Housing Policy

The Destruction of Detroit's Black Bottom

How the zeal for government project housing killed a prosperous black community in Detroit.


The clearance of the thriving, legendary African-American neighborhood in Detroit known as Black Bottom, circa 1950, was not caused by natural disaster, gentrifying developers, or a destructive riot by its residents. The slowly gathering public policy that led to its demolition included an element of racial animus in the city's politics, but more than anything, the death of a neighborhood replete with black-owned businesses and owner-occupied property stemmed from the ideas of progressive housing reformers.

They began to build in the 1890s, when Jacob Riis, a New York police reporter deeply versed in sensationalist journalism, portrayed New York's Lower East Side in How the Other Half Lives as nothing but squalid, showing no interest in the vibrant upward mobility of its immigrants.

Riis inspired the now-obscure Johnny Appleseed of American zoning, Lawrence Veiller, who convinced communities across the country that the density that makes housing affordable (without government subsidies) must be limited. The formula that brought housing within the reach of the poor—what Boston settlement house pioneers Robert Woods and Albert Kennedy rightly celebrated as a "zone of emergence"—would be cast aside.

Its replacement—literally in the cases of Detroit's Black Bottom, Chicago's Bronzeville, St. Louis' DeSoto-Carr, and so many other healthy neighborhoods—would be public housing. The "projects" were and still are the rotten fruit that grew from seeds planted by progressive public intellectuals. The premier modernist architect Le Corbusier envisioned high-rise urban campuses without streets or stores. Less well-known but still essential figures in American housing policy history were University of Chicago sociologist Edith Elmer Wood and self-styled reformer Catherine Bauer Wurster.

In her 1934 paper "A Century of the Housing Problem," Wood led the ill-fated charge that would guide New Deal public housing policy. She inveighed against the private housing industry broadly—even arguing against the idea that homeownership was one of the means for the poor to improve their station. "The housing problem is an inevitable feature of our modern industrial civilization and does not tend to resolve itself," Wood wrote. "Supply and demand do not reach it, because the cost of new housing and the distribution of income are such that approximately two thirds of the population cannot present an effective demand for new housing."

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.) and his acolytes might use the same language today; indeed a group called Data for Progress has called for a "massive new commitment to publicly-owned homes." Housing reformers from the start overlooked the naturally occurring affordable housing that uplifted America's poor: three-family homes in New England, row homes in Philadelphia, duplexes in Chicago, bungalows in Oakland. They were not the product of urban planners but were, rather, vernacular architecture, developed in small lots by legions of small builders who drew on regional building materials and tailored their styles to the needs and wants of the upwardly mobile.

It was Bauer Wurster who filled in the details of Wood's vision in the landmark 1934 book Modern Housing. Her blueprint for public housing projects even included admiring rotogravure plates of the high-rise government-owned housing of Moscow. Bauer would gain appointment as a New Deal housing official—and set in motion the death of Black Bottom and its kin. A review of Census data for parts of Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, and St. Louis where public housing was built reveals that these were places where home ownership was enabling black families to build wealth: In Cleveland, fully 49 percent of the structures cleared were owner-occupied. Their modesty offended what might be called the reformer's gaze—but they embodied what should be recast as black economic empowerment.

All that was swept away as the ultimate progressive, Eleanor Roosevelt, channeling Wood and Bauer, personally cut the ribbon for the Frederick Douglass Homes in Detroit and the Roosevelt Towers in Cambridge. The Douglass Homes were explicitly reserved for African Americans—a policy the former first lady championed as benevolence. Ultimately, they would themselves be demolished as unfit for human habitation. Neighborhoods without owners do not thrive.

In the post–World War II era, private developers exemplified by William Levitt and the modest, owner-occupied homes of Levittown, New York, proved Wood and Bauer tragically wrong. But reformers have never learned the lesson. They continue to believe in private housing market failure rather than examining how public policy distorts and constrains private development. Like medieval architects who lost the Roman formula for water-resistant cement, we have lost and even disdained the formula for affordable housing: small homes on small lots, replete with duplexes, triplexes, and all manner of owner-present structures. We have convinced ourselves, wrongly, that poor neighborhoods cannot be good neighborhoods—that to thrive, the poor must be relocated to "high-opportunity zip codes"—ignoring so much history demonstrating the converse.

In Detroit, Black Bottom is remembered fondly by African Americans, even memorialized in public library exhibits. No one mourns the projects.

Black Bottom Thrives

Detroit's Black Bottom neighborhood provides the perfect prism through which to see the unfortunate ways in which public housing and its close cousin, urban renewal, destroyed African-American institutions and robbed residents of the chance to accumulate wealth. It's a story well told in a lively phone conversation in July 2020 with historian Jamon Jordan, the president of the Detroit chapter of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History.

