Officials look to ‘fill in the ditch’ that helped displace Black Detroiters with $105M project

The Black Bottom and Paradise Valley neighborhoods were ‘literally bulldozed’

By: - September 15, 2022 2:22 pm

A photo of Detroit’s lower east side during the 1940s. | Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University, Edward Stanton photo

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said Thursday during a news conference in Detroit that “wealth that needs to be created will be created” as he helped to outline plans to reimage a federal highway that displaced a historic Black community during the 1950s and 1960s.   

“We know that some of the planners and politicians behind the decisions in the past to build roads like this one and others to build roads through the heart of vibrant, populated communities, sometimes in an effort to reinforce segregation, sometimes people who lived there did not have the power to resist and reinforce change,” said Buttigieg. 

A view of the Chrysler Freeway (I-375), looking east from the roof of the Detroit City-County Building. | Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University

The announcement lifted up funding from President Joe Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. It will help the state replace the “outdated” I-375 freeway and ultimately provide “an urban boulevard to spur economic development and provide easier access between adjacent areas of Detroit,” according to state officials. 

Joined by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and others, Buttigieg described the announcement as part of a process to right a wrong that included government policy that displaced hundreds and perhaps thousands of Black residents and business owners in the name of urban renewal on the city’s lower east side. 

Buttigieg said city officials “literally bulldozed the neighborhoods of Black Bottom and Paradise Valley displacing mostly Black Detroiters.” 

The site of the news conference was where former Detroit Mayor Louis Miriani participated in the groundbreaking for the interstate section in January 1959. 

Earlier this year, Whitmer announced that the project was cleared to move forward after conclusion of the environmental review process.  

Ground was broken on I-375 on Jan. 30, 1959. The highway opened on June 26, 1964. By 1970, U.S. Census data showed the Lafayette Park neighborhood had transformed to be about 75% white and middle-class. 

Today, Detroit is 79% Black and about 41% of its residents live at or below the federal government poverty line. 

U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing) and Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Twp.) announced that the U.S. Department of Transportation will grant the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) $104.6 million to reconnect the neighborhoods destroyed by I-375 in Detroit. 

“I-375 bulldozed two vibrant Black neighborhoods and is part of an unjust and painful chapter in our history,” said Stabenow. “Instead of dividing our communities, we now have a chance to reconnect them and take a big step toward building a better future. Thanks to this major federal investment and commitments by MDOT and the City of Detroit, this project has the potential to create economic opportunities for our local businesses and residents.”

Peters also advocated for the project. 

“This investment is going to make a big difference for families and businesses in downtown Detroit by reconnecting neighborhoods to key economic hubs and improving the quality of life for area residents,” said Peters.

MDOT will realign the ramps and freeway near I-375, convert I-375 to a slower speed boulevard, install calming traffic measures, remove weaving and merging areas along I-375 and I-75, remove the Jefferson Avenue curve, and incorporate LED lighting in the project area. 

The project will also remove 15 bridges and two stormwater runoff pump stations that are currently dividing the community, rehabilitate one remaining stormwater runoff pump station, construct wider sidewalks and bike lanes with pedestrian crossings, and reconnect neighborhood streets to the boulevard in the project area.

“We fought hard to secure this funding to create a corridor of economic opportunity in Detroit and build on the city’s growing economic momentum,” said Whitmer. “I want to thank our congressional delegation again for their support of the bipartisan Infrastructure Law, from which these federal funds were secured. I am proud that we got this done with extensive community input and are fixing the damn roads in every region of the state the right way.”

Duggan, who is white and has led the majority-Black city since 2014, welcomed the effort. 

“It’s time to fill in the ditch,” said Duggan, referring to the underground portion of the freeway. 

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Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.

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