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The Other Side of the Coin

Although the sense of community was powerful in Black Bottom and Paradise Valley, it could not overcome some of the basic human problems caused by thousands of people living in an area meant for far less.  

Roy Cohen in Collier’s November 23, 1946 edition covered the issues of Black Bottom.  He noted that Detroit became a boom town that mushroomed so fast the building industry could not keep pace with it.  Twice in two decades Detroit’s population doubled.  That issue, paired with segregation, meant black Detroiters were forced to live in overcrowded and unsanitary areas.  At the time of the article, it was estimated that 85% of Detroit’s housing area was shut off to blacks.  During World War II, 250,000 people came to Detroit and lived out of trailers, tents, barns, and chicken coops.  Forty-five thousand housing units was built for 65,000 families.  Of that number, only 2,000 units were allocated for the 20,000 black families impacted.

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Hastings Street before urban renewal.

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

Housing in the slums was so bad that parents had to stay up at nights to ensure rats did not attack their children.  One apartment building that was made to house six families, instead, housed 100 by dividing single rooms several times.  To live in those horrible conditions, black Detroiters paid 30 to 50 percent more than whites who lived in better conditions.  For example, a family living in a single room and sharing a bathroom with six other families would pay from $11 to $16 a week in 1946.

Approximately 203,000 blacks lived in Black Bottom and Paradise Valley in 1946.  Of that number, the death rate from tuberculosis, pneumonia, and infant deaths was twice the rate as the rest of the city.  About 90 to 95% of all housing in Black Bottom and Paradise Valley was rated as substandard because they were overran with vermin, had leaking roofs, sagging floors, and lacked kitchens and bathrooms.   

By the 1940s, one-third of the structures in the central or downtown areas were considered blighted.  In an effort to address this blight, Detroit Mayor Edward Jefferies in 1946 unveiled his “Detroit Plan.”  Under the Detroit Plan, the city of Detroit acted as a real estate broker for commercial entities and earmarked several areas in the city for redevelopment.  Structures and land located in these redevelopment areas were condemned, acquired, demolished, and sold by the city to land developers.  The city’s goal was to compete with the suburbs and attract developers back into the city.   The Detroit Plan also ambitiously planned 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 replaced the close-knit neighborhoods.   Exasperated black Detroit homeowners who vehemently disagreed with the mayor began to refer to urban renewal as “nigger removal.”

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

No new construction or renovation was undertaken in Paradise Valley once the Detroit Plan revealed the area was being targeted for urban renewal, which also meant owners could not sell the property.  This caused Paradise Valley and the surrounding area to be declared the worst slum area in the city.   Despite these problems, Detroit topped the nation in black- owned businesses. 

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