Increased appreciation for what was lost when Black Bottom was cleared has led the onetime middle school social studies teacher to a new career. He now works as a tour guide for university and high school groups interested in the handful of buildings (including public schools) that remain of what was once a dynamic community of 130,000, replete with more than 300 black-owned businesses.

Jordan is quick to note that the name Black Bottom was not racially inspired. The early French settlers of Detroit were impressed by its rich, dark soil. He is quick to note, as well, that it was housing segregation that played a key part in the formation of Black Bottom as an African-American neighborhood in the first place. Black people—who had first settled in the area during the Underground Railroad era—had limited choices as to which neighborhoods they could move into during the so-called Great Migration from the South, from the 1920s through the 1940s. It was a time in which private deed restrictions still commonly barred the sale or rental of homes to black residents. (These were not declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court until 1948.)

Black Bottom was no utopia, and there was crowding both there and in the adjoining, also black, Paradise Valley neighborhood. Some households lacked even basic sanitation. But on his tours, Jordan recounts with sad enthusiasm all that was lost when the neighborhoods were cleared. At least 20 percent of residential buildings were owner-occupied, he notes—with small multifamily homes and lodgers making the "owner-presence" rate even higher. The history brings back to life lost streets such as Adams, St. Antoine, and Hastings.

Businesses in Black Bottom and Paradise Valley included "the Jesse Faithful and L'il Soul Food restaurants, the Busy Bee Café, the Wolverine barbershop, the Hardin drugstore, tailoring and shoe repair shops, and the Michigan Chronicle," a newspaper focused on the black community, Jordan explains. There were famous entertainment spots, including "the Forest Club, the Horseshoe Lounge, the Music Aquarium." The blues legend John Lee Hooker specifically mentions Hastings Street and its famed Henry's Swing Club ("I think I'll go down there tonight") in his classic recording "Boogie Chillun." The heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis and his manager had an office in the neighborhood.

And there were "mutual aid" associations—self-organized community institutions to help those in need. For elderly widows there was the Phyllis Wheatley Home of Aged Colored Ladies. The Detroit Housewives League was the "sister" organization of the Booker T. Washington Business Association; both organized boycotts of white businesses that would not hire African Americans and mounted campaigns to urge Black Bottom residents to patronize black-owned stores, as well as helping newcomers find jobs. The thriving Detroit branch of the Urban League—established by relatively affluent black citizens to help newcomers from the rural South adjust to city life—was in Black Bottom. And of course there are churches: Catholic and Lutheran churches remaining from when the immigrant neighborhood had once been Irish, Italian, Polish, and German, as well as black churches—most famously New Bethel AME, headed by the Mississippi-born Rev. C.L. Franklin, whose daughter Aretha was already in her 20s and on her way to stardom when the church was forced to relocate. Black Bottom was, in many ways, everything that latter-day pessimists about African-American culture lament—filled with entrepreneurs, small property owners, and self-help organizations.

Black Bottom Dies

While Black Bottom wasn't destroyed by a riot (like some African-American neighborhoods during the 1960s), a fierce 1943 race riot in Detroit that involved Black Bottom was a factor in the neighborhood's demise. The riot was sparked by the advent of one of the earliest public housing projects, built in response to the needs of defense workers new to Detroit. Named for the black abolitionist Sojourner Truth, it was to be built adjacent to, but not within, an existing black neighborhood. And it was to be racially integrated, in no small part at the insistence of Eleanor Roosevelt.

A wave of cross burnings and violence followed after the first black families moved in. The black residents were, after all, defense workers. The reaction, in addition to its evident racism, was a post-Depression hangover: White people wanted to be sure that, upon their return from war, they would still have jobs. The fact that black Americans were being permitted to work in wartime factories (the result of a 1941 executive order by President Franklin Roosevelt) and now to live in government-supported housing fueled fear and anger.

The inclusion of black residents in the Sojourner Truth projects proved to be a spark for white mobs, which set out to attack residents and loot businesses in black neighborhoods. "This was a true race riot," Jordan says. "Whites were fighting only with blacks; blacks were fighting only with whites." But the lesson for Detroit's leaders was not about the need to foster racial tolerance. It was that black neighborhoods were a powder keg. African Americans were viewed as violent instigators, and Black Bottom and Paradise Valley were seen as their safe harbors, their bases of operation, threats to Detroit.

In 1946, real estate developer Eugene Greenhut first proposed their demolition—and the idea found favor with Detroit Mayor Edward Jeffries. "This area [should] be acquired by the city and completely cleared of all buildings thereon," Jeffries wrote. "The area [should] then be re-planned, with the object in mind of disposing of as much as possible to private enterprise for redevelopment for housing and incidental commercial purposes after providing sufficient space for parks, playgrounds, schools and other public uses." It was modernist planning.

