Detroit I-375: Removal, Redevelopment, and Confronting the Reality of Urban Renewal

A new series investigating the complicated history of city-planning, progress, race and road-building through the lens of impacted communities. Each story assess the legacy and present reevaluations of major infrastructure projects in America's cities.

Bnoel I375 Overpass
Brandon Noel

From The Editor

This story is different than what you might normally find in this space. Some of the information and ideas presented might be uncomfortable to some people. That's ok, they were uncomfortable to me.

I am new to this industry. I am learning about it. This story is the culmination of natural questions I felt compelled to ask. If the work the industry does is build roads, and the work I do is to write about that, then I feel stories like this are just as important as an article about the latest innovative technology to hit the market.

Roads aren't built in a vacuum. They are built in places where people live. Where they are built effects that area in complex ways. Grappling with the context and impact of the work of this industry, I believe, is valuable and worthwhile. To bring it into the conversation, can only enrich the work itself.

What does it mean to be a community? It depends largely on what defines the community, or how the community chooses to define itself. Its identity is drawn, just like a map, atop the space where a community gathers. One word for these spaces is a "neighborhood." A place where people live, work, raise families, start businesses and meld together into something greater than, as a whole, their individual selves.

This emergent group of people cannot be separated from the physicality and the geography where they live. They are inexorably linked. This includes the infrastructure and the city planning decisions that transform a community over time, as well as the ways some profit from those transformations, while others are negatively impacted by them. It includes how, in the name of progress, a community can be torn apart, wither away, and be seen as nothing more than collateral damage.

This is part one of new series that attempts to examine specific communities, their history, how they were effected by large-scale city infrastructure changes, and focuses on the new nationwide trend to see these communities restored. In each case study, the conditions are different, but there is a common thread tying them all together. A city, its people, its economy and infrastructure are all part of a system. If we want to see American cities truly come back-to-life, it's going to require rethinking 70 years of how to do things, and not repeat some of the mistakes of our past.

To better understand new solutions to our current problems, we can benefit from examinations of previous solutions, their broader ramifications and, ultimately, how they succeeded or failed. 

About I-375

Right in the heart of the city of Detroit, in the shadow of the General Motors tower and the stadium where the Tigers play is interstate-375. A four-lane freeway south of the I-75 interchange, where it widens to six lanes. At only 1.062 miles in length, it once had the distinction of being the shortest signed Interstate Highway in the country, from the time it opened on June 12, 1964 until 2007. At the time it began construction, in 1954, it cost roughly $50 million. This amounts to approximately $477 million in 2022 dollars.

Before and after the construction of I-375Before and after the construction of I-375Provided by the Michigan DOT

It was an expensive, major urban area project, that was part of a wave of large-scale public projects in the post World War Two, Eisenhower administration effort to greatly expand the country's interstate system. These efforts ended up cutting wide gashes of freeways through city neighborhoods all across the United States1.

As was often the context for these expressways, there were two major talking points to justify the eminent domain seizure of property and redevelopment. The first was "urban renewal", where zoning changes and real estate ratings deemed current structures condemned or labeled whole blocks as a part of city "blight". The second, and still often cited in our modern era, was in regard to high daily traffic volumes that would flow in from the affluent, and mostly white, suburbs to downtown jobs.

Such was the cause for "Black Bottom", where I-375 would be built. To better understand the negative impacts on the community, we first have to look at the specific history of this part of downtown Detroit.

The History of Black Bottom

Paradise Valley in the 1920sParadise Valley in the 1920s

The neighborhood of "Black Bottom" is one of the very oldest in the city of Detroit. How old? It gets its name from the soil, a dark, rich earth beneath the surface, as described by the French explorers who founded it. In the early decades of the 20th century, Black Bottom was a thriving center of African American business, culture and prosperity. Famed musicians like Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald, among others, played at the Castle Theater in the Paradise Valley entertainment district.

It was so successful, in fact, that the son of prominent Black Bottom businessman, Sidney Barthwell, said in a 2013 interview with the Detroit Free Press, "It was indeed a paradise for black entrepreneurial business. The Detroit black community in its heyday was absolutely fantastic. It was better than Harlem." The Barthwell family owned and operated a chain of drug stores and ice cream parlors that were decimated after the construction of the freeway.

The Legacy of Urban Renewal in Detroit

In an article about the enduring legacy of the I-375 project, published in July of 20202, author Nithin Vejendla wrote about how demolition and the resulting fallout impacted the region. "Highway planners sold the demolition programs as part of an 'urban renewal' campaign designed to help residents by replacing older homes and apartments with new construction," said Vejendla.

But how it was presented and how it functioned were two different things.

Vejendla continued, "Predominantly Black and poor residents displaced by the demolition were left to find new housing without government assistance, at a time when demand in the city’s segregated housing market far outstripped supply. Instead of moving into better living conditions, a majority of those displaced ended up within a mile of the new super-highways, in homes that were commonly no better than the ones they had left.

