Long-time Detroiters refer to the old African-American districts of Paradise Valley and Black Bottom as if they were interchangeable, but the terms actually refer to two different inner east-side areas sharing the border of Gratiot Avenue. Black Bottom, proceeding south from Gratiot as far as the Detroit River, was the older of the two. Paradise Valley-which attained its identity in the twenties, thirties, and forties-spread north with the growing African-American population from Gratiot along the major thoroughfares of John R, Brush, Beaubien, St. Antoine, Hastings, and Russell, eventually stretching to the area known as the North End, beyond the northern loop of East Grand Boulevard.
Two well-known poets, Robert Hayden (1913-1980) and Dudley Randall (1914-2000), grew up in Black Bottom and Paradise Valley. Hayden, who was born in Paradise Valley, lived with his foster-parents in homes on St. Antoine, Beacon, and Napolean Streets, and East Vernor Highway, worshipped with his foster parents at Second Baptist Church, attended Detroit schools-graduating from Northern High School and Detroit City College (Wayne State University)-and worked as a reporter and columnist for the Michigan Chronicle, a radio host for CKLW, and a writer for the Federal Writer's Project before leaving the city to attend graduate school in Ann Arbor in 1940 (Williams 3-12). Randall, whose family moved to Detroit when he was five years old, lived on Joseph Campau Avenue and then on Russell Street, attending Duffield and Barstow Schools, graduating in 1930 from Eastern High School and, after serving in the army in World War II, Wayne University. He was a member of Plymouth United Church of Christ and worked at the Ford Rouge plant and as a mailman before leaving for military service (Boyd, Wrestling 35-39). As Melba Joyce Boyd relates, poetry brought the two young men together in 1937. Hayden and Randall became friends, discussed the writing of poetry, and shared political and cultural interests, "never seeming," Boyd says, "to lose sight of their aim to master their skills and knowledge of poetry." Boyd observes that even though Hayden left Detroit in 1941, the two stayed in contact throughout their lives (Wrestling 48-51).
Most commentators describe the Black Bottom/Paradise Valley area both as a crime and poverty-ridden ghetto and as a vibrant center of racial and cultural identity. Gloster Current, a former resident and one-time president of the NAACP, called Paradise Valley "a mixture of everything imaginable-including overcrowding, delinquency, and disease. It has glamour, action, religion, pathos. It has brains and organization and business" (Sugrue 36). Robert Hayden considers both dimensions in his own memoir, appreciating the area's "beauty," "gentleness," "vividness of life," and "intensity of being," as well as its "violence and ugliness and cruelty." He recalls the "people who retained . . . a sheltering spiritual beauty and dignity . . . despite sordid and disheartening circumstances" (Collected Prose 141).
Hayden's poetry reveals both dimensions. His first volume, Heart-Shape in the Dust (1940), contains several poems set in Paradise Valley. "Bacchanale" (44) and "Shine, Mister?" (42) are "no-job blues" that treat unemployment in Depression-era Detroit. In "Sunflowers: Beaubien Street" (12), Hayden writes of the members of his foster parents' generation who, after coming north, "set the solid brightness" of sunflowers on Detroit's "bitter air" to remind them of the South. He bases four poems-"Obituary" (Heart-Shape 28), "Rosemary" (Heart-Shape 37), "The Crystal Cave Elegy" (Collected Poems 206) and the well-known "Those Winter Sundays" (Collected Poems 41)-on the character of his foster- father, William Hayden, who, dreaming of better things, arrived in Detroit from Kentucky's coal mines, only to find back-breaking work as a driver for a local coal company (Hatcher 5-7). Other Hayden poems-"Free Fantasia: Tiger Flowers" (Collected Poems 130-31), "The Rabbi" (Collected Poems 9), "Mourning Poem for the Queen of Sundays" (Collected Poems 38), "Homage to the Empress of the Blues" (Collected Poems 32), and "Double Feature,"(Collected Poems 172)-also use specific Paradise Valley settings: St. Antoine Street, New Calvary Baptist Church, Second Baptist Church, and several theatres: the Koppin, Dunbar, Castle, and Arcade.
