The Greening of Detroit History

Editor’s note: This is the sixth post in our theme for January 2022, Urban Environmentalism. Additional entries can be seen at the end of this article.

By Brandon Ward

Mildred Smith was fed up with bulldozers in 1966. She had twice been forced out of homes to accommodate urban renewal developments in Detroit, and officials now asked her to move a third time. She and her neighbors refused to budge.[1]

Wayne State University eyed her neighborhood for a space research facility, one part of a larger expansion which had frequently uprooted Black neighbors in the 1950s and 1960s. Mildred Smith joined with neighbors in the West Central Organization (WCO), a multi-racial group of residents inspired by Saul Alinsky who made frequent trips to train and support the WCO.[2]

As a bulldozer stared down Smith, WCO members and local clergy joined her in what became known as the “Battle of Hobart Street.” City crews, police, and the Detroit Housing Commission director stormed Smith’s home at 5778 Hobart Street, smashing toilets and fixtures, and inflicting damage on the property to make it unlivable. Demonstrators took their protests to city council meetings and the homes of the Department of Housing Commissioner Robert Knox and Mayor Jerome P. Cavanagh. To housing activists, the liberal mayor represented a softer, kinder slum clearance, which nodded to the need to adequately re-house displaced residents but, nevertheless, prioritized destructive urban renewal plans. The confrontational protests lasted for days, leading to the arrest of twenty-one WCO members. Remarkably, their efforts worked. The Detroit Common Council reversed its approval of part of the university expansion project and spared several homes in the neighborhood, at least for the time being.[3]

The significance of 5778 Hobart Street did not stop there. High school students from the wealthy suburbs of Grosse Pointe and Royal Oak assisted in the rehabilitation of the home in 1971. Three years later, Grosse Pointe students fundraised $1,000 to build an “environment school,” where inner-city and suburban students could discuss environmental challenges and “get…involved with one another.”  Together, they established the Hobart Street Environmental Field Center, an alternative public school accommodating as many as 40 students. Suburban students’ motives for assisting the project are unclear, though notably they occurred in the context of fierce suburban opposition to Detroit metropolitan busing plans that would have required students to cross municipal boundaries. Environmental activism offered suburban students and residents a means to gesture at concern for inner-city residents and their living conditions with little personal sacrifice. [4]

“Detroit, Michigan. Typical [African American] neighborhood,” (1942), Arthur S. Siegel, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Mildred Smith, who was now secretary for the neighborhood organization, praised the effort at establishing the environmental school. She now viewed housing and urban renewal as explicitly environmental causes, joining the millions of Americans who were inspired to action after environmental crises of the late 1960s, urban uprisings, and the nation’s first Earth Day in 1970. “Environmental problems are human problem,” Smith noted, insisting on the importance of urban environments. “We’ve all got a right to live and we have to live and work together.” What began as an urban renewal protest transformed into what would later be called environmental justice activism, and an insistence on environmental health “where we work, live, and play.”[5]

The uprising of July 1967 provided a significant pivot toward Detroiters embracing the inner-city environment as a key site of struggle. In the aftermath, some activists pointed to poor living conditions, pollution, a lack of recreational facilities, and dearth of parks and green spaces as precursors to the uprising. One public health scholar at Wayne State University remarked that pollution and poor environmental quality “adds to the sense of degradation, neglect, and disinterest,” which “becomes one of the underlying conditions of the stress syndrome, the riot.”[6] Quickly after the uprising, New Detroit, Inc., organized business and labor leaders along with Black community activists to re-imagine Detroit. In a city that had little accessible parkland close to Black neighborhoods, they established the Deprived Areas Recreation Team to develop small parks in residential neighborhoods. With staffing help and funding from the United Auto Workers (UAW), they constructed at least thirteen new neighborhood parks.

The UAW led efforts to improve environmental conditions in the inner city and in the industrialized Downriver suburbs. Months before the 1967 uprising, the UAW magazine Solidarity bemoaned the “dirty air, water pollution” and “empty, idle land” threatening a disaster that “will be just as deadly and inescapable as nuclear fallout.” Union president Walter Reuther envisioned a social unionism that demonstrated the value of the UAW to the wider community. Yet, the rhetoric of care for disadvantaged residents living in polluted and unhealthy environments did not translate to environmentalism on the shop floor, the factories where much of the pollution originated. Environmental conditions in the factories placed African American workers—who generally labored in the most toxic and unsafe departments—at the greatest risk. The Revolutionary Union Movements, led by Black autoworkers beginning in 1968, fiercely challenged the union’s failure to ensure a safe working environment and critiqued its suppression of insurgent movements within the organization.[7]

Inner-city housing became a more explicitly environmental concern by the early 1970s, uniting disparate activists and organizations. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor discusses in Race for Profit, rats offered a particularly visceral window into the urban-wildlife interface. The “physical breakdown of the city,” as Robert Gioielli terms it, was revealed in vermin infestations, peeling lead paint, and rapidly deteriorating housing stock.[8]

Uniting under the banner of “land use,” civil rights, labor, and environmental activists forged a common interest in the fate of the inner-city environment. The Michigan branch of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1973 urged an alliance to make common cause against “King Rat” in Detroit, a foe which “must be dethroned.” Inner-city environmental challenges figured prominently in the SCLC’s “Poor People’s Platform” in Detroit. The urban rat problem was certainly not new, and since at least the 1940s Black activists had attempted to draw the city’s attention to the proliferation of rats in deteriorating Black housing, but seeking environmentalist allies to address the challenges of urban living conditions represented a significant turn. Although practically no one was using the phrase “environmental justice” yet, their efforts foreshadowed the emergence of a more explicit environmental justice movement a decade later.[9]

Wyandotte Chemicals Corporation, April 1961. Jack Van Coevering Papers, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.

