How "urban renewal" (aka "negro removal") worked out in Detroit...
The Destruction of Detroit's Black Bottom
The Destruction of Detroit's Black Bottom
I agree with Mr. Jordan about the bolded bit above. Now I have to go deposit a check from a woman who WILL own her home one day. She was poor and desperate and had given up and was on a sure path to losing her home. My business partner, who speaks poor redneck fluently having grown up as one, gave her the one essential thing: hope. She thinks she can do it. Without that, nothing else was possible. She's been catching up for some time and has a ways to go, but I can't wait to sign her Satisfaction of Mortgage and I'm sure she'll make it. You can't turn herds of lives around. It happens one at a time....
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.
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."
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.