Detroit Avenue of Fashion District | Ken Coleman
As a young child, Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist practiced jump shots and worked on skills to improve his tennis serve-and-volley at the Coleman A. Young Recreation Center in Elmwood Park on Detroit’s lower eastside.
“I also learned how to subtract large numbers riding my bike with my dad through Elmwood Cemetery,” he joyfully recalled during an interview with the Advance on Wednesday.
At the same time, Gilchrist, Michigan’s first Black lieutenant governor, knows that the community where he once lived also has a painful history, particularly for many people who look like him. It is a space where local and state public policy, under the name of urban renewal, displaced poor African Americans residents beginning during the late 1940s.
However, he and other officials spoke on Wednesday about “righting the wrong” of the 1950s and 1960s and creating opportunities for Blacks and others.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced that the state of Michigan is moving forward with a plan to replace “the outdated I-375 freeway with an urban boulevard to spur economic development and provide easier access between adjacent areas of Detroit,” according to a press release.
The Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) has concluded its environmental review process that allows the project to advance to the design phase, beginning this spring. The project is federally funded, but will be coordinated by MDOT.
“With the conclusion of the environmental clearance phase, we will continue moving forward on the I-375 project,” said Whitmer during the press event held at Detroit’s Eastern Market.
It is a sector of the city that was predominately African American and poor when the Black Bottom and Paradise Valley communities were razed in the early 1950s to create a middle-class neighborhood with an underground freeway. The action, aided by a Michigan Supreme Court ruling in 1951 that helped the city of Detroit exercise eminent domain, displaced thousands of people.
Ground was broken on I-375 on Jan. 30, 1959; it opened on June 26, 1964. By 1970, U.S. Census data pointed out that the Lafayette Park neighborhood was about 75% white and middle class.
“Now, we must build up our state’s infrastructure with equity at the core,” Whitmer said. “While we cannot change the past, we must work harder to build a more just future, and that starts with listening to and engaging with the community, and taking deliberate steps to get this done right.”
Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said the freeway, which is about one mile in length, is a “barrier that … has become even more apparent.
“It was Black residents and Black businesses that were hurt when Black Bottom was wiped out and they were displaced for the construction of this freeway. Black businesses today should benefit from the enormous development opportunities this project will create,” said Duggan. “The equity of who participates will be just as important as how the new boulevard ultimately will look. We can replicate what we did up on Livernois when we worked with neighbors to reimagine that historic business district, which is now the city’s most vibrant and successful Black-owned business corridor.”
Duggan was referring to Detroit’s Avenue of Fashion, a Main Street-type small business commercial district, located about 11 miles away from I-375 and located in the northwest section of the city.
The selected street-level boulevard that will begin south of the I-75 interchange and continue to the Detroit River.
“As a former Lafayette Park resident, I know there is no way to undo the damage that the building of I-375 did to Black communities,” said state Sen. Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit), who represents the area. “I am truly glad MDOT recognizes that racial equity work must be done in this area, although we know that the I-375 project won’t be able to address all of the inequities that continue to persist in our communities.”
But Pat Cole, a longtime business owner and 30-year Lafayette Park resident, will miss I-375. Its onramp, not far from her front door, provides her with the ability to travel to other sections of the city and metropolitan area with great ease.
“[I-] 375 is right at the corner. I can go anywhere I want to go in 15 to 20 minutes at the most,” she said.
Gilchrist, however, agreed with Chang.
“What this does is present an opportunity on so many levels. It is an opportunity to invest in righting a wrong that happened all these years ago. We have a chance to work with the community to imagine a modern version of a street or a boulevard that works for people first that can be a place of community connection, wealth to be created that is safer than a freeway.”
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