A map that shows in dots the concentrations of African American population in the city, and the lowest rated quality of housing in red.A map that shows in dots the concentrations of African American population in the city, and the lowest rated quality of housing in red.From the city of Detroit archives

The better rated residential areas, such as Lafayette Park, became mostly white enclaves. In addition to inner-city red lining, and restrictive deed covenants, there were legal methods of preventing black families, no matter how affluent, from moving into or even buying into white suburban neighborhoods.

While the once prosperous neighborhood of Black Bottom was literally demolished, they were locked out of the kind of improved living conditions city planners had sold urban renewal upon. And even as restrictive laws were gradually changed on paper, intimidation and acts of violence took their place.

A Corridor for White-Flight

Other parts of the city's projects did similar damage to surrounding neighborhoods, hundreds of homes and more than 2,800 buildings were displaced for other new freeway construction. However, Black Bottom was hit the hardest. Not a single structure was left standing from the original neighborhood where more than 300 black-owned businesses made their home in 1930.

While many of these structures were extremely old, and in need of heavy repairs or rebuilding, rather than investing the millions of dollars into projects that could have updated housing and utilities, the city spent its money to more directly benefit the new suburbanites who could now get to work in 10 minutes.

Rather than allow for the neighborhood to continue to flourish into the latter half of the century, it essentially robbed the future from that local generation. The wealth of those families was wiped out while simultaneously (if indirectly) transferring the potential of that wealth to those who fled the city.

As Nithin Vejendla described, "[It] concentrated poverty in the inner city", in the ensuing decades as business owners and companies took advantage of cheap suburban land and moved the last remnants of decent jobs out of the city, "Highway-assisted suburbanization effectively locked a generation of Black Detroiters out of middle class employment."

One of the contemporary city planners from the I-375 project, Ed Hustoles, when interviewed by local journalist John Gallagher in 2013, had this to say when reflecting upon the work he had done so many year ago, "We thought we were doing good. We were taking blight away and giving people decent, safe, and sanitary housing, and we were rebuilding the city. In retrospect, you can always do some things differently." 

Bnoel I375 FenceBrandon Noel

The Road to Removal

Nothing happens quickly. Even when a piece of infrastructure has aged out of its usefulness, as many in the early 2000s agreed I-375 long had, and the cost of upkeep exceeds getting rid of it. It has been 17 years since the earliest discussions, and almost 10 years since the start of the official removal process. Not a foot of road has come up, yet.

In April 2013, the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) made public its considerations, still in very early stages, to either spend an estimated $80 million to conduct essential repairs to the roadway, or remove it and convert it into a boulevard or some other community-focused resource. Local businesses and members of the impacted community were invited to participate in a study, comment on the process, and submit alternate project bids.

In June 2014, six different proposals were revealed to the public. Their price tags ranged from $40 million to $80 million, and varied between full rebuilds, full removals, and everywhere between. By January 2016, with no final decision in sight, the city announced that the project was on hold indefinitely. 

Enter John Lurie, the senior project manager with MDOT, and the environmental assessment of May 2017. This was a turning point.

"It's a type of change or solution that doesn't happen overnight," Loree said. "The Downtown Development Authority, in partnership with the Riverfront Conservancy, did a planning and environmental linkages study. It looked at this segment of freeway and its future and whether [the community] was better served by a boulevard or other type of roadway configuration."

At the conclusion of the assessment, it was announced only two potential projects remained viable, and both were removal and redevelopment based.

Bnoel I375 CurveBrandon Noel

Cause and Effect

Lurie described some of the impacts and considerations, now that the pathway forward is more clear. "It's changing from a freeway to a boulevard, because it still serves a large volume of traffic. We had to take that into account," Loree said. However, there are many benefits the change offers.

"The freeway didn't really have that riverfront connection, and that area has been a huge investment for the city," Loree said. "Also, we wanted to make sure the new development incorporated multi-modal components. So we have a cycle track on the east side that connects down from the riverfront. Twenty-two-foot-wide paved sidewalks will go in on the central business district side so that there's room for the pedestrian activation."

These assets are in addition to potential future benefits for nearly 30 acres of excess property, the subject of an upcoming land-use survey, that will most likely be earmarked for green space redevelopment and/or new businesses. But the I-375 has immediate positive outcomes for the city infrastructure too, especially relevant in a year where urban rainfall has seen multiple major city highways across the country submerged under water.

Loree explained, "All the drainage for I-375 and the freeway segments to the north drains into our combined sewer system. We have this opportunity to get the new connection to the riverfront, to provide a separate outfall, and treat the stormwater and release it. Now it won't burden our combined sewer system. This could decrease the propensity for those combined sewer overflows that we see with these intense rains that we're getting more frequently."

Bnoel I375 ConstructionBrandon Noel

Funding the Reconnection 

Restoring these communities is gaining more support on the state and federal levels. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer actively campaigned on a platform to, "fix the damn roads." This might hint at how dire the situation and condition of public roadways was in November 2021 when she wrote a letter3 to the secretary of transportation, Pete Buttigieg, thanking him for the administration's work on the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) and the $1 billion set aside for "Reconnecting Communities", a pilot program aimed to fund the planning and capital investments needed to restore historically-segregated communities devastated by racially-targeted projects exactly like I-375.

