In an effort to savor the stories of our rich cultural past, but also to better understand our area today, we dug into the history of the vibrant scenes in Paradise Valley, the Cass Corridor, Ann Arbor, and Palmer Park.
Whether it’s Hamtramck, Ypsilanti, or Dearborn, savvy metro Detroiters probably know where to find the hip, up-and-coming cultural scene closest to them. Although these communities can be as small as a neighborhood or as large as a whole city, they’re places where artists and other innovators thrive, where visitors can find cutting-edge cultural experiences, and where it’s often affordable to live and hang out.
Numerous metro-area communities over the past century have attracted the “hipsters” of their time and developed into cultural destinations that drew visitors from far and wide. Our local history is rich with the stories of cultural scenes that shone brightly for years or even decades – and then either changed significantly or fell dormant, often due to the effects of gentrification and development.
In an effort both to savor the stories of that rich past, but also to better understand our area today, Concentrate has teamed up with our sister publications Model D and Metromode to take stock of four venerable cultural scenes of metro Detroit’s past. We spoke with historians, scene veterans, and residents to understand how these areas developed, what made them great, and how and why they changed.
1. PARADISE VALLEY: JAZZ CLUB HUB
Location: Definitions vary, and the specifics are especially difficult to pin down because of the way road construction and redevelopment deeply affected this community (more on that below). But Paradise Valley occupied a small strip between Woodward Avenue and Eastern Market in Detroit, stretching as far south as Gratiot Avenue and as far north as Mack Avenue depending on whom you ask. Part of the same area is today occupied by Ford Field and Comerica Park.
Cultural heyday: The ’40s through the ’60s saw this neighborhood become a bustling hub of nightclubs featuring some of the best jazz and blues musicians in the world at the time. Bert Dearing Jr., who grew up on Riopelle Street just east of Paradise Valley, recalls a vivid “red-light district” in the area that was full of music and other activity day and night. Dearing, who is today the owner of Bert’s Entertainment Complex, recalls jazz luminaries like Dinah Washington, Billie Holiday, and Charlie Parker playing in the neighborhood in his youth. “You had all the top greats,” Dearing says. “They played from the heart, with their experience, in their songs. … There’ll never be another Paradise Valley. I can just say that.”
Biggest destinations: The Paradise Theatre at 3711 Woodward Ave., today known as Orchestra Hall, sat on the western fringe of Paradise Valley and was one of the main destinations for the top-flight jazz acts Dearing recalls. Nightclubs (and other businesses) were prolific throughout the area, with Hastings Street serving as the main drag.
The reason for the scene: The Great Migration of the ’20s and ’30s caused Detroit’s black population to increase dramatically, and most of those new residents settled in Black Bottom, the neighborhood between Paradise Valley and the Detroit River. (Segregation barred black residents from crossing over to the west side of Woodward at the time.) Paradise Valley was where Black Bottom residents went to shop, be entertained, or make their own living running or working in one of the numerous businesses.
“[The black community] had some smart business folk that were porters and stuff on the train,” Dearing says. “They would shine shoes, and they would sit and listen to rich white folks that did stocks and bonds or whatever, and they’d just take that information back and they’d open their own businesses up. Paradise Valley happened to be that particular area.”
Reason for decline: Although there is still a Hastings Street in Detroit, you can no longer walk the portion of it that once formed Paradise Valley’s main drag. That stretch of the street was bulldozed and replaced by the Chrysler Freeway/I-75, which began construction in 1959.
But Paradise Valley’s decline began long before then, according to Marsha Battle Philpot, a Detroit music historian and writer whose father’s record shop served the Paradise Valley and Black Bottom communities. Urban renewal projects of the ’40s, touted as improving housing and quality of life in Black Bottom, in fact resulted in many black residents having their homes destroyed and/or being priced out of the area. Although the freeway was the final nail in Paradise Valley’s coffin, the district suffered a long, slow decline for years before that as its main customer base in Black Bottom withered away. “It was extremely dynamic,” Philpot says. “It was extremely musical. And it was, of course, destroyed.”
2. THE CASS CORRIDOR: FOUR DECADES OF UNDERGROUND ART
Location: Detroit, bounded by I-94 on the north, I-75 on the south, the Lodge freeway/M-10 on the west, and Woodward Avenue on the east.
Cultural heyday: Debatable. There’s an argument to be made for the late ’90s leaving a particularly notable cultural imprint at both the local and national level. The White Stripes literally played their first show in the corridor while techno culture was also having a big moment. But the area was a creative hub for decades before that. “I would say there’s a consistent line to be drawn from the ’60s to the ’90s … even into the early 2000s … where the Cass Corridor was a zone of creativity, of affordability, of transience and transformation,” says Walter Wasacz, a Hamtramck-based writer and veteran of the metro area’s cultural scenes….
Continued via… Source: Hipster history: Unpacking the stories of metro Detroit’s legendary cultural scenes