Capturing Black Bottom, a Detroit Neighborhood Lost to Urban Renewal
“Black Bottom Street View,” now exhibiting at the Detroit Public Library, thoughtfully displays old images of the historic African American neighborhood in its final days.
In the late summer of 1949, three little boys sat on the curb outside 1231 Riopelle St., in Detroit’s now-vanished Black Bottom neighborhood, taking in what must have been an unusual sight: A city employee was heading slowly down the street, methodically photographing each address. As the shutter snapped on a single-story triplex, two of the children grinned, while a third looked perplexed. A fourth, just stepping into the frame, glanced suspiciously at the camera. The photographer moved on. Under a tree in front of Hall’s Coal Co. on Mullett Street, a woman fed a baby in a high chair—perhaps they were avoiding a hot kitchen at midday. At 1840 Macomb, little girls in light summer dresses watched with curiosity. At the corner of Lafayette and Russell, a man in shirtsleeves leaned on a stop sign and flashed a friendly smile. The photographer took a picture and moved on.
“You can see how people were reacting to this photographer moving through the neighborhood—it must have been this spectacle,” says Emily Kutil, an adjunct professor at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Architecture whose installation, Black Bottom Street View—at the Detroit Public Library’s Main Branch through March 15—has put these 70-year-old images on view the first time.
Captured hastily in black-and-white between 1949 and 1950, the photographs of Detroit’s oldest African American neighborhood (its name refers to the dark, fertile river bottom soil that early settlers found there) document homes, shops, churches, and clubs that the city of Detroit would soon seize via eminent domain. The action was part of a wave of urban renewal that would destroy neighborhoods—many of them African American—across the country during the mid-20th century. Made as a first step in the condemnation process, almost certainly before any residents were aware of their fate, the photos were never intended to be public. But when Kutil, who is part of a volunteer research collective called We the People of Detroit, came across some 2,000 of them in the library’s Burton Historical Collection in 2015, she recognized their value as a ghostly testament to a lost community.
“They were sequential—you could see the whole street,” Kutil says.
Fascinated, Kutil began to knit the images together into panoramas, along the way winning a $15,000 Knight Arts Challenge grant (matched by the Detroit Public Library Friends Foundation and crowd-sourced donations) to support the work of creating an exhibition. With some of her students, she designed and built a wooden framework to display the enlarged images block-by-block; the result, laid out in full in a cathedral-like space on the library’s third floor, allows visitors to walk a resurrected section of the neighborhood, where 1940s cars are parked along the streets, barber shops are open for business, ailanthus trees shoot up in alleyways, cops walk the beat, and residents stop by the corner store or poke their heads out their windows to see what’s going on.
Home to black families whose roots here dated to the Civil War, as well as many who traveled north as part of the 20th century Great Migration, Black Bottom and adjacent Paradise Valley were known for their music scene, with nightclubs that brought in talent like Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, and Count Basie. Aretha Franklin’s father preached at the New Bethel Baptist Church on Hastings Street. Detroit’s first black mayor, Coleman Young, grew up here. But by the late 1940s the housing stock was deteriorating, and the homes were crowded with families who were shut out of other neighborhoods.
“People were living precariously there,” Rutil says. “There was a population boom and a huge housing shortage then, but there were restrictive covenants all over the city.”
The Housing Act of 1949 provided cities with funding to clear neighborhoods deemed to be blighted, and Detroit was one of the first cities to take advantage of what would by 1985 amount to $13.5 billion for “slum” clearance and redevelopment projects. Beginning soon after the photos were taken, the city started to tear down Black Bottom, a 20-year process that would scatter its residents, most of them working class renters, but many with deep, multi-generational ties to the area. Today, the section of Detroit depicted in Kutil’s installation lies beneath the Chrysler Freeway (Interstate 375) and Lafayette Park, a collection of superblock high-rise and low-rise apartments, many designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. (Most of the initial residents were white.)
Over the next few decades, the redevelopment of Black Bottom would be mirrored in African American, working class, and immigrant neighborhoods across the country, from Boston’s West End to San Francisco’s Fillmore. Kutil notes that displacement of black and poor urban residents continues today, whether through tax foreclosures or gentrification. “It’s just happening really slowly, in piecemeal ways, because we never addressed the root causes.”
Kutil is now working with Black Bottom Archives, a project focused on Detroit’s black culture, to compile the images from Black Bottom Street View, along with the era's city directory, on a searchable website. She has also connected with local historians, activists, and people with family ties to Black Bottom to gather oral histories and provide context for the project. Eventually, she hopes the website will serve as a repository for memories of Black Bottom’s heyday as well as its loss.
“The destruction of Black Bottom wasn’t Detroit’s original sin—there was violence around housing before and after that,” she says. “But it’s a mystical place for a lot of people. There was this great moment [in the early 20th century] when there were so many significant institutions being formed there, and important people who went on to do influential things in the city. There was a density of really positive things going on, coming from the black community and supporting the black community. That was a golden age.”