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History

Before The Highway, Lansing Paint Shop Was A Treasured Community Hot Spot

In the 1960s