Catherine Leonard remembers angst surrounding freeway expansion. (Robin Buckson / The Detroit News)
The bulldozers were tearing down entire blocks of houses. People were forced to leave. Thriving small businesses were ordered to shut.
It was the 1950s. Catherine Leonard was a teenager living on 25th Street near Ash Street on the west side. Over the next decade, the expansions of Interstates 75, 96 and 94 would plow through her neighborhood, now called North Corktown.
“At that time, you would watch TV, or hear on the radio, all the leaders would say how good this was,” said Leonard, now 74.
“They’d say ‘How modern and better it will make Detroit. We’re going to be connected with the suburbs.’ ”
On 25th Street, there was panic and dismay. It was a common feeling in many inner-city neighborhoods bulldozed for freeways, said Dan Pitera, a professor at University of Detroit Mercy School of Architecture, who studies urban planning and policy issues.
“Freeways tore down neighborhoods in most American cities, there was almost no discussion of the impact of what it would do to cities. Detroit is no exception,” Pitera said.
In Detroit, freeways cut through centers of black, Latino and other ethnic neighborhoods. Black Bottom and Paradise Valley were focal points for African-Americans before they were demolished to make way for Lafayette Park and Interstate 75. In southwest Detroit, Michigan Avenue had a host of bars and clubs that were razed for I-75.
By the 1950s, both neighborhoods were showing their age. City Hall’s solution was to get rid of them.
“A lot of black people were upset over Hastings Street and Black Bottom,” Leonard said. “That was one of the centers for a lot of black businesses and nightlife.”
Her block was spared, but the barbershop and a church on the corner were wiped out. So was her beloved Western Market at 18th Street and Michigan Avenue, the sprawling farmers market.
Leonard arrived in Detroit at age 17 in a car full of family friends from her native Tennessee. They came to escape segregation and find jobs. The city didn’t disappoint. She had a 32-year career at Chrysler Corp. that allowed her to build a middle-class life even after a divorce and as she raised two children.
During the riots, she witnessed a shootout between snipers atop a Masonic Lodge and cops on the street. But she remained undeterred.
“There’s always been more positives in my life,” she said.
For decades, she has lived in North Corktown in a pleasant, safe cooperative of townhouses and apartments on a quiet dead-end street. Her daughter lives in the complex, too. Her son, a former Detroit police officer, is in nearby Woodbridge. She sees her young grandchildren almost daily.
Beyond the manicured grounds and secure parking of her co-op, the area is filled with the typical embattled Detroit streets.
The grass and other greenery of the empty lots are taller than many of the few remaining houses. Often it is unclear if some of the dilapidated homes are abandoned or still occupied.
The Chrysler Mound Road Engine plant where she worked is now a parking lot. The homes where she used to live are gone.
“It’s heartbreaking, I don’t like to think about it because it can make you so angry and sad,” she said.