The Process of Detroit Community Building, Part 1

The original Barthwell’s Drugstore in Paradise Valley, razed by the the urban renewal of the I-75/I-375 expansion in the 1950s. Photo Credit: Detroit Free Press/Bilde

During the reconstruction and rehabilitation of the El Moore building on 2nd Avenue and Alexandrine, we are building more than a residential complex. We are building a community.

How do you “build” a community? Over the past few years in Detroit, especially in Midtown and downtown, there has been a boom of new businesses, rehabbing of old buildings, and companies moving their headquarters (and employees) from the suburbs to Detroit. But is all of this new investment also building or rebuilding communities?

The community of Detroit is made up of neighborhoods, all of which were here in one form or another way before the recent activity and influx of development. We have to ask ourselves: are we just adding real estate, or are we ensuring that everyone is included in Detroit’s most recent rebirth? We not only want to make Detroit a place where people move to, but also a place where the people already here want to stay.

In the late 1950s, “urban renewal” efforts, including the expansion of the 1-75/I-375 freeway (also known as the Chrysler Freeway), obliterated the decades-old Black neighborhoods known as “Paradise Valley” and “Black Bottom” (so named because of the original rich black soil used for farmland, not the color of the people), forcing residents to move to other areas of the City or flee to the suburbs. Homes, businesses, churches, and schools were demolished in the name of “progress”.

In the 1980s, the construction of a new General Motors plant similarly destroyed the neighborhood called “Poletown”, a lower middle-class Detroit neighborhood whose residents had African-American and Polish-American ancestry. Again, homes, schools, businesses, and churches, including the historic Immaculate Conception Church.

Today, renewal projects such as the Green Garage and the El Moore are utilizing a new narrative to rebuild communities. Instead of top-down imposition of a profit-only-driven destruction-building cycle, today’s paradigm for renovation, rehabilitation, and “urban renewal” starts with involving the present community to ask the questions that will allow the actual physical structures to cultivate a sense of belonging for everyone; and isn’t that ultimately what makes a community?