Black Bottom Street View, in Detroit Public Library’s Strohm Hall, is a “living archive” that allows viewers to walk through makeshift blocks of photographs that reconstruct Black Bottom, a razed neighborhood from Detroit’s past.
“We feel that Black Bottom’s stories must be shared—especially at this critical moment in Detroit’s history,” says the written statement by project organizer Emily Kutil. “Black Bottom Street View is a project to visualize Detroit’s historic Black Bottom neighborhood.”
Before these parcels were taken by eminent domain, the city of Detroit documented them with photographs between 1949 and 1950, which were archived by the Burton Historic Collection at the Detroit Public Library.
The black and white archival photographs of the neighborhood’s parcels are juxtaposed in one long strip to simulate how the old buildings once stood on the block. The monumental blocks, which nearly take up the entirety of Strohm Hall, are wrapped around wooden arches that the viewer walks around. These demolished streets have their existence in space again.
The photographs, classified by dates, parcel numbers, and street addresses, capture the life of the neighborhood. A young girl walks beneath the shade of a grand tree near 1567 Clinton. A Victorian with wood siding once stood at 1351 Clinton—a group of friends pose for the camera from the porch. A ghost wearing black crosses Russell on September 11, 1949.
On the side of the room, a large-scale map of Detroit’s Lower East Side—dated to 1951—shows viewers an in-depth breakdown of the parcels and Black Bottom’s proximity to Downtown, Eastern Market, and the Detroit River. The map is sourced from the Library of Congress and Sanborn Map Company.
According to the Detroit Historical Society’s Encyclopedia of Detroit, Black Bottom’s boundaries were quite extensive, touching from Gratiot Avenue, Brush Street, and Vernor Highway, down to the Grand Trunk Railway line. The area was home to European and Jewish immigrants before becoming one of Detroit’s prominent African-American enclaves (along with Paradise Valley—known for it’s music venues—and Conant Gardens) during the Great Migration. These were some of the only neighborhoods in which African-Americans were allowed to live. Coleman Young, Detroit’s first black mayor, moved to Black Bottom from Alabama in 1923, and remembered the neighborhood as “a thrilling convergence of people” in his autobiography.
The Black Bottom Street View photos illuminate what was lost: a neighborhood of dense housing stock with street life. We see a rigid grid plan that connected to the rest of the city, and where people congregated at corners—a far cry from the isolated, meandering, wide-open avenues and freeways that stand in their place. Hastings Street, one of the two main thoroughfares of Black Bottom, was where the Chrysler Freeway is today.
But the poor quality of life of Black Bottom’s residents was widely known and documented. As Robert Goodspeed notes in Urban Renewal in Postwar Detroit, “In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the Michigan Chronicle, Detroit’s oldest and largest black newspaper, ran dozens of articles and editorials exposing the poor housing conditions available to the city’s blacks.” By 1958, all of the remaining businesses and residents were forced out as part of Detroit’s urban renewal planning. Black Bottom was razed and redeveloped as Lafayette Park.
Black Bottom Street View will host an opening celebration in January 2019 and will run until March 2019.