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Our mission at Sepia Coffee Project(SCP) is to provide a more inclusive platform for coffee consumers and enthusiasts throughout Metro-Detroit, with an emphasis placed on underserved and marginalized enclaves within our city. Making quality coffee more accessible to the greater community at fair prices is essential to developing Detroit's "coffee culture" and we look forward to bringing great coffee, and stories, to you all.

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Black Bottom was a predominantly Black neighborhood in Detroit, Michigan demolished under the guise of "urban renewal" in the late 1950s to early 1960s to make way for the Lafayette Park residential district and the I-375 freeway.  It was located on Detroit's east side, bounded by Gratiot Avenue, Brush Street, the Detroit River, and the Grand Trunk railroad tracks. 

Historically, the area of Black Bottom was part of the riverbed of the Savoyard River, which was buried as a sewer in 1827. The rich marsh soils are the source of the area’s name. Hastings Street, which ran north-south through Black Bottom, had been a center of Eastern European/Jewish settlement well before World War I with housing that was built in the late 19th century. During the 1920s, the Black population in Detroit increased from 41,000 to 120,000 as migrants from the South arrived seeking employment in the automobile industry. The cramped neighborhood was one of the very few areas Blacks were allowed to reside. Black Bottom suffered more than most areas during the Great Depression, since many of the wage earners worked in factories. During World War II, both the economic activity and the physical decay of Black Bottom intensified as more people poured into a city faced with a housing shortage, and racial discrimination restricted Blacks to the increasingly overcrowded Black Bottom area.

Thankfully, the residents’ daily needs were met by more than 300 Black-owned businesses in Paradise Valley. An adjacent area that extended north of Gratiot, Paradise Valley was considered to be an overlapping neighborhood where most businesses and entertainment venues were established ranging from drugstores, beauty salons and restaurants to places of leisure such as nightclubs, bowling alleys and theaters. Hastings Street is also where Aretha Franklin's father, the Reverend C. L. Franklin, first opened his New Bethel Baptist Church. Businesses included ten restaurants, eight grocers, 17 physicians, and six drugstores, Barthwell Drugs being one of the well-known enterprises.

Black-owned nightclubs like the Flame Show Bar, the Horseshoe Bar and Club Harlem, booked popular Black artists and attracted mixed-race audiences to shows. Whites felt comfortable listening to jazz alongside Black audiences and ventured to the Valley to hear Ethel Waters, Pearl Bailey, Ella Fitzgerald and the Inkspots. The Paradise Theater, opened in 1941 in the former Orchestra Hall, was the place to hear jazz greats such as Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, and Dizzy Gillespie. After the race riots of 1943, Whites became reluctant to visit Paradise Valley and mixed audiences became rare.

Gambling was also big business in Paradise Valley, notably with the Great Lakes Mutual Numbers House and the Valley’s Frog Club. In 1939, a scandal involving gamblers from the Valley, Detroit police officers and the mayor’s office resulted in those involved being jailed on charges of gambling and accepting bribes. In 1963, the FBI raided the lavish Gotham Hotel, home to many jazz artists while in the Valley, on evidence of illegal gambling.

Urban renewal programs and the construction of freeways in the 1960s abruptly halted life in Paradise Valley and the Black Bottom neighborhood. Although condemnation of property began in 1946, the National Housing Act of 1949, then later the 1956 National Highway Act, gave the city the funds to begin an urban renewal project in earnest. Automobile manufacturers outgrew city factories and relocated to suburban areas prompting a push for the construction of expressways. 

Many neighborhoods in Detroit were displaced by the building of freeways and the projects of urban renewal, but Paradise Valley suffered the largest losses. Relocation assistance was minimal and many former Black Bottom and Paradise Valley residents were given 30 days notice to vacate. A number of the residents relocated to large public housing projects such as the Brewster-Douglass Housing Projects Homes and Jeffries Homes. Although it was difficult for displaced Blacks to find new housing, many purchased property in the old Jewish neighborhood along Twelfth Street. Many of the former residents kept pictures of the old neighborhood and these have helped keep the memory alive of the once vibrant Paradise Valley community.

Today Lafayette Park is on the former site of Black Bottom. Begun in 1956 and completed in stages through the 1960s, the Mies van der Rohe Residential District is considered one of America's most successful post-World War II urban redevelopment projects and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on August 1, 1996. Its 46 acres encompass three distinct sections: 21 multiple-unit townhomes and a high-rise apartment building on the west side; Lafayette Park, 13 acres of greenery, recreation facilities, and a school; and twin apartment towers and a shopping center to the east. The complex showcases Mies van der Rohe’s favorite modernist themes: exposed steel, tinted glass, and aluminum. The district is the largest collection of buildings designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, widely considered one of the 20th century's greatest architects.

Herbert Greenwald, Mies van der Rohe, Ludwig Hilberseimer, and Alfred Caldwell set out to create an integrated community that would "attract [people] back to the heart of the city." Caldwell and Hilberseimer designed a naturalistic landscape that subordinated Detroit's most famous product to the needs of people, in part by dropping roadways and parking lots four feet below grade.

The district's birth was not without controversy given Lafayette Park replaced Black Bottom. Mayor Albert Cobo and others believed that if they could replace the aging buildings in Black Bottom with a modern district of high-quality homes, then a "racially diverse neighborhood might help the city hold on to its people." The razing of Black Bottom, considered to be the heart of Detroit’s black community, and the lack of affordable housing made available to the former residents other than the public housing projects, have been cited as instigating factors in the Detroit Uprising of 1967.

The Detroit Story
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