By Christine Scarfuto, Literary Manager
Dominique Morisseau’s Paradise Blue is set in the heart of Paradise Valley in Black Bottom—a thriving, predominantly black neighborhood that was once the epicenter of African American life and culture in Detroit. In the early part of the Twentieth Century, the city’s booming automobile industry attracted a flood of workers from around the country, and the African American population in the city exploded. Since Black Bottom was one of the few neighborhoods where African Americans were legally permitted to reside and own businesses, people flocked to the area to pursue a wealth of personal and professional opportunities. By the mid-1920s, Black Bottom contained over 350 African American-owned businesses, including hospitals, drug stores, shops, restaurants, nightclubs, bowling alleys, a movie theater, and the Gotham hotel, which was known as the best African American hotel in the world.
Paradise Valley was the central entertainment district of Black Bottom. It became a real mecca in the glory days of jazz, known for its significant contributions to American music. The number of nightclubs and theaters in Paradise Valley doubled in the post-Prohibition years, and as the city recovered from the Great Depression, it was the go-to place in Detroit to hear big band, jazz, and blues.
People from all over the city would gather in nightclubs and theaters to hear jazz greats such as Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Dinah Washington, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, and Ethel Waters perform.
However, institutionalized racism, discrimination, and poverty made life far from blissful in Black Bottom and Paradise Valley. Black Bottom contained some of the oldest architectural infrastructure in the city, and it began to deteriorate during the Great Depression. Simultaneously, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt passed the National Housing Act of 1934, which established the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), an agency designed to facilitate home financing and improve housing standards in the wake of the Great Depression. The FHA promised to provide guaranteed mortgages for low- and middle-income families. While the organization succeeded and was celebrated for making home ownership accessible for white people living in predominantly white neighborhoods, it refused to back housing loans to black people or to anyone living in or near a predominantly African American neighborhood. And so while the white neighborhoods and suburbs of Detroit were thriving with the help of government financing, home owners in Black Bottom and Paradise Valley were systematically prevented from getting loans to repair and rebuild rapidly deteriorating housing. Racial tensions in the city rose as overcrowding in the neighborhood worsened, until a riot broke out in June of 1943, killing 34 people and injuring 433.
Paradise Blue is set in 1949, the same year that President Harry Truman passed the Housing Act of 1949 as part of his Fair Deal legislation. The policy set aside federal financing for so-called “slum clearance” under the justification that outdated housing was a safety risk and therefore needed to be updated. Although the Act was supposed to ensure affordable housing through urban renewal projects, it often called for the demolishment of fractured neighborhoods and disproportionally affected African American and immigrant communities. The year 1949 also marked Albert Cobo’s divisive mayoral campaign in Detroit. Cobo promised to protect white neighborhoods from what he called the “negro invasion,” and to level the “slums” and sell that land to private developers. Paradise Blue is set in the months following Cobo’s election for mayor, when there was a real uncertainty in the air regarding what would happen to Paradise Valley. Cobo served as the mayor of Detroit from 1950-1957. On his watch, the most densely populated African American neighborhoods in Detroit—Black Bottom and Paradise Valley—were leveled to make way for Interstate 75 and Lafayette Park, a residential neighborhood. This “urban renewal project” wiped out 400 businesses and put 7,000 families out of their homes, and since more than 90 percent of the residents of Black Bottom were tenants, they were displaced with nowhere to go.
The federal and local policies of the 1940s and 50s had a massive effect on the city in the latter half of the Twentieth Century. Detroit lost over 60 percent of its population between 1950 and 2010, and the city has become notorious for its urban blight: over half of the residential lots in the city are abandoned today. But for the first time since the 1950s, Detroit is growing. As of 2017, the median household income is rising, criminal activity is decreasing by five percent annually, and the city’s blight removal project is well underway. In 2017, the New York Times pointed to a cultural and economic resurgence starting to happen in the city. Detroit’s current mayor, Mike Duggan, is doing everything he can to make sure the city champions inclusivity, diversity, and the hope of revitalization. Perhaps most significantly, Duggan publicly acknowledges that the choices the city’s administration made in the 1940s and 50s are at the root of the city’s problems today. Paradise Valley and Black Bottom may no longer exist, but hopefully a thorough understanding of their history will keep Detroit and other American cities from repeating the horrific actions of the past.