Past and future: Gov. Whitmer bids to revamp I-375 back into an urban boulevard

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Posted at 10:10 AM, Dec 16, 2021

DETROIT (WXYZ) — Years before the construction of I-375 in Detroit, the Black Bottom neighborhood was condemned and razed under guise of urban renewal or so-called “slum clearance.”

“Before the freeway was here, it was an urban boulevard,” Detroit historian Ken Coleman told 7 Action News last week, standing along the mile stretch of freeway that connects I-75 to Jefferson Avenue.

Coleman was speaking about Hastings Street, where people, mostly Black, not only lived but worked. Hastings was home to thriving mom-and-pop shops like Marsha Music’s father’s record store.

“He opened up a record store there in 1945,” Marsha said.

Joe’s Record Shop was on the edge of Black Bottom near Mack Avenue. Over the years, Marsha’s father Joe Von Battle Sr. played a big role in the city’s music scene, even producing the first gospel records of Aretha Franklin.

Joe Von Battle in record shop on Hastings St. (Courtesy: Marsha Music Collection)

Joe Von Battle in record shop on Hastings St. (Courtesy: Marsha Music Collection)

But like every business owner there, eventually Joe Von Battle Sr. was forced to move. He relocated his business to 12th Street, but Marsha said he was never the same.

“I remember my dad looking out onto the freeway crevasse that had been dug out at that time and I remember him saying, 'This used to be Hastings,'” Marsha said.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has said she wants to covert I-375 back into a boulevard — six lanes at street level — to replace the depressed freeway there now.

Included in the new Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is a first-ever program to “reconnect communities adversely impacted by infrastructure designs like I-375 that erected barriers to mobility and opportunity and disproportionately affected communities of color,” Whitmer wrote in a recent press release.

Marsha Music in doorway of Joe's Record Shop on Hastings Street (Courtesy: Marsha Music Collection)

Marsha Music in doorway of Joe's Record Shop on Hastings Street (Courtesy: Marsha Music Collection)

She also included a letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Peter Buttigieg, urging him to tour the area for himself. She’s hoping federal money will help revamp I-375.

“Now, nearly three generations later, we have an opportunity to eliminate this obstacle and provide easier access to better jobs, services, and quality of life to the residents of adjacent areas of persistent poverty. After nearly 60 years of use, the segment consisting of I-375, the I-75/I375 Interchange, and bridges is nearing the end of its useful service life and requires modernization. As you have stated that the highway design corrections your Department may fund will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis, I welcome hosting you to tour the I-375 project and to visit with the community members engaged with the redesign effort so you can see firsthand how the project is a perfect candidate for the Reconnecting Communities program.”

- Gov. Gretchen Whitmer wrote to U.S. Transportation Secretary Peter Buttigieg.

Across the country, it’s estimated that more than a million Americans were displaced due to the Interstate Highway System. The infrastructure law includes $1 billion to reconnect divided communities.

7 Action News asked Coleman what impact, if any, this could have three generations later.

“I think it would be great for the city. I don’t know if this community is ever going to return to the cultural, Black history cultural grandeur that was here 60, 70 and 80 years ago,” he said.

Detroit is a different city now, Coleman said, where Black people no longer reside in just a few neighborhoods.

“I think that the efforts probably have a narrative that indicate trying to make things right,” Marsha said. “Although I suspect it has much more to do capitalizing a currently uncapitalized neighborhood," she said.

Marsha added that any decisions about that area’s future should include input from the community there now in Lafayette Park.

There’s no definite price tag on the I-375 improvement plan, though a Michigan Department of Transportaion spokesperson said the bulk of that funding would be federal, around 80% to 90%.

We reached out to the U.S. Department of Transportation for a timeline on a decision about funding and received the following statement:

“As the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law implementation begins, Secretary Buttigieg and the entire DOT staff will continue their close working relationships with state, regional, Tribal, and local partners to identify projects worthy of federal funding.”

-U.S. Department of Transportation

Construction on the I-375 project is not set to begin until 2027.

“When we talk about how do we move forward and make sure those types of situations don’t happen again, it really involves an involved citizenry,” Coleman said.