Paradise Valley and Black Bottom

A Black Bottom residential street on the east side circa 1920. The sign on the tree reads”Always Drive Safely.”

The 606 Horse Shoe Bar on E. Adams was a popular Black Bottom gathering spot.

The 1910 census reported that Detroit’s “Negro” population was 5,741 and owned 25 places
of business. But the African-American community  grew quickly as the city’s  booming auto
industry attracted a flood of workers from around the nation and the world.

By 1920, African-Americans owned 350 businesses in Detroit, including a movie theater,the only black-owned pawn shop in the United States, a co-op grocery and a bank. Thecommunity also had 17 physicians, 22 lawyers, 22 barber shops, 13 dentists, 12 cartage agencies,11 tailors, 10 restaurants, 10 real estate dealers, eight grocers, six drug stores, five undertakers,four employment offices, a few garages and a candy maker.

The community was centered on the near east side of downtown in the area of St. Antoine,Hastings, Brush, John R, Gratiot, Vernor, Madison, Beacon, Elmwood, Larned and Lafayette.

It’s not clear how the area came to be known as “Paradise Valley.” Some have speculatedthat it drew its name from the newly introduced Asian “Paradise” tree that grew very easilyalong fences in the area.

While life was often far from heavenly as the community struggled against discriminationand poverty, the neighborhood developed its own culture and attractions. Some of the popularclubs in the area included the Club Three Sixes, El Sino, Pendennies, 606 Horse Shoe, B&CClub, Congo Lounge, Gay 90’s Club, Royal Blue Bar, and the Bluebird Inn.

By 1936, the name Paradise Valley was firmly established and the neighborhood had its owninformal mayor, Roy Lightfoot. The community also had its heros like Olympic star JesseOwens, whose visit to the Valley inspired a celebration. And of course there was heavyweightboxing champion Joe Louis, the Valley’s favorite son. His mother, Lily Brooks, lived on McDougall.

The 1940s brought the end of the Great Depression and a booming job market in Detroit asthe city first built the weapons to win World War II and then built the cars for the returningsoldiers. Detroit’s African-American community grew, too.

The Paradise Theater on Woodward, later restored as Orchestra Hall, featuredall the top black entertainers of the era.

      In 1941, Orchestra Hall on Woodward and Parsons reopened as the Paradise Theater. Itoffered the best African-American musicians in the country. Duke Ellington opened Christmas Week with his bigband.

Admission was 50 cents, and patrons could stay all day. There were three shows a day withfour on weekends. “B” movies were shown between acts. Those without the 50 cents wereallowed in the back balcony door.

The theater thrived for ten years during the glory days of jazz. It featured top entertainers: Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Eckstine, Billie Holiday, the Inkspots, Cab Calloway,Jimmy Witherspoon, Alberta Adams, Jitterbugs, Taylorettes, Kim Weston, Trick and Slick,Teddy Harris Jr., Dinah Washington, Josephine Baker, Big Maybelle,Little Willie John, Arthur Prysock, Illinois Jacquet, Nat King Cole, Count Basie, Duke Ellington,Sammy Davis Jr., Pearl Bailey, Joe Williams, the Mills Brothers, Charlie Gabriel, DizzyGillespie, Re Bop Orchestra, Louis Armstrong, Sonny Woods, Ann Baker, Luis Russell, Jay C.Higginbottom, Joe Garland, Two Zephyrs, Joyner and Foster, Maxine Sullivan, Bill Robinson,Jimmie Lunceford’s band, Fletcher Henderson, Lionel Hampton, Erskine Hawkins and Charles”Lanky” Bowmans sextet.

Singer Billie Holiday was one of the headliners who played the ParadiseTheater.

But the 1950s brought more competition, higher performer fees, television and changingtastes. Other places became more popular and took the crowds: The Graystone Ballroom, Music Halland Olympia. Finally the last acts played: Johnny Hodges, the Orioles and Moms Mabley.

In 1952, the Church of Our Prayer and Rev. James L. Lofton bought the theater for$250,000. Later abandoned, the building escaped demolition and was restored as Orchestra Hall, home of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

An agent of the Internal Revenue Service sifts through records in a safe found during agambling raid on the old Gotham Hotel in 1962. Agents arrested 42 people including the hotelowner.

Around the corner from the Paradise Theater was the elegant Gotham Hotel. The nine-story,200-room inn was built in 1924 by Albert Hartz, who sold it to John J. White and Irving Roanein 1943. The entrepreneurs soon turned it into a social center for Detroit’s African-Americancommunity.

Suites featured solid mahogany furniture and were named to honor Duke Ellington, SammyDavis, Ray Robinson, Joe Louis, Lena Horne and Cab Calloway. After Roane sold out to Whitein 1945, the kitchen was renovated for $25,000. A small fortune kept fresh flowers in the Ebonydining room daily.

Famous visitors at the Gotham Hotel included Jesse Owens, Joe Louis, Adam Clayton Powell,Langston Hughes, Sammy Davis and Billie Holiday.

But the hotel fell on hard times and closed in September 1962. The following December,100 federal, state and Detroit police officers raided a gambling den in the vacant hotel. Theofficers arrested 42 people including the owner, White.

It was the largest gambling raid in Detroit up to that time. Police said the hotel was thecenter of a gambling operation that netted as much as $30 million a year.

The Gotham later fell to the wrecker’s ball — the fate of most of Paradise Valley during the1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s. Urban renewal projects like Lafayette Park, the Chrysler Freeway andthe Elmwood housing project replaced the old neighborhood and scattered the residents.

But the memories could not be demolished. The neighborhood has been celebrated inmusicals like Bea Buck’s “Paradise Valley Revisited” and “Masquerade Flashback,” and recalled inElaine Wood’s book “Untold Tales, Unsung Heros.” And the Valley lives on in the memories ofthe people who once lived there.

Workmen clear the rubble of the stately old Gotham Hotel at John R and Orchestra Place asurban renewal eats away at Black Bottom and Paradise Valley in the 1960s.

By Vivian Baulch / The Detroit News