A new self-guided tour in Detroit’s Lafayette Plaisance park takes you through the history of Black Bottom from its days when it thrived with Black residents and businesses to the impact of its destruction.
This Detroit Historical Society and Design Core Detroit pop-up tour is part of Month of Design, an annual monthlong series of events that feature designers from all categories of art — whether they design shoes, create murals, produce architectural blueprints, host fashion shows or support small businesses.
The “Invoking the Spirit: Detroit’s Black Bottom” tour is an audio and visual communication journey that talks about the neighborhood’s once thriving Black community of residents and businesses through the lens of those who experienced it. The tour will remain in the park for a full year.
“People know what they used to in their neighborhood,” said Malika Pryor, senior director of education programs and outreach for the Detroit Historical Society. “They know their story because it’s theirs. So just offering up space for the people in the community to be the primary voice in the process has just been such an honor and a pleasure.”
Pryor said the goal was to bring people back to the place where everything originated in an effort to keep the memories alive. She said she hopes people learn about the area, but also “experience a sense of loss.”
“In your day-to-day life, when you’re going to work and you’re driving down I-75, you don’t think about it — the fact that driving down Chrysler Freeway, that was a whole residential and business area,” said Dean Nasreddine, manager of community outreach engagement for the Detroit Historical Society. “There were people there. It wasn’t just concrete.”
Nasreddine wants tour visitors to remember that the people who experienced the destruction of Black Bottom never left. The predominantly African American neighborhood, which was demolished beginning in 1950 to make way for the freeway, was turned into an “urban renewal” area and now mainly attracts white residents.
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The tour discusses former schools, churches, housing, policies, migration and more. If visitors don’t have the cellphone technology to scan a QR code to listen to the audio portion, there are written and photo options to view on the visual boards that are shaped like houses.
“It’s not just about the destruction of it, but it’s about the life and vibrancy that the neighborhood had while it was around,” said Bill Bowen, co-owner of Octane Design, a company that created the visual boards. They had a goal to collaborate with Black designers to launch the project.
Celebrating Detroit’s designers
Month of Design, hosted by Design Core Detroit, has three main focuses this year: built environment, visual communication and product design.
Since design covers many areas, Design Core Detroit said it wants to make sure to touch on things like architecture, interior design, illustration, graphic designing, creating industrial equipment, working with crafts and more.
“Design is a process, so when you have an idea in your mind, the whole process from bringing that idea to fruition is design,” said Kiana Wenzell, director of Detroit’s Month of Design. “Design is how you go about making a product, a service or a system. A lot of people when you say ‘design,’ they think of a cup, a chair. Well, designers also create systems like the assembly line or the mobile COVID testing.”
The events have brought hundreds of people together since the series kicked off Sept. 1. Detroit was named a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization City of Design in 2015, and it is the only city to bear that label in the U.S. The organization continues to put on the annual event to highlight Detroit’s past and present designers.
Wenzell started her month by attending the “Girl With the D Earring” mural dedication at Chroma in Detroit. The mural was created by Sydney James. The event also included creatives Yolanda Nichelle, Phillip Simpson and Ijania Cortez.
“When I gave remarks, I said, this mural and the work of Sydney and her accomplishments is the reason why Detroit is a leading design capital right now,” Wenzell said. “It embraces the values of diversity, accessibility and collaboration. … It’s people like Sydney, Phillip Simpson, Ijania Cortez or Yolanda Nichelle who actually created the D earrings, the jewelry designer — they are the reason why we’re getting noticed and attention as a design capital.”
Her other favorite events include Sneaker House, which was in collaboration with Foot Locker, and Finding Identity, which was an art installation that displayed how the pandemic changed the balance in our public and private lives.
Some of the upcoming events include:
- Obama Gallery Opening: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sept. 25. The exhibition titled “Yes, We Can” will include the “First Dance” mural by Chazz Miller and it is set to remain as a permanent mural display.
- Shop, Sip and See with the Small Business Murals Project: 12 p.m. to 7 p.m. Sept. 25. View murals created by local artists, learn about Detroit neighborhoods and support small businesses. Tours will be hosted by the Detroit Experience Factory.
- The Alley Activation Station: A Co-creation Celebration, 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Sept. 28. This event will bring alleys to life through art installations, murals and virtual reality designs.
View the full schedule and where to participate on the Design Core Detroit website.
Contact staff writer Chanel Stitt on Twitter: @ByChanelStitt. Become a subscriber or gift a subscription.