Urban renewal, the much vaunted plan for erasing blighted neighborhoods while hiding behind the cloak of helping the poor, in many respects hurt the poor and destroyed once vibrant (albeit decaying) neighborhoods, and replaced them with class-conscious pipe dreams that were socially incongruent to their surroundings. President Johnson, like his predecessors Eisenhower and Truman, echoed the need for rebuilding our cities. “Our society will never be great until our cities are great. In the next forty years, we must rebuild the entire urban U.S.”
Urban renewal was the rage across the country in the 1950s but it was virgin territory for city planners. It had never been done on such a colossal scale before. New York City razed large sections of viable neighborhoods, including the venerable Penn Station in 1963, and spent the rest of the twentieth century wondering why. It was the old American adage rearing its ugly head once again: bigger is better. The more money you throw at a problem the greater your chances for success. Wrong!
On paper urban renewal seemed like a very progressive endeavor - erasing blighted areas and replacing them with modern dwellings brandishing cutting-edge innovations. Below the surface, however, the iceberg of urban renewal reeked of political snake oil. Urban renewal was not used to help the poor. It was used by big cities to fatten their coffers. It was also a last ditch effort to halt the every accelerating white flight to the suburbs.
By razing impoverished slums and replacing them with middle-class high rises, a city’s tax revenues would swell significantly. Officials stumbled ignorantly on with their social engineering as entire neighborhoods were leveled under the guise of modernity. The melting-pot poor who were hastily sent packing had to fend for themselves with little or no relocation help from the city. Since it was generally poor blacks who were being displaced, many came to believe the city’s hidden agenda of slum removal was really black removal. While the cosmetic appeal of erasing Detroit’s most blighted areas would be obvious, city planners failed to take into account the terrible social upheaval they were causing.
Between the three mayors involved in urban renewal in Detroit (Cobo, Miriani, Cavanagh) they would level thousands of acres of old neighborhoods and in the process create an angry army of displaced blacks who, in the volatile decade of the 1960s, would ultimately unleash their considerable fury against the city itself.
one step forward...
...two steps back
While Detroit Mayor Edward Jeffries may have initiated the Detroit Plan in the late 1940s, it was his successor Mayor Albert Cobo, 1950-57, (above, pointing) who pile-drived the idea into something tangible. Though regarded as a good mayor by 1950s standards, Cobo definitely set in place a minefield of social problems which would later explode on his successors. Perhaps history has granted him leniency because he died in office. Nevertheless, his failure to address the acute black housing problem may have pleased his constituents, but it was to spell doom for the city in the racial upheaval of the 1960s.
No one ever doubted that Black Bottom required attention. These wood framed houses were originally built for the influx of German immigrants who arrived in the 1850s. Hastily fabricated, they were way past their life expectancy by 1940. Few had running water or bathrooms. The cruder forms of outhouses were simply a seat placed over the sewer. The threat of a major fire was always present. The frequency of rats also made the area unsafe. Despite its cultural history, the blight of Black Bottom had become an embarrassment to city officials who were attempting to reinvent Detroit.
Below: Typifying the often odd consortium of dwellings in Black Bottom, a former city of Detroit bus
has been converted into a home. This speaks volumes not only of the acute housing shortage which plagued the city for decades but of the stagnant economic times which the auto industry witnessed.
Original urban renewal map showing the highlighted Black Bottom area bounded by Jefferson Ave, St. Aubin, Gratiot and what was initially called the Hastings/Oakland expressway. Now called I-375, this was the famous Hastings Street of John Lee Hooker fame from the 1940s.
The condemnation of property in Black Bottom began in 1950 and continued for three years.
This initial development contained seventy-two acres, fifty-five of which would be residential development and seventeen would be set aside for a park. With great anticipation the city conducted a lottery for the cleared land in July of ‘52 to determine who the lucky builders would be to transform this former slum into an urban utopia. It was then that something unexpected happened. Much to the city’s consternation, no one bid on the land. The silence at city hall was deafening. An embarrassed Mayor Cobo named a twelve man committee to fabricate solutions.