The city's Common Council voted to approve the idea and to broadly condemn the neighborhood's buildings. But the idea stalled for lack of city funds to compensate property owners, many of whom were white (even when the businesses themselves were black-owned). Indeed, Jeffries' successor as mayor, Albert Cobo, campaigned against the idea of spending city money on public housing and its attendant costs. The plan might then have stalled permanently were it not for the entrance of the federal government and its deep pockets.

The National Housing Act of 1949—which would vastly ramp up the vision of Catherine Bauer and Edith Wood—included funding for "urban renewal." The few public housing projects built during the Depression and early war years would be augmented on a grand scale. As a latter-day summary by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development would put it, the act "authorizes Federal advances, loans, and grants to localities to assist slum clearance and urban redevelop-ment." At the same time, it provided funding to expand public housing by up to 810,000 additional units over a six-year period.

This would make possible both the clearance of Black Bottom and the construction of the six high-rise public housing towers known as the Frederick Douglass Apartments, which were combined with a single previously built project to become the Brewster-Douglass Homes. The plan suited the purposes of two seemingly disparate forces: the progressive Democrats of the post-war Truman administration, who were convinced that public housing would provide the "safe and sanitary" conditions too many Americans lacked, and Detroit's Republican mayor, Albert Cobo, whose racially charged campaign included promises to maintain white neighborhoods as white. The Michigan Chronicle characterized it as "one of the most vicious campaigns of race-baiting and playing upon the prejudices of all segments of the Detroit population."

First elected in 1950, Cobo was capitalizing on hostility to the Supreme Court decision barring real estate racial covenants. But making good on the pledge to keep black people in Detroit from moving into white neighborhoods—keeping them confined and concentrated instead in what amounted to high-rise reservations, modern and gilded before they rapidly deteriorated—would have been unlikely absent the National Housing Act. Progressive housing policy did what even the race-baiting local mayor might never have been able to do.

It was made easy, Jordan notes, because Black Bottom was already a discrete and concentrated neighborhood: "It was so easy to just wipe it out." Business owners, for the most part, received no compensation. And the public housing itself, Jordan says in understatement, "was problematic." In the short term, it provided better physical accommodations for those relocated. "A significant number of people clamored to be on the list." But "after years living there, all you would have would be rent receipts. African Americans would get the projects; whites would become homeowners. And property ownership is the way to accumulate wealth in America."

Hard Bigotry and Soft

Housing projects were not the only obstacle to black wealth accumulation. There was also the well-documented race discrimination of the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), which made post–World War II homeownership possible by insuring private mortgages.

The FHA was created to help middle-class earners buy their first homes. It did so by insuring mortgage loans that were 80 percent or more of a home's property value. But only loans with a low risk of default were eligible, and the FHA would do its own appraisals to determine eligibility under requirements that were explicitly racially discriminatory. As Richard Rothstein, a distinguished fellow at the Economic Policy Institute, wrote in The Color of Law: The Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America (Liveright), "The FHA judged that properties would probably be too risky for insurance if they were in racially mixed neighborhoods or even in white neighborhoods near black ones that might possibly integrate in the future."

In this way, too, government involvement in the private housing market can be said to have institutionalized racism. So it was that the hard bigotry of the FHA—a New Deal agency built on fears of white reaction to black neighbors and the racism of Southern Democrats—combined with the soft bigotry of housing reformers who believed in herding black residents into high-rise projects.

Absent the slum clearing and public housing, more positive counterfactuals would have been possible. As Detroit's black residents became wealthier at a time when the city's auto plants were booming, black institutions might have renovated and otherwise improved historically black neighborhoods. Without such deep government involvement in the mortgage market, competing banks might have sought out, rather than shut out, black homebuyers. Instead, both Black Bottom and Paradise Valley were cleared and the Douglass high-rises opened.

By 2014, the six high-rise towers that once housed 10,000 people, including a young Diana Ross of future Motown fame, had deteriorated to the point that they had to be demolished. Clearance had returned to Black Bottom. The nearby original site of Paradise Valley, cleared by 1956, lay fallow for years—a large empty lot where a thriving neighborhood once stood.

Detroit civic leaders, led by United Auto Workers President Walter Reuther, ultimately laid the groundwork for the construction of the Lafayette Park apartments—an upper-middle-class complex designed by the pioneer modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe—on the former site of Black Bottom. The reform gaze had done its worst: Clearance had been replaced by the anti-urbanism of modernist architecture. The thriving world of what could appropriately be called immigrant African-American Detroit, judged problematic by both race-baiting local officials and progressive federal officials, had been swept away by their policy tides.

This article is adapted from The Poor Side of Town: And Why We Need It by permission of Encounter Books.