In a statement, Whitmer said, "As we build up our roads and bridges, we also have to take a closer look at the unjust legacy of so many of our freeways, including I-375 and the I-75/ I-375 Interchange, that were built decades ago by demolishing Black neighborhoods, splitting up key economic areas, and decreasing connectivity between families, communities, and small businesses." 

Michigan expects to receive an extra $250 million to $350 million a year, on top of the $1 billion annually it had been receiving before the new infrastructure law was passed5.

According to the federal government's website for the program, it is described as, "The first-ever Federal program dedicated to reconnecting communities that were previously cut off from economic opportunities by transportation infrastructure. Funding supports planning grants and capital construction grants, as well as technical assistance, to restore community connectivity through the removal, retrofit, mitigation, or replacement of eligible transportation infrastructure facilities."

The eligible types of infrastructure include a highway, road, street, parkway, or other transportation facility, such as a rail line, that creates a barrier to community connectivity, including barriers to mobility, access, or economic development, due to high speeds, grade separations, or other design factors"4.

Bnoel BottleBrandon Noel

Reconnection Is Not Restitution

While city planners, contractors and businesses can be justice-minded in their decision making in the present, a question still looms about justice for the past. If the government is willing to admit to the racial factors and history of urban development projects like I-375, and set aside hundreds of millions of dollars to invest in their restoration, what about restitution for the human beings effected? People were harmed by the system, indisputably. So, what does that system owe their descendants?

In a news segment for WDIV Channel 4 in Detroit, Stephen Henderson, from Detroit Today, spoke in more detail about what justice for the families of Black Bottom and the history of the area could look like.

"If you really want to solve the problem of connecting downtown, you will need to do more mass transit, build more affordable housing for people downtown, and deal with issues of race and equity, but this will help," Henderson said. 

When pressed about whether or not Black Bottom and Paradise Valley could ever be truly brought back to its former glory, Henderson responded, "Can't we go find the families who lost houses and businesses, and ask, 'What would you like to do?' or 'How can we make you whole from what we took?' but this is an exercise we aren't entirely comfortable with. But we are doing it right now in the city anyway. We've got a reparations commission studying ways we can make up for the things that the city did. I think here at I-375, it's kind of ground zero for that discussion"6. In this case, the victims and their families were not so long ago that there exist no records to be able to offer reasonable proof of impact.

Others have written about the removal project more skeptically, and with good reason. Wayne County Executive Warren Evans, wrote an opinion on September 22, 2022, and said, "It boggles the mind that anyone could have the audacity to say this project will in any way rectify what happened to the families and business owners of Black Bottom and Paradise Valley all those years ago — especially when you consider that many of them were only given 30 days to relocate once the decision had been made to demolish their homes." 

In Evan's opinion, the media and the government have not painted a clear and accurate picture, given the history of the area. He said, "I want to make clear that I am not opposed to the new project. But I am opposed to the...narrative used to promote it."7

Where Does This Leave Us?

Perhaps, you look at this case study, this particular context and situation thinking that it is not clear to you how the road building industry is involved with this story. What does one simple freeway project have to do with today, with your business? What does this have to do with me? There are many ways to discuss answers to that question, but, for now, let us focus on two of them: community and justice.

Bnoel ChurchBrandon Noel

The industry, the contractors, the bids they put forward, can participate best when they have these two concepts in mind. To be community minded requires one to be invested in an area, understanding the dynamics and the history of the places where their work is done.

These jobs and bids are a part of the community itself, and become a link in the chain of its history. Attending city council meetings can be helpful, as well as, being aware of open comment periods for locals where you can go to listen. Talk to the people who live there. To have the support of a community is good for business, because, at the end of the day, you are building that community.

Make no mistake, there is money to be made in the business of jobs like the I-375 removal and redevelopment. Not only are there billions set aside by the IIJA, but the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) includes hundreds of billions of dollars more. The market is flush with tax dollars, and there is no shortage of projects on the table. Many are just like this one, and some that we will cover here in future installments of this series.

To be community conscious and have a business ethic focused on justice doesn't mean there is no profit. However, the legacy of those profits earned can be seen in the light of history as it moves forward. Of course, it isn't always clear. The city planners of 1950's Detroit thought they were doing something good. This highlights the importance of diversity in these kinds of decisions, which can offer insights and perspectives that might be overlooked at first glance. Every choice made has a rippling effect, and the opportunity exists, not just in Detroit but all over the country, to participate in positive ways.

The future might view some of those choices we make today through the hindsight of its impacts, like it has on Black Bottom. But it is equally possible that present choices can be seen as facets of community restoration. We cannot hope to make for ourselves a better future if we continue to carry on the work we do in this industry, as if it is "just a job." It's more than just a job for those who do it, and it is more for those who live in the places the work is done. It matters deeply to the people on both sides of the orange cones.

This industry, the manufacturers, and the contractors too, all have parts to play in this much larger system. It is important to take ownership of those roles, and see how each has a power to effect things in a community. Projects like the redevelopment of I-375 are opportunities to reconnect formerly severed areas, make something brand new in the process.


1.) The Detroit Free Press · Sunday, December 15, 2013: When Detroit Paved Over Paradise (John Gallagher) pg. A17-A18