Above: The completely razed Black Bottom district looking inwards towards the city in 1955.
Black Bottom was now only an urban desert. It would lay dormant for six years because no developers showed any interest.
Below: The newly plowed up acreage was slowly retaken by nature, causing critics to sardonically refer to it as “Ragweed Acres”.
Detroit Mayor Louis Miriani (holding shovel) was forced to pick up the pieces after Mayor Cobo died of a heart attack in 1957. Above, Miriani is taking the first ceremonial shovel of earth for one of the Gratiot projects in 1958.
The first building to go up in 'Ragweed acres" was the Pavillion, a large, middle class apartment complex in the heart of the former Black Bottom. Designed for the middle class, white or black, the Pavillion was an attempt to keep the middle class, and their tax dollars, from fleeing to the suburbs.
While developments like the Pavillion did have some marginal success, by the 1960s people wanted
the wide open spaces, the 'grass and garage' environment that only the suburbs could provide and the newly installed interstate highway system was the vehicle that would get them there.
Out of the litany of reasons given by local governments justifying the terrible disruption caused by urban renewal projects, two stand out. Old, dilapidated dwellings are indeed an eye sore and create conditions contrary to positive, progressive movement. Also, as noted in the chart above, is that poor people pay little or no taxes. The city believed that by removing them and their dwellings and replacing them with middle class, the city would not only benefit substantially from additional revenue but would halt white flight and maybe even lure people back to the city.
Skid Row - End of the Line
While Detroit's east side bore much of the chaos created by urban renewal, the west side was not spared
the grief caused by the wrecking ball. Michigan Avenue during the1950s was every bit the eyesore
of Black Bottom and every bit as dangerous the the Wild West. Along the darkened recesses of Michigan Ave.
can be found a mystifying mixture of sleazy bars, pawn shops and flop houses that support the wretched refuse
of men who have lost it all. Being a major thoroughfare of downtown Detroit, if the Model city was to shine like new money then skid row would have to go. Much like Black Bottom, the city would later find that getting rid of the eyesore didn't get ride of the people who formerly inhabited the area. Roughly speaking, they were just kicking the can a little further down the road. Many of these hard core people would simply move over to the 12th Street / Linwood / Dexter area and the very same problems of the 50s would re-materialize in the 60s.
Where there is destitution, exploiters are sure to follow. Michigan Avenue in the 1950s with its seemingly endless rows of graft to satiate the down and out.
“Isn’t it wonderful?” murmured the lady, as she drove along Michigan Ave. in the placid emptiness of Detroit’s urban renewal clearance. Several blocks away Jim, a 50 year old man with a six day beard, wavered to the door of an aged, abandoned school, proving it wasn’t. Inside, he began shaking and crying uncontrollably. He’d once again reached the limit of endurance in another encounter with cheap wine. He’s one of an estimated 7,000 residents of the city’s skid row area, now shifted geographically several blocks east from its old location along Michigan avenue. Brush Street has become a street of broken bottles and derelict men who stake out an existence from Jefferson north to Mack. The residents moved and were followed by the inevitable economy of the “weeds” – the pawnbrokers, the flophouses, the bars. It didn’t take long. The exodus of humanity began when the heavy wrecking ball began tearing down places like the Victory Bar and the Crow Bar. Soon people like Maj. Kenneth Stange, of the Salvation Army, relocated “Harbor Light” and in the tradition of a hundred years of his organization’s concern with homeless men, began again dispensing charity and one-night tickets to cheap hotels. Now he surveys Brush Street and insists that “only God” can make any real difference to the men who live there. Some 200 to 300 pass daily through the two building operated by the Salvation Army. For Maj. Stange, the problem is only slightly different than it’s ever been. New social legislation has eased the financial burden on the elderly poor, always a sizable portion of any skid row community. And new approaches are being tried to interrupt the circle of poverty and recruitment of tramps and bums. The new development, most people who rub shoulders with the skid row problem on a daily basis will tell you, is a disturbing trend toward a younger age group along the row. Most are disabled veterans living off pensions or castoffs from a migration of Southern workers who came north for a $25-a-day factory job. They failed and settled for a 75 cent a night room in skid row. These people and others living on marginal incomes from pensions and social security from the row core. Far from being the Red Skelton caricature of the bums or the fallen rich man image, the row resident represents humanity that never made it and probably never had a chance of doing so. Maj. Stange says mugging along skid row increases at the first of the month (pension check time) then tapers off. “I get so I even hate to send men to one of the hotels for a night. You never know if he’ll make it without getting beaten up. They come in here with crushed noses and razor cuts where someone has slashed open a back pocket.” On skid row, tramps learn to double lace shoes at night for fear of having them stolen while they sleep. A pair of shoes is good for a bottle of wine to a bum. There’s wealth of a sort in skid row. A day labor broker can get $3 out of every $4 an hour made by the tramp he’s placed in a job.
