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To Wax Nostalgic

The origin of the name for the area known as Detroit’s Black Bottom, or simply “The Bottom,” remains shrouded in mystery. Some suggest it was because black Detroiters and other dark-haired minorities were relegated to live in this district.

Others argue that it derived its name from the dance craze, “Black Bottom,” which caused a sensation across the nation during the Jazz Age of the 1920s. Originating in New Orleans among black communities, the dance gained notoriety. On January 2, 1927, the Detroit Free Press remarked, “Like so many other dances from the United States, the steps and movements generally have been borrowed from the colored population…” When it entered mainstream culture, it sparked controversy. Many communities called for its prohibition, condemning its perceived savagery and resemblance to African tribal dances. Fathers and husbands were wary of their loved ones engaging in such a scandalous activity. Yet, this taboo only seemed to enhance its allure, especially for women, eventually leading to reluctant acceptance by high society. Once embraced by the elite, it shed its association with black culture, and a dubious claim emerged that it had originated three centuries earlier with French colonists in the New World.

During this era, in 1926, Jelly Roll Morton, a renowned jazz pianist and composer, penned “Black Bottom Stomp,” allegedly inspired by Detroit’s Black Bottom.

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Finally, some contend that the name did not stem from the racial identity of its last inhabitants, but rather from early French settlers who christened it Black Bottom due to its lush, fertile soil. In 1969, a former resident of 55 years shared with the Detroit Free Press that, like many others, he had assumed Black Bottom earned its name due to its predominantly black population, many of whom lived in or just above poverty. However, he encountered an Ottawa Indian who offered a different explanation: the Ottawas, who once inhabited the area, named it Black Bottom because of its dark and fertile soil. Interestingly, the region was once part of the River Savoyard riverbed before being buried as a sewer around 1827.


Black Bottom was initially settled by European immigrants, including Greeks, Polish, and Eastern European Jews. However, it later became home to black migrants from the South in search of better opportunities. Situated on Detroit’s near east side, Black Bottom was bordered by Gratiot Avenue, Brush Street, the Detroit River, and the Grand Trunk railroad. Serving as a compulsory residential area for black Detroiters, its boundaries evolved to accommodate the increasing black population. During the early 1900s, thousands were drawn to the city with aspirations of prosperity in the burgeoning automotive industry.

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For years, former residents reminisced about the many positive aspects of living in The Bottom or The Valley. Despite being predominantly inhabited by black, impoverished, and struggling southern refugees, it was a community brimming with hope. Residents relied on each other and formed tight-knit bonds, becoming like family. They shared and cared for one another. While outsiders may have labeled it as rundown, a slum, or a ghetto, for the residents, it was home—a place where strict rules were upheld and values were respected.

Many of the adult residents were only a few generations removed from slavery or sharecropping, and they harbored high expectations for their children. They urged them to pursue a better life through education and secure employment opportunities in the city.


It's worth noting that from 1910 to 1930, Detroit’s black population skyrocketed from 6,000 to 120,000, with many being compelled to reside in Black Bottom due to segregation.

In the September 30, 1933, edition of the Detroit Tribune, Editor J. Edward McCall published the following poem about Hastings Street, which was regarded as the lifeline of the area:


Hastings Street


There’s a colorful street in the Motor Town,

Where people of all races meet –

Black and white and yellow and brown,

Prince and peasant and priest and clown –

We meet them all on Hastings Street.

The street is narrow, the buildings old;

The pavements, traffic – worn and rough.

The stores on Hastings are manifold,

Where Jews wax rich on Negro gold,

And Shylock struts his stuff.

Above the clamor of trolley gong,

And the noise of thundering motor van,

We hear the Negro’s voice in song,

And the barking guns of coppers strong,

Who kill because they can.

On Hastings Street we sing and dance,

Despite the ills and wrongs we bear.

We whirl the dizzy wheel of chance.

We laugh at bitter circumstance,

But our stout hearts shed no tear.