By the end of the 1970s, some activists, policymakers, and urban planners in Detroit and elsewhere identified “greenlining” in the suburbs as a phenomenon that mirrored the redlining of the city. Greenlining, according to a Detroit Human Rights Department official, referred to policies “steering people, jobs and investment beyond the city limits,” making the suburbs more environmentally healthy and attractive places for investment.[10] While much of Detroit languished, the suburbs enjoyed substantial investment in massive regional Metroparks and environmental amenities far from the city center, promoting open space as an antidote to urban sprawl and supporting housing as a vehicle for building mostly white residents’ wealth.

Just as civil rights and anti-urban renewal forces in Detroit came to see housing and inner-city living conditions as environmental concerns, likewise urban historians have begun to view city planning, urban renewal, metropolitan inequality, highways, and many more through a critical environmental lens, or what I consider an environmental justice turn in urban history. Urban environmental history is of course not new. Joel Tarr and Martin Melosi pioneered works on urban ecologies beginning in the 1970s. Sylvia Hood Washington and Andrew Hurley introduced explicit examinations of environmental inequalities in Chicago and Gary, Indiana, respectively, in the early 1990s. Nevertheless, environmental inequalities did not figure prominently in field-defining urban histories. Environmental justice issues like rats, lead paint, tuberculosis, and beyond often appeared in urban histories, but remained peripheral to the analysis.[11]

Detroit, again, is an instructive example. Thomas Sugrue’s Origins of the Urban Crisis launched a generation of graduate students embarking on the study of urban crisis in large cities and small towns, and invigorated scholarly interest in Detroit. Books on Detroit have proliferated; in just the last two years, three books on the environmental history of twentieth-century Detroit have appeared or are scheduled for publication, along with additional doctoral dissertations and book projects in progress.[12] Notably, urban-environmental dissertations have won the Michael B. Katz Urban History Association award for best dissertation in four of the last ten years. Many of these new works have employed language and frameworks pioneered by environmental justice activists and scholars to offer fresh perspectives on American cities. A greening of the urban history discipline is well underway.

Urban Environmentalism (January 2022)

Brandon M. Ward is a senior lecturer of history at Georgia State University—Perimeter College. This piece is adapted from his just-published book, Living Detroit: Environmental Activism in an Age of Urban Crisis (Routledge Press).

Featured image (at top): Detroit City Hall, Detroit, Michigan. Exterior, Balthazar Korab Studios, Ltd., 2007, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

[1] “Mildred Smith Fought City Hall—and Won,” Detroit Free Press, Feb. 3, 1982.

[2] “City’s Poor Get Dynamic Organizer,” Detroit News, Aug. 15, 1965.

[3] “WCO Explains Protests, Urban Renewal Arrests,” Michigan Chronicle, Oct. 1, 1966.

[4] “Grosse Pointers Donate to Environment School,” Michigan Chronicle, Sept. 7, 1974; Models and Strategies for Change: 1975, United States Congress. Senate Committee on the Judiciary. Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1976), 1045.

[5] “Where we work, live, and play” became a common refrain by environmental justice activists by the early 1990s.

[6] Richard A. Prindle, “Health Aspects of the Urban Environment,” Public Health Reports, 83 (July 1968): 617-621, quote on 621.

[7] “The Race to Save Our Cities,” Solidarity (Mar. 1967), 4; Josiah Rector, “Environmental Justice at Work: The UAW, the War on Cancer, and the Right to Equal Protection from Toxic Hazards in postwar America,” Journal of American History, 101 (Sept. 2014): 480-502.

[8] Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2019); Robert Gioielli, Environmental Activism of the Urban Crisis: Baltimore, St. Louis, Chicago (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2014). 

[9] S.C.L.C. Michigan, June 1973, Box 63, Folder 2, New Detroit, Inc. Collection, Walter P. Reuther Library and Archive of Labor and Urban Affairs (WPR).

[10] James A. Bush, “Redlining, Disinvestment, and Overbuilding the Suburbs,” in Box 4, Folder 45, UEC Collection, WPR.

[11] Sylvia Hood Washington, Packing Them In: An Archaeology of Environmental Racism in Chicago, 1865-1954 (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 1994); Andrew Hurley, Environmental Inequalities: Class, Race, and Industrial Pollution in Gary, Indiana, 1945-1980 (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1994).

[12] Joseph Cialdella, Motor City Green: A Century of Landscapes and Environmentalism in Detroit (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020); Brandon M. Ward, Living Detroit: Environmental Activism in an Age of Urban Crisis (New York: Routledge, 2022); Josiah Rector, Toxic Debt: An Environmental Justice History of Detroit (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, forthcoming 2022).

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