homes and businesses that populate Cass Corridor, Downtown and Midtown. The narrative of Detroit is shifting from old and abandoned to young and revitalized, but native Detroiters are getting little say in how that narrative is shaped. We created the Black Bottom Archives as a way to give residents of the city the control of our own narrative. The next “new” Detroit assumes that Black Detroiters are long gone, but the Archives offers a way to assert our existence, showing the “new” Detroit we demand to be seen and heard, and are not forgotten or erased.

What Is the Black Bottom Archives?

The Black Bottom Archives is an online magazine and community space that uses digital media to preserve the legacy of the historic Black Bottom neighborhood, while also creating and building new communities. This virtual platform allows Black Detroiters to hold space for themselves and speak from their perspectives about race and social justice, as well as share information like healthful living tips. In recognition of Detroit’s place as a historical influencer of music and popular culture, the Archives’ “Black Arts” section spotlights local artists through interviews, music streaming and photo galleries. This virtual community is amplified by our streaming of local podcasts and web series, providing members with the opportunity to share in the creative endeavors that exist in our city.

Founders Paige Watkins, Sarah Johnson and Camille Johnson along with Chris Turner and Devon Porter (contributors to Black Bottom Archives) in front of Detroit's Eastern Market. | Credit: Justin Milhouse

The historical Black Bottom neighborhood is remembered for its strong sense of community and the many ways in which that sense was supported through the local economy and community programs. The Black Bottom Archives preserves this legacy of Black entrepreneurship and support of Black-owned businesses through a Black Business Directory that works to make businesses more accessible to consumers and amplifies the voices of neighborhood business owners who are not being supported through Downtown redevelopment. The Black Bottom Book Club provides readers with a space to discuss culture and contemporary social and political issues as they relate to the Black literature and non-fiction.

Envisioning a Community-Rooted Space

Our version of Black Bottom is not meant to be an exact replica of the neighborhood that once was. Rather, we envision an online community that allows its members access to their city, their stories and each other. Making the connection between arts and culture, education, and community-building, the Black Bottom Archives seeks to be the driver that connects the city’s past with its present. In the age of technology, of internet accessibility, of social media popularity and the resulting engagement, we champion the importance of this virtual space. It is important to preserve our culture and our ideas; it is important to have a hub like the Black Bottom Archives—an online community that Black Detroiters can access to read about what’s happening, keep up with community events, support local and online businesses, and interact with community members.

Ultimately, we know that the past and present displacement of people in Detroit is not an isolated story. The landscapes of countless cities in this country are shaped through similar stories of growth and community, then displacement and erasure. The Archives is an example of a community that has been historically displaced and ignored controlling its narrative and tell its own history. A virtual community cannot have a freeway run through it or be torn down for beautification projects, and we proudly recognize the power of that sustainability model. We hope that the Black Bottom Archives can be a model for legacy preservation and community-building as well as a catalyst for marginalized and displaced people to reclaim their cities and their narratives.

Paige Watkins and Camille Johnson are native Detroiters. They created the Black Bottom Archives in January 2015, and since then have been working to create safe, creative spaces for Black Detroiters where they can support and be supported.

Originally Posted February 1, 2016

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By: Paige Watkins and Camille Johnson

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