top of page

The Other Side of the Coin

Although the sense of community was robust in Black Bottom and Paradise Valley, it couldn't mitigate some of the fundamental human issues stemming from thousands of people living in an area designed for far fewer.

Roy Cohen's coverage in Collier’s November 23, 1946 edition shed light on the challenges faced in Black Bottom. He observed that Detroit had become a boom town, expanding so rapidly that the construction industry struggled to keep pace. Detroit's population doubled twice in two decades, exacerbating issues of segregation and forcing black Detroiters into overcrowded and unsanitary living conditions. At the time of the article, it was estimated that 85% of Detroit’s housing area was inaccessible to blacks. During World War II, 250,000 people flocked to Detroit, living in trailers, tents, barns, and chicken coops. Only 45,000 housing units were constructed for 65,000 families, with a mere 2,000 units allocated for the 20,000 black families affected.

Detroit Tent Housing 10311935.jpg
Rear of 661 Mack 11101939.jpg
Detroit Unemployment 07201931.jpg
Woman in yard in Black Bottom.jpg
Detroit Slum Near East Side.jpg
Hastings Street.jpg

Hastings Street before urban renewal.

Hastings turned into freeway.jpg

Hastings Street demolished and I-75/I-375 in its place.

Housing in the slums was so deplorable that parents had to stay up at night to prevent rats from attacking their children. In one apartment building designed for six families, overcrowding reached a shocking level, accommodating 100 families by dividing single rooms multiple times. Despite the horrendous conditions, black Detroiters paid 30 to 50 percent more than whites who lived in better accommodations. For instance, a family residing in a single room and sharing a bathroom with six other families would pay between $11 and $16 per week in 1946.

Approximately 203,000 blacks resided in Black Bottom and Paradise Valley in 1946. Among them, the death rate from tuberculosis, pneumonia, and infant mortality was twice as high as the rate in the rest of the city. Roughly 90 to 95% of all housing in Black Bottom and Paradise Valley was deemed substandard due to rampant vermin infestation, leaky roofs, sagging floors, and the absence of kitchens and bathrooms.


By the 1940s, one-third of the structures in the central or downtown areas were considered blighted. To address this issue, Detroit Mayor Edward Jefferies unveiled his “Detroit Plan” in 1946. Under this plan, the city acted as a real estate broker for commercial entities and designated several areas for redevelopment. Properties within these areas were condemned, acquired, demolished, and then sold by the city to land developers. The objective was to compete with the suburbs and attract developers back into the city.

The Detroit Plan also aimed to eradicate overcrowded and unsanitary conditions in densely populated black neighborhoods like Black Bottom, Paradise Valley, and the lower east side. In their place, new modern high-rise projects, hospitals, and other civic institutions were constructed, replacing the once close-knit communities. Frustrated black Detroit homeowners, who vehemently disagreed with the mayor's approach, began referring to urban renewal as “nigger removal.”

Mayor Edward Jefferies Blight Conf 08161940.jpg

Mayor Edwards (standing) holds meeting to discuss the Detroit Plan.

Once the Detroit Plan designated Paradise Valley for urban renewal, no new construction or renovation took place in the area, and property owners were unable to sell their properties. Consequently, Paradise Valley and its surrounding area were deemed the worst slum area in the city. Despite these challenges, Detroit led the nation in the number of black-owned businesses.

bottom of page