By 1950, Detroit’s black population had reached approximately 300,000 out of 1.8 million residents. Segregation dictated that doctors resided next to factory workers; occupation or socioeconomic status didn't determine your place of residence—your race did.

Former residents of Black Bottom believe they epitomize resilience. As one former resident expressed in 1998:

“We’ve overcome the odds.  Many of us came from the South, poor.  There was this stigma, the perception that we were lazy, dumb, slick.  That there were limitations to what we could do.  It’s true we didn’t, most of us, have the best of homes physically.  But inwardly we had the best because we were taught faith and wisdom and accountability.  That we could become anything we wanted to.  We were taught we were somebody long before Rev. Jackson started saying it.  You never know how strong your faith is until it’s been tested.  And you never know how strong you are until you’re tested.  People from Black Bottom were tested.”

Paradise Valley served as the bustling business and entertainment hub for black Detroiters, situated to the north of Black Bottom. Commonly abbreviated as 'The Valley,' it earned its name from theatrical/booking agent and playwright, Rollo Vest, around 1935/1936. Vest coined the name to support the Valley’s mayoral contest, where several prominent men vied for the honorary title of Paradise Valley mayor. The inaugural mayor was Roy Lightfoot, proprietor of the B & C nightclub. The area gained nationwide renown for its vibrant black entertainment scene. Initially, Paradise Valley's boundaries stretched from Gratiot in the south to Riopelle in the east, Medbury in the north, and John R in the west. Similar to Black Bottom, as the population burgeoned, so did the boundaries of Paradise Valley.

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Paradise Valley gained renown for its restaurants and soulful nightclubs, showcasing performers such as McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Billy Eckstine, Della Reese, and Alberta Adams, among others. This vibrant enclave wasn't solely comprised of dining and entertainment venues. According to a 1937 survey, it boasted 48 grocery stores, 97 eateries, and 27 drugstores, all owned by black entrepreneurs. The combined annual payroll amounted to over $304,700.


As drug store owner Sidney Barthwell observed, “Negroes had it made in Detroit until World War II. We had everything we needed in the Black community. Discrimination gave us tremendous economic power because we had been compacted in one small area.”

Paradise Valley Mayor Chester Rentie boasted, “Paradise Valley and its people spend more money for all forms of maintenance and pleasure than any other ethnic group in Detroit. This is amazing when you consider that we have fewer jobs and are the last hired and the first fired. In its confines, we have more places of business actually owned and operated by Negroes than in any other city in the world.”


Gloster Current in June of 1946 wrote the following about Paradise Valley:

“Paradise Valley is a misnomer.  The streets are not paved in gold.  The citizens who walk them are not saints.  Nor are they all sinners.  Toot your horn, turn the corner off Gratiot into St. Antoine.  Enter Paradise Valley.  The intersection of Madison-Gratiot-St. Antoine marks the gateway to one of the most famous sections of America.  Yet little is known about it. Paradise Valley is at once a myth, a dream; still it lives and breathes and does things.  Walk down Rue St. Antoine when the sun is shining and you will pass businesses doing the Valley’s banking, hair-cutting, pants-pressing, soda-jerking.  Take a tip down the same sidewalks at midnight and you will bump into teeming hundreds of white and black citizens blended into a polyglot mass of humanity, swarming along the sidewalks, spilling into the streets.  Midnight on Rue St. Antoine resembles the carnivals and Mardi Gras of New Orleans…Hundreds of patrons each night crowd into the Three Sixes, the Lark’s Club, Club 606 on Adams Avenue.  They listen and view the shows in the Theater Bar and several other niteries.  For the Valley comes alive at night.  Sometimes the patrons have too much to drink.  Sometimes someone gets rough and the cops are called.  At night the cares and inequalities of being black melt away into the laughter of the Valley.  People come from all over the city to enjoy the fun and gaiety of the spots… Paradise Valley is a mixture of everything imaginable – including overcrowding, delinquency and disease.  It has glamor, action, religion, pathos.  It has brains and organization and business.  Not only does it house social uplift organizations, but it supports the militant protest groups.” 

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