Hayden's most extended Detroit work, "Elegies for Paradise Valley" (Collected Poems 163-170), a collection of eight poems, resurrects the Valley's diverse characters and their struggles. Hayden begins "Elegies" with the memory of a maggot-eaten body of a junkie discovered outside his "boyhood bedroom window." The speaker recalls watching as the body is "shoved into a van" and then noticing "the hatred for our kind / glistening like tears / in the policemen's eyes." In this single projective simile, Hayden conveys the paradox and pathos of the African American experience in Detroit. By treating the policemen's hatred in terms of his own sadness, Hayden reveals both the impulse toward community and the impossibility of achieving it joining his tears with the policemen's hatred are as they are joined in Detroit's history.
In another poem, "Summertime and the Living," Hayden writes of anger and violence as responses to economic and racial injustice, of how the adults in Paradise Valley were "so harshened after each unrelenting day / that they were shouting angry" (Collected Poems 39). The sight of an old woman beating a young boy in "The Whipping" reminds him of a beating he received as a child; he understands that, through her violence, the woman is "exhausted, purged-- / avenged in part for lifelong hidings / she has had to bear" (Collected Poems 40). Hayden's Paradise Valley poems search for the causes of rage and violence in the city, an understanding of people who came to Detroit with great hopes only to learn that the hype about Detroit was another bad joke played on the poor: "Detroit's a cold, cold place," sang blues singer Victoria Spivey in 1936, "and I ain't got a dime to my name."
Despite their bleak view of Detroit life, Hayden's poems generally offer a vision of human community. Amid the seething anger of the poor in "Summertime and the Living," emerges a sudden transforming vision of African American unity when a cultural hero, heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, appears in triumph, setting "the ghetto burgeoning / with fantasies / of Ethiopia spreading her gorgeous wings" (39). In "The Rabbi" African-American and Jewish children build community by sharing language. The young African American takes pleasure in the words, Mazuzah, Pesach, Chanuka. The children even learn the derogatory terms-schwartze and Jew Baby-with which adults from each group refer to one another, thereby gaining temporary shared mastery of the very language which will ultimately separate them (9). In "Elegies for Paradise Valley," the "Godfearing elders" and "Godless grifters," who squabble in daily life, recognize a shared responsibility to protect the neighborhood's children. A major theme of the elegies is the recognition of community-crossing racial, religious, and cultural lines-based on an acknowledgement of human mortality.
Such visions constitute only one way in which the impulse toward community may be found amid the decay and violence of urban life. Another is to rebuild within the poem, a community that no longer exists. In the fifth section of "Elegies for Paradise Valley," Hayden constructs an extended ubi sunt which resurrects characters who lived in Detroit's African American community in the 1920s and 30s: "Belle, the classy dresser," "stagestruck Nora," "fast Iola," "mad Miss Alice," "snuffdipping Lucy," "Jim, Watusi Prince," "Tump the defeated artist," "Les the huntsman," "Tough Kid Chocolate," dapper Jess," "Stomp the shell-shocked," "taunted Christopher, sad queen of night," "gentle Brother Davis," "dopefiend Mel." Hayden uses the elegiac device that ancient Anglo-Saxon poets employed when recalling their communities destroyed by war. Hayden asks what has happened to the members of a community now destroyed by urban renewal. Where are they? Where have they gone? Although Hayden has no illusions about life in this violent, impoverished, and crime-ridden district, he still insists on the richness of this community and the distinctiveness and dignity of the diverse human beings who formed it.
Although Randall writes fewer poems about Paradise Valley/Black Bottom, he, like Hayden, concentrates on two dimensions of the community. "Laughter in the Slums," like Hayden's "Sunflowers: Beaubien Street," contrasts the warmth of the residents' southern past with the cold and "sooty snow of northern winter" which cannot suppress their "bright," blossoming laughter (More 18). Among their entertainments are the violent outbursts of the tragically drunken "old Witherington" who claims to live "in hell" and starts a fight in which he might die "and put an end / to all this loneliness" (Litany 14). "Ghetto Girls" (originally "Hastings Street Girls") describes young women with "ivory, saffron, cinnamon, chocolate faces, / Glowing with all the hues of all the races." Their gay appearance and behavior reveal their obliviousness to the "long, deep night" that lies ahead (Litany 87). In "Vacant Lot" (Litany 86), Randall shows the range of possibilities that city children find in the few open spaces of the crowded urban setting. A vacant lot becomes a "wilderness," hideout, battlefield, baseball diamond, gridiron, and artists' studio: "It was chameleon stage containing all."
Other writers-among them Murray Jackson, Toi Derricotte, Albert Michael Ward, Michelle Gibbs, Philip Levine, and Jeffery Eugenides-have used Paradise Valley/Black Bottom as a focal point of memory and history.
The Detroit poems of Murray Jackson (1926-2002) concentrate largely on the places and colorful personalities of the expanding Paradise Valley neighborhood. Apartment buildings on East Canfield, Sledge's Barber Shop, Wilfred's Billiard Parlor on Oakland, Barthwell's Drugs, the Flame, Frolic, and Chesterfield Show Bars, the Cotton Club, the Cozy Corner, Club 666, The Garfield Lounge, Trowbridge School, Southeastern High School, St. Josaphat's Church, and assorted saloons, pawn shops, and gambling spots appear in his poems. Switchblade justice controls behavior in the Valley of Jackson's poetry: Billy Lamplighter draws his blade on Geechee George for kicking a dog in "Things Ain't What They Used to Be" (Bobweaving 14), and Silent Ambrose draws on Ralph, the Merchant for calling him a name during a game of pool in "Eight Ball, Side Pocket" (15). The neighborhood is a place where learning takes place-in schools like Trowbridge ("Trowbridge School" 46-70) and Southeastern ("Baby Ray" 29) and in Apartment # 6 at 310 East Canfield, where the young speaker of "Ten No-Trump" (21-2) learns to play bridge by watching a "bragging club" of characters that includes Mellow Man, Papa Steele ("puffing on his two-for-a-nickel John Ruskin cigar"), Henry, and Dot, "the first woman in the bragging club / and the best player in the house." As Paradise Valley and its African-American community moved northward, it came into contact with the old Polish Catholic community, and the young speaker of one poem, encountering a group of habited Polish nuns in procession up St. Antoine, imagines them stepping to the rhythm of "an old spiritual, remembered from / a sanctified store-front church on Forest" ("The Ladies of Josaphat" 48).
Toi Derricotte's "Blackbottom" (Captivity 5) describes a middle-class African American family who, in the late 1940s, left the area for the middle class district of Conant Gardens in northeast Detroit. In the poem, the family returns to the streets of the old neighborhood to observe its characters and experience anew its sights, sounds, and smells: "We rolled our windows down so the waves rolled over us like blood." In "Barthwell's Drugstore" (Patches 19-22), Al Ward recalls a romance that began at the soda fountain of one of the ten stores owned by African-American entrepreneur, Sidney Barthwell. Michele Gibbs' "Message from the Meridian" (Boyd and Liebler 135-6) examines the present day sites of Paradise Valley and Black Bottom and anticipates the day when "this valley become the Bottom / Black and blue / will be Paradise again...." Philip Levine's "On the Corner" recounts an overheard conversation between jazz great Art Tatum and his bass player outside the Flame Show Bar on John R.
The Nation of Islam is one of the many institutions that arose in Paradise Valley. Jeffrey Eugenides spins the circumstances of its 1931 founding and the mysteries surrounding its founder, W. D. Fard, into his 2002 Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, Middlesex. The narrator, Cal Stephanides, imagines his Greek grandmother, Desdemona, in 1932, getting off the Gratiot streetcar on Hastings Street, on her way to apply for a job at the Nation's Temple Number 1. As Desdemona walks down Hastings, she experiences the sights and sounds of depression-era Paradise Valley: people on front porches laughing and arguing, a junk artist, a drunken beggar, a barbershop, flirtatious young men: "The smell of unfamiliar food in the air now, fish caught from the nearby river, pig knuckles, hominy grits, fried baloney, black-eyed peas. But also many houses where nothing was cooking, where no one was laughing or even talking, dark rooms full of weary faces and scroungy dogs" (143). The Temple, at 3408 Hastings, is identified as the "former McPherson Hall" (listed in the Polk's 1929-30 Detroit Phone Directory as Castle Hall). "In lean times," the narrator says, "the mosque was flush. Ford was closing factories but, at 3408 Hastings, Fard was open for business" (150). Desdemona, attempting to pass as a mulatto, is a silk worker in one of Fard's enterprises, until this venture ends when he leaves Detroit in May of 1933.
Although successive grand visions of a renewed Detroit have destroyed virtually every vestige of Paradise Valley and Black Bottom, in the city's literature the area still has life, in the words of Melba Joyce Boyd, as "a metaphor for strength and fortification in black history" (Wrestling 28).
Frank D. Rashid teaches English at Marygrove College. His essay, "Robert Hayden's Detroit Blues Elegies" appears in the Spring 2001 issue of Callaloo.
Photo by Anna Fedor.
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Originally posted September 2003