Skid Row, which extended along much of Michigan Avenue westward from downtown into Corktown, was also razed to make room for businesses and the Lodge expressway. Many of its occupants found themselves scrambling for sanctuary. As was the case on the East side, many fled to 12th Street, quickly making it the densest population in the city. Naturally, Skid Row held more than its fair share of nefarious characters who were soon to call 12th Street home, much to the chagrin of its long-time residents. The end result was the highest crime rate in the city and a ticking time bomb awaiting detonation.
There’s evidence the tramp is trapped in a squeeze play between certain bars and such disreputable labor brokers. Some checks paid out to tramps are cashable only at certain bars, the same bars that help recruits them for the brokers. Few tramps get out of these bars with much cash. It’s a circle of multiple exploitation.
Blood banks are prime sources of income for one element of skid row. The tramp will sell a pint of blood for $6, wait a few days before visiting another, sell another – a process that ends with a lowered iron content in his body and perhaps an emergency run to a hospital for an injection of blood he may have sold a week before.
For policemen, the job is as much one of serving to protect the residents of skid row from each other, as it is protecting others from them. A Wayne State sociologist reports that the alcoholism rate on the row is probably not much higher than the 5 or 6 percent addiction in the “outside” population. Father Vaughan Quinn, a Roman Catholic priest who works on the row, estimates the proportion of clinical alcoholics on the row is about a third. Professor Warren Dunham of Wayne State says that drinking, rather than being the reason most arrive on skid row, is actually the mechanism by which men learn to adapt to living there. The bottle is the common bond between all strata on the skid row subculture. For many it is a way to live cheaply on a limited income. Col. Harold Clemens, of the Volunteers of America, who has spent 40 years in skid rows across the country, operates a men’s home at 6060 Rivard. He says most of the homeless get that way in a progression beginning with a breaking of spirit because of some personal problem, often divorce. This is followed by a breakdown of morals, and then financial ruin. Of the 108 men quartered at the Salvation Army Harbor Light, 35 percent are under 50 years of age. Most die 15 years before the average life expectancy for men (70 years). The future of skid rows everywhere may well rest with the development of urban programs that will reach the broken spirits was well as the empty stomachs of the down and out and put them back into society. There is no more humbling tonic then a tour of the row. People who were brought up middle class or better will always have a difficult time comprehending how anyone can become so destitute and broken. In a certain sense they should be grateful for that. What a sweet sound to me! There’s a bend in my knee. For our purses were lean, But we meet, once a year, And we talk of the changes Where lived the descendents In the Dinan boys’ store, Where you drank your “raheen”, Selling pop and ice cream. There’s a family named Dugan, But their color is black. Well, his place was bought Where they’d trust for your needs There’s a mixture of Danes, Instead of Killkenny cats Those foreigners are smart, About that there’s no doubt, ‘Till the Irish moved out. Corktown, the venerable west side enclave which for decades has been home to Irish immigrants, also took quite a beating when urban renewal came knocking. Much pain was encountered when Corktowners saw the dwelling they had spent their whole life in smashed to kindling. Below, an anonymous author poetically state his opinion of urban renewal and the changing times it brought.
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