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Tue, 05.22.1827

The Black Bottom Community (Detroit), a story

Paradise Theater

*The Black Bottom community is celebrated on this date in 1827.  This was a predominantly Black neighborhood in Detroit, Michigan, United States.  

The name "Black Bottom" often references the African American community that developed in the twentieth century. Early white-French colonial settlers actually named the neighborhood. This area was the source of the River Savoyard, which was buried as a sewer in 1827.  The river's flooding produced rich bottomland soils, for which early French colonial settlers named the area "Black Bottom". 

The area's main commercial avenues were Hastings and St. Antoine streets. An adjacent north-bordering area, known as Paradise Valley in the twentieth century, contained nightclubs where famous Blues, Big Band, and Jazz artists such as Billie Holiday, Sam Cooke, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Billy Eckstine, Pearl Bailey, and Count Basie regularly performed. In 1941, the city's Orchestra Hall was named Paradise Theatre.

Reverend C. L. Franklin, the father of singer Aretha Franklin, originally established his New Bethel Baptist Church on Hastings Street. Paradise Valley housed the Gotham Hotel, known, at the time, as the best hotel for African Americans in the world. Before the Gotham Hotel, Blacks lacked the opportunity to stay in quality hotels in cities. Black Bottom's business district thrived.  

It acted as a robust mini-city within Detroit and was filled with Black doctor's offices, hospitals, drug stores, and other services. Before World War I, chiefly European immigrants populated Hastings Street, which ran north-south through Black Bottom. Throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, these immigrants built the frame houses that black newcomers crowded into during the Great Migration and following World War II.  This meant the homes were far from the pristine quality of the new constructions being erected for whites throughout Detroit's suburbs.

The term has sometimes been used to apply to the entire neighborhood, including Paradise Valley, but the two neighborhoods were considered separate. Brush Street bounded both Black Bottom and Paradise Valley to the west and the Grand Trunk railroad tracks to the east. Bisected by Gratiot Avenue, the area known as Black Bottom reached south to the Detroit River. To the north, Grand Boulevard was defined as Paradise Valley.  

Despite the rich cultural and musical hub of Black Bottom, however, the neighborhood was plagued with urban poverty. Most of Black Bottom's residents were employed in manufacturing and automotive factory jobs. Although some Black business owners and clergymen operating in the neighborhood were able to rise to the middle class, they quickly fled Black Bottom and Paradise Valley for the more attractive Detroit West Side neighborhoods.  For the remainder of Black residents, lack of access to New Deal housing benefits and segregation by way of redlining ensured entrapment in Black Bottom's subpar housing conditions.   

In the early 1960s, the Black Bottom and Paradise Valley neighborhoods were demolished for slum clearance and to make way for the construction of I-375. Although the city's urban planners promised new public housing projects to replace Black Bottom, these developments were never affordable or open to Detroit's Black residents. The once-thriving business district of Black Bottom was also bulldozed and ceased to exist.  Black Bottom, as it used to be, exists now only as a symbol of resilience and tragedy. In the face of deeply unjust housing practices and concentrated urban poverty, the neighborhood's Black residents created and maintained a lively and successful community, which was later pushed out by city urbanization and highway construction.   Conant Gardens, 8 miles north though somewhat diverse, wasn't affected.

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