Found Footage: Black Bottom Detroit

152 Frames 

The moment only lasts five seconds.  A girl in a pink dress waits on the edge of a busy sidewalk for a mid-1930s Ford coupe to pass.  In the car’s wake she jogs across the street, passing a parked car painted in support of a candidate running for sheriff.  While the moment itself does not seem remarkable, the setting and circumstances sure are.  The street in question is Hastings Street—the main artery of Detroit’s storied Black Bottom neighborhood.  The year is 1940.  And it was this particular moment that was captured for posterity as a full color 8mm motion picture. 

 

 

This panorama, assembled from the film's frames, lets us take in all the detail packed into that five seconds of footage. 

 

Black Bottom  

From the 1920s through to the 1950s, Black Bottom was a thriving predominantly African American community.  Then, the Great Migration was in full swing thanks to the prospect of northern factory jobs, but racially restrictive covenants, redlining, and other forms of de facto segregation funneled this growing African American population into just a few neighborhoods.  On the city’s eastside, the old neighborhood of Black Bottom—so named for its rich soil—provided opportunities.  Anchored along Hastings Street, which ran parallel and to the east of Rivard, the area included not only housing but a famed business and entertainment district.  It was on Hastings that crowds lined the state’s longest bar at the Forest Club, or took in a floor show at the Ace Bar.  It was also home to an early location of Bethel A.M.E. Church.  For decades, this neighborhood was the focal point of African American life in Detroit.  In fact, when the Associated Press wrote of the reaction back home to one of Joe Louis’s victories, the author repeatedly used “Hastings Street” as a metonym, or expression, for the city’s Black population.

 

However, in the postwar era, city planners designated the area for the construction of I-375, displacing residents and erasing the neighborhood’s footprint.  As a “lost” neighborhood of this significance, visual records are of special interest.

 

Video of the area is fairly rare, and the only other film of Black Bottom in our collection is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot taken on Hastings Street in a black and white reel about the Goodfellow’s 1941 Toy drive.  Thus this slightly earlier color film is a remarkable artifact. 

 

 

While the corner of Hastings and Alfred was bustling in 1940, as captured in our film, this photo shows the east side of the intersection in 1960, after the displacement and demolition for the I-375 project had begun. 
 

Mysterious Found Footage 

Unfortunately, we know very little about the origins of this unassuming but significant film. It was preserved for posterity when John Henry Rowe purchased a secondhand camera with the reel included, and his family later donated it to the Detroit Historical Society.  The camera’s original owner dutifully documented not only Hastings Street, but a variety of metro Detroit locales, almost universally panning from left to right.  While the bulk of the film showcases the vicinity of downtown Detroit, it also features scenes as far afield as DearbornRoyal Oak, and Troy. Unlike many home movies, rather than family occasions being the focus, this scenery was the star—be it freighters passing Belle Isle, or a quiet moment is Cass Park. The mystery filmmaker’s reasons for recording these scenes are lost to us, but what remains are this series of colorful living panoramas. 

 

Eastern Market is another of the locations our mysterious filmmaker documented.

 

While the full reel may have taken several days, or even months to fully expose, we do get impressions of several separate day trips dotted out as adjacent scenes in adjacent areas.  Preceding the Hastings Street footage are shots of nearby Eastern Market from Russell Street and Winder Street, then of the Brewster Homes.  And immediately following Hastings Street, we see Brush Street and Alexandrine.  Our camera operator could have easily covered all of these locations on foot over the course of an hour or so.  Was the footage the intent of these outings, or was the camera just an accessory as other errands were being attended to?  Unfortunately, we may never know. 

Detective Work 

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Louis R. Taylor's campaign office provided a vital clue for identifying where this sequence was shot.

 

With no external information, determining when and what the film was of took a bit of detective work.  The year of the film was originally shot was unclear, but various clues from the color of the license plates on Hastings, to the films listed on the marquee at the Fox Theatre consistently added up to 1940.  While many of the featured locales were self-evident, the shot of Hastings was not immediately identifiable as such.  No full business names, nor address numbers are clear in the shot, so we had to dig a bit deeper.  The first clue of where this might be was the visible street car rails, which indicate a major street.  The next clue came from the state senate race campaign sign for Louis R. Taylor hung over one of the storefronts.  In 1940 Taylor was president of the United Tenants Association, which maintained an office at 2731 Hastings.  On the next block, the letters “ILLER” can be made out on a big red partially obscured sign.

 

Sure enough, Miller’s Loan Office stood on the corner of Alfred and Hastings, just past the United Tenants Associate office.  In looking at the street in our closest real estate atlas, the spacing, size, and construction materials of the storefronts and buildings of this stretch mirrors what we can make out in the video.  Thus, we can deduce that our mystery camera operator was situated on the east side of Hastings Street, between Division Street and Alfred Street. 

 

Hastings Street, from Division to Brewster, as represented in our 1940 city directory.  Note the United Tenants Association at 2731 Hastings, and Miller’s Loan office at 2801-2805 Hastings.   

The film is viewable in full as part of our Detroit Video History Archive.

Learn more about Black Bottom  

Those interested in further immersing themselves in the history of Black Bottom are encouraged to check out Invoking the Spirits: Detroit’s Black Bottom, an experiential installation in Lafayette Plaisance Park which the Detroit Historical Society developed in conjunction with the Black Bottom Archives, Design Core Detroit, and Octane Design. 

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