From World War I through the early 1950s, Detroit’s Black Bottom neighborhood existed as a thriving cultural hub just east of what’s now downtown Detroit. Through the years, it was home to Italian, Syrian, German and Jewish immigrants and African Americans mostly from the South. Because of segregation at the time, it operated much like a city within a city and was one of the few places black people could live. Jazz musicians like Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and others made it a point to perform there.
Then, in the 1950s, the neighborhood – said to be named for its rich, black soil – was destroyed in the name of urban renewal and replaced by the Chrysler Freeway and Lafayette Park, which was then a community of upscale housing occupied mostly by white Detroiters. But the neighborhood is not entirely lost. “Black Bottom Street View,” an exhibit of hundreds of rarely seen photos of the area’s homes and businesses, is on display through March 15 in Strohm Hall at the main branch of the Detroit Public Library on Woodward.
This exhibition, created by Emily Kutil, tells the community’s story through images that were archived in the library’s Burton Historical Collection. Each picture overlaps another, creating a panoramic effect.
Michael Hodges of the Detroit News wrote on Jan. 9 that “just before demolition, the city sent photographers out — a bit like Google Street View — to shoot every structure in what was officially dismissed as a ‘slum.’ ”
Kutil, whom he described as an architect who teaches at the University of Detroit Mercy, explained that the Federal Housing Act of 1949 was behind city officials’ plans to eliminate the neighborhood. “That act funded destruction of African-American neighborhoods all over the country,” she said.
Bill McGraw, in a 2017 article for the Detroit Free Press, wrote that “the neighborhood’s demise came as part of a sweeping blueprint for the city’s postwar future called the Detroit Plan, which included freeways, hospitals, housing, the Cultural Center, the expansion of Wayne State University and a renovated riverfront.”
The goal for the exhibit, Kutil told him, is to allow people today to be able to immerse themselves in what life was like in the Black Bottom community back then.
“There is so much family history, and neighborhood history and community history that has been erased in Detroit,” she said. “I want to give people some sort of infrastructure to share those histories.”
To learn more about Black Bottom, visit BlackBottomStreetView.com.
The “Black Bottom Street View” exhibit, which is free and open to the public, runs through March 15 at the library, 520 Woodward. Hours are Tuesday and Wednesday from noon-8:00 p.m., Thursday-Saturday from noon-6:00 p.m., and Sunday from 1:00 p.m.-5:00 p.m.