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What About Delray? The Past and Future of Detroit's Forgotten Neighborhood

10/09/2012 10:45 am ET | Updated Dec 09, 2012

The original community of Belgrade, located Southwest to Detroit's city center, used to refer to Detroit as "the overgrown suburb to the east of us" and Detroit's inhabitants as "city punks." Now Belgrade is called Delray, and it is known to some as the city's dumping ground and to others for its rich cultural history. Regardless of how you see Delray now, or how you knew it before, its history is fascinating and tragic. The land's many springs made it an attractive settlement for the French in the early 1800s. Within50 years, the population nearly tripled with German, Polish and Hungarian immigrants. Early inhabitants recall the area as an idyllic escape to watch ships sail on the lake in the spring and horses race on the ice in the winter. In 1897, Delray was incorporated as a village and it was annexed by Detroit in 1906.

Enclosed by the River Rouge, Fort Wayne, I-75 and Zug Island, Delray thrived, attracting immigrants with its small-town energy in a time when Detroit's industry was booming. In the 1920s, Delray had the largest Hungarian population outside of Budapest and also home to African American, Polish, Mexican, Armenian, Italian and Irish families who lived harmoniously. At the turn of the century, industry in Delray included the Fisher Glue Plant as well as Solvay Chemical Company. From the twenties on, industry kept coming to Delray, at a shockingly fast rate, including Great Lakes Steel, Detroit Edison, Fleetwood Body, Allied Chemicals and Peerless Cement. At first, this seemed like a good thing for residents -- the commute would be short and jobs were plentiful. Many inhabitants rarely left the confines of Delray, and self-identified as "Del-Rayers" rather than as "Detroiters." It became an insular community, giving the residents a sort of pride, until the second-generation immigrants left for the suburbs, namely Allen Park and Wyandotte. Some left because of heated civil tensions, but mainly people left because of the air pollution caused by several local plants. Even as early as 1969 Delrayers have been fighting against industry, and evidently won against a proposed incinerator that was to be built on the Solvay Process Company site. This fight brought together the residents of Delray closer than they had been, especially in a racially tumultuous environment.

The city's long ranging plan to make Delray industrial created a tension between inhabitants and the government, forcing many families to move over the years because of pollution. The city's attempts to phase out residents using the doctrine of eminent domain did not go without a fight. Although residents have been fighting since the late sixties, the obstacles identified then have now become magnified and unlikely to overcome. In the past 10 years, many neighborhood advocates currently have been fighting to shut down several Rustbelt factories and to rebuild homes, but are losing momentum because zoning for industry is difficult to reverse. In 2000, residents of Delray incited a class-action suit against Sybill Oil Company and Pearless Metal Manufacturing for noxious toxic contaminants in the environment, as well as airborne pollutants, which led the Sybill to shut its doors soon after.

The New Day Multipurpose Community Center, located in the heart of Delray, envisions the restoration of The New Day Church of Deliverance to its original appearance from the 1950s. However, it will be difficult for anything to be restored with the dwindling population of less than 3,000, documented in the 2010 Census. Not much remains besides impromptu landfills, damaged roads, shells of buildings and a whole lot of empty space. It would indeed take a lot to rebuild the once vibrant Delray with its streets lined with bakeries, markets, movie theaters and churches. Due to its geographical isolation, it's as if this enclosed area is just an island of decay.

This past May, the Michigan House approved legislation moving steps closer to diffusing the Ambassador Bridge traffic via Delray, a project called the Detroit River International Crossing. Whether or not Delray landmarks will be demolished has not been clearly addressed. In early 2007, the State Historic Preservation Office sited their concern of the construction of the new bridge, suggesting the obstruction of the integrity of the Ambassador Bridge as a historic landmark, and affecting archeological resources from early native tribes, dating back as early as 1776. In addition, it is rumored that St. John Cantius Roman Catholic Church, a cultural landmark built in 1923, is threatened by the bridge construction. Although the church is currently closed, by razing this landmark, the government finishes the dissemblance of a community for the "greater good" of an economy. Although the Bridge will create revenue and jobs for the greater Detroit area, Delray residents will lose another memory and cultural landmark, dissolving a last recollection of what used to be.

All cities change, especially those dependent on specific industries that outlive their usefulness to society. Detroit is suffering and Delray can be considered an exaggerated microcosm of loss and abandonment. Although Delray boasts a beautiful Historic Fort Wayne and some charming homes sprinkled throughout the streets, for the most part, it is a ghost town. We can use this tragic story of Delray as a learning tool -- how certain victories are attainable, and certain battles are unrealistic to win -- and how only innovation will keep a city alive. Looking at the bigger picture, the government's inability to reconcile the personal (neighborhoods, health) and the impersonal (corporate pollution) is a common theme throughout the world. It seems as though the construction of this bridge will be like a chapter in the story of Delray and perhaps much of Detroit. It's difficult to say, but perhaps in the upcoming years, we will see a resurgence of the area. Perhaps the desolate streets will reinvent themselves, with new commerce and traffic resulting from the new bridge. Perhaps those holding out will face a great reward in the revival of the community or perhaps they too will disappear, as the government attempts to attract more industry and push residents out. Regardless of what happens in the upcoming years, the story of Delray is a tragic, but an honest reminder of how fleeting infrastructure can be in our forever-changing society.

References:

Burden, Aurthur. "About Old Del Rey, MI" 1895-1905. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.

City-Data.com (2010). "Delray neighborhood in Detroit, Michigan (MI), 48209 detailed profile." Retrieved 30 July 2012.

Gaydos, Jeff. "Portrait of a Neighborhood." Michigan: The Magazine of the Detroit News, Detroit MI. 30 July 1989. Print.

Maidenberg, Mike. "Delray: the Determined Struggle of A Village Condemned to Die" Detroit Free Press, Detroit MI. 11 May 1969. Print.

Oguntoyinbo, Leekan. "Delray Clashes with Industry". Detroit Free Press, Detroit MI. 21 March 2000. Print.

Oosting, Jonathan. "Snyder: By Building Bridge, Michigan Is Building 'future of Economic Strength and Security." MLive.com. MLive, 15 June 2012. Web. 30 July 2012. http://www.mlive.com/news/index.ssf/2012/06/snyder_by_building_bridge_mich.html.

Stantel, Adam. "Rays of Hope in Delray". Metrotimes, Detroit MI 5-11 June 2002. Print.

State Historic Preservation Officer. "Re: ER05-422 Ambassador Bridge Enhancement Project, Section 4, T2S, R11E, Detroit, Wayne County (USCG)." Letter to US Coast Guard. 26 Mar. 2007. N.p., n.d. Web. 2 Oct. 2012. www.uscg.mil/d9/D9Legal/FOIA.ambassador_bridge.