Source AP ©

Detroit to become black culture capital

Hastings Street was the place to be on steamy summer nights in the U.S. city of Detroit many decades ago.

Blues and jazz pulsed from hot spots such as the Cotton Club and Club 666, as young black doctors, clerks and assembly line workers shared crowded sidewalks.

It was the heart of Detroit's Paradise Valley, an area that defined the Michigan city's black culture, arts and music until many of the businesses and homes were demolished beginning in the 1950s in the name of economic development.

In an effort to recapture the excitement and thriving business climate of the old district, a small enclave of shops and buildings in a northeast corner of downtown will be designated the new Paradise Valley.

City leaders hope to attract music clubs, galleries and other vendors tapping into Detroit's black art and cultural heritage.

Art dealer George N'Namdi, who has a temporary gallery in the area, predicts it will be a magnet for tourists of all colors.

"Having an area where African American culture is happening doesn't mean it has to cater solely to African American people," N'Namdi said. "There is the jazz, techno, Motown, and people have been collecting art here for a number of years."

While officials have not decided if the area actually would be named "Paradise Valley," they are confident it will join the newly opened Asian Village marketplace and established Greektown district in embracing and showcasing the city's various cultures.

Greektown has been a drawing point to downtown for years with its collection of Greek-themed restaurants and shops. Asian Village is an 18,000-square-foot (1,700-square-meter) mix of restaurants, shopping and entertainment along Detroit's riverfront.

"We promote downtown as a multicultural destination and its amazing various pockets of ethnicity," said Detroit Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau spokeswoman Renee Monforton.

Designers of the new Paradise Valley can borrow from the original, which hosted musicians including Charlie Parker, Lionel Hampton and B.B. King.

"All classes of people were attracted to Paradise Valley," said 73-year-old Jimmy Crawford, a drummer. "Hastings carried all kinds of nightlife, and the businesses were owned by blacks."

The new Paradise Valley is not the first attempt by city officials to capitalize on Detroit's black heritage. A few years ago, a few city council members supported a plan to create an all-black business district with taxpayer money called "African Town." It was scrapped after protests.

The new Paradise Valley will share an area with Harmonie Park, which celebrates Detroit's German culture with old-world style restaurants, art galleries and coffee shops. Designers tout the area's "walkability" and access to theaters, the Opera House and Music Hall.

Harmonie Park also attracts visitors before and after sporting events at Comerica Park, where the Detroit Tigers play, and at Ford Field, home to the Detroit Lions.

Designers from the University of Detroit-Mercy, which was brought into the project by the Detroit Economic Growth Corp., envision Paradise Valley as intimate and appealing.

"We're talking smaller galleries, clubs and restaurants. The focus will be entertainment," said Dan Pitera, executive director of the Detroit Collaborative Design Center at the University of Detroit-Mercy, who expects a final design by the end of October.

Detroit's Downtown Development Authority approved US$10 million (EUR7.3 million) for the district, which includes the hiring of the design team.

The designers are looking at the current layout of Harmonie Park to see how it can be improved with park and plaza space, sidewalk changes and other streetscape makeovers. They are expected to recommend the best possible uses for four city-owned buildings and two vacant lots in Harmonie Park.

"We certainly can't recreate the past. The conditions that created Paradise Valley aren't the same," said Detroit Economic Growth Corp. project management director Malik Goodwin. "We're trying to celebrate it by redesigning it, making it a commercial enterprise."