When Detroit Paved Over Paradise

The first Barthwell pharmacy, at 8640 Russell St. in Detroit, was among the buildings plowed under to make way for the I-75 & I-375 freeway network. This area, known as the Black Bottom, was once home to many Black-owned Detroit businesses. Image from the March 1952 edition of Inside Michigan.

The Story of I-375

If the state rips out I-375 to make Detroit more accessible to pedestrians, as some urban planners have urged, the move will come 60 years too late for older Black Detroiters who remember how freeways destroyed the city’s historic Black Bottom district.

Named for the rich dark soil that French explorers first found there, the Black Bottom district in the 1940s and ’50s housed the city’s African-American entrepreneurial class, with dozens of thriving Black-owned businesses and the Paradise Valley entertainment zone, where Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie performed.

But the builders of I-75 and I-375 plowed multilane highways right through Hastings Street, the commercial heart of Black Bottom, and projects such as Lafayette Park and the public housing projects to the north destroyed the rest in the name of progress.

“Black Bottom, Paradise Valley, was indeed a paradise for Black entrepreneurial businesses,” said Sidney Barthwell Jr., 66, a 36th District Court magistrate whose father, Sidney Barthwell, ran a chain of pharmacies and ice cream shops in Black Bottom. The Barthwell business network, among the most important Black businesses in America at the time, was mostly wiped out by the freeway construction.

“Funeral homes, doctors — there were a dozen different Black-owned hospitals (in Black Bottom), because in those days, they wouldn’t admit you into the major hospitals if you were African-American,” Barthwell said. “The Detroit Black community in its heyday was absolutely fantastic. It was better than Harlem.”

Historian Joe T. Darden of Michigan State University, co-author of the new book “Detroit: Race Riots, Racial Conflicts and Efforts to Bridge the Racial Divide,” said the Detroit experience needs to be remembered for what was lost to urban renewal and expressways in the 1950s and ’60s.

“Some people may not know that history, so if nothing else, it’s important to put that into perspective and say more about it,” he said.

What’s next for I-375?

No one suggests that Black Bottom could be rebuilt as it was should I-375 be removed. Rather, proponents of ripping out the freeway contend that a restored surface street would make the surrounding neighborhoods friendlier to pedestrians, better connecting Eastern Market and Lafayette Park with downtown. Removing the freeway also could allow parks and new commercial development to rise on the reclaimed surface area.

The benefits of removing freeways from the hearts of cities is a theme of growing popularity in urban planning. During the recent Bruner Loeb Forum on urban design held at the University of Detroit Mercy, removing expressways was a key focus, with advocates citing case studies from Syracuse, N.Y., Milwaukee and other cities.

“Like weeds, the freeway in the city is the wrong thing. It’s a failed experiment in America,” urban planner Peter J. Park said. “When you take freeways out of cities, they get better.”

Built in 1964 at a cost of $50 million (about $375 million in 2013 dollars), the I-375 freeway runs for slightly more than a mile, with recent traffic counts registering 45,000 vehicles a day at I-375 and Lafayette.

Detroit is hardly alone in thinking of removing a freeway. Indeed, removing freeways from urban downtowns ranks among the hottest trends in urban planning today.

Milwaukee, San Francisco and Portland, Ore., have all ripped out part of their freeway systems, replacing them with parks or surface roads. Cleveland and other cities plan to do the same, and cities such as Toronto and Washington, D.C., killed freeway projects after opponents warned that they would do irreparable harm to urban neighborhoods.

Corktown, too

Not everyone in Detroit remembers the story of the urban renewal efforts of the ’50s and ’60s the same way.

Ed Hustoles, now 87, was a young urban planner from Chicago when he joined the City of Detroit’s planning department in 1953. He had been recruited by legendary Detroit planner Charles Blessing, who put Hustoles to work helping plan both the Lafayette Park residential district and the redevelopment of Corktown on the west side as a light industrial park.

“Memories are always better than things really were,” Hustoles said last week. Both the African-American Black Bottom district and the white Corktown area were filled with dilapidated wooden buildings dating to the 1800s. Fires, crime and skid-row poverty surrounded downtown.

What Detroiters now call Corktown is just a remnant of a much larger area mostly wiped out by urban renewal, with white residents — many from the South — displaced to make way for block after block of businesses and an industrial park just west of downtown.

The neighborhoods destroyed in Corktown and Black Bottom were among the oldest in the city. “When we worked on the Lafayette Park project, we found wooden sewers, logs that had been hollowed out that were still in use,” Hustoles said. “They were, like, 150 years old. It was obsolete. The buildings were old.”

Once, walking through a Corktown alley during the planning process, he came across a huge pile of garbage with a rat scampering across it, while directly above it, an elderly woman sat at her window. “And she said to me, ‘Please don’t take my home,’ ” Hustoles recalled. “It was horrible. She was living in a rat-infested area, and yet it was her home.”

The developments that replaced Black Bottom and much of Corktown were viewed as enlightened — the upscale Lafayette Park district, the public housing north of there built to be clean and safe, and the warehouses and other industrial applications built on the near-west side of downtown.

But those good intentions meant little to the families displaced for freeways and other development, Barthwell said.

“That really just ripped the guts out of that (Black Bottom) neighborhood,” he said. “It, in essence, destroyed my father’s business. Basically, everybody had to move out. It was devastating, and it’s never been the same again. Kind of like a Black diaspora. We went all over, where we could get in.”

The destruction of neighborhoods may best be understood from a national perspective. Coming out of World War II, when massive mobilization of industry was led by “whiz kids” in Detroit, the nation had a taste for huge public infrastructure projects amid an optimism that poverty and blight could be ended forever. The construction of I-75 and I-375 in Detroit must be seen against the backdrop of the Eisenhower-era effort to build the nation’s interstate highway system, slashing freeways through cities.

“That was going to be done because the federal government wanted it done,” Hustoles said. “The auto industry wanted it done.”

Nor have cities necessarily learned that neighborhoods need to be protected against ambitious infrastructure plans. In in what may be the biggest historical irony of all, state and federal highway builders are now proposing to expand Detroit’s network of freeways, with major widening projects in planning for I-94 through Detroit’s thriving Midtown district and I-75 through several miles of Oakland County.

Planners at the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments have approved the projects over fierce community opposition. The argument in favor of the projects remains the same as it was 50 years ago — the need to move huge volumes of traffic through the bottlenecks of an urban landscape.

State Rep. Jim Townsend, D-Royal Oak, has been lobbying to kill the freeway expansions, arguing that freeway planners were “seemingly trapped in time warp where lessons about the downside of chain-smoking, three-martini lunches, and city-destroying freeway widening have not been learned.”

Hustoles sounds wistful today remembering at the distance of half a century what was viewed as a great revitalization effort.

“I was a young guy out of college,” he said. “We thought we were doing good. We were taking blight away and giving people decent, safe, and sanitary housing, and we were rebuilding the city.

“Well, in retrospect, you can always do some things differently.”

The above content was originally published in the Detroit Free Press on 13 December 2013 by John Gallagher.

Related Content: The Interstates and the Cities: Highways, Housing, and the Freeway Revolt, by Raymond A. Mohl.