Detroit marks Black Bottom neighborhood lost when I-375 built

Noelle Gray
The Detroit News

Detroit — From the 1930s to the 1950s on Detroit's east side, there was a bustling predominantly Black neighborhood with a unique culture all its own.

Seventy years later, there's not much of that history left to be seen.

"When we're talking about Black Bottom, it is historically rich, a culturally significant area in the city of Detroit," said local historian Jamon Jordan. "It is tied to all our history, no matter what group of people you come from."

On Monday, Mayor Mike Duggan and other community leaders met to commemorate the neighborhood with a new historic marker, saying "Every longtime family in the city has heard stories from their parents, their great grandparents about Black Bottom and Paradise much of what we have today came from this area."

The historical marker recognizing Detroit’s Black Bottom neighborhood at Lafayette Central Park, in Detroit, August 9, 2021.

The marker was erected on July 16 at 1300 East Lafayette St., across from Chrysler Elementary School. 

Others in attendance included Sharon Sexton and Barbara Smith, co-executive founders of the Michigan Underground Railroad Exploratory Collective; Robin Terry, CEO of the Motown Museum and Hitsville U.S.A.; and Jay Smith, president of The Blackbottom Group, which has been pushing to get the marker placed. 

For Smith, it is vital that the neighborhood where Black Detroiters thrived and made their mark be remembered for what it brought to the city. 

"It was a community of caring and sharing, collective work and responsibility ," said Smith. "The community has a responsibility to give back to that community and caring for that community, that was the main thing for me."

Black Bottom was a predominately Black neighborhood bounded by Brush Street, Gratiot Avenue and the Grand Trunk railroad tracks. Black Bottom derived its name from the dark fertile topsoil that was a part of the riverbed of the River Savoyard, which was buried as a sewer in 1827.

Adjacent to Black Bottom was Paradise Valley, the entertainment and business district that served the community. Within Paradise Valley there were Black-owned drugstores, restaurants, beauty salons and a rich nightlife that offered nightclubs such as the Horseshoe Bar and Club Harlem.

(From left) Ray Smith, president of the Black Bottom Group, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, and former Black Bottom resident Willie McLemore chat during a dedication of a historical marker recognizing Detroit's Black Bottom neighborhood at Lafayette Central Park, in Detroit, August 9, 2021.

During World War I, Black Bottom was populated by mostly European ethnicities, the Great Migration brought an influx of Southern Blacks looking for work. Some well-known personalities that lived in Black Bottom were Detroit’s Mayor Coleman A. Young, U.S. Ambassador Ralph J. Bunch, Boxer Joe Louis and members of the infamous Purple Gang.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Black Bottom and Paradise Valley were demolished and leveled due to slum clearance and to make way for the construction of the residential district Lafayette Park and Interstate 375. 

Back in March 2017, The Blackbottom Group initiated the process to the State of Michigan History Center that secured the Black Bottom Historical Marker recognizing Black Bottom Detroit as a legally recognized historical area.

Today, the Black Bottom marker sits at Lafayette Central Park where the remnants of a once bustling city can be reflected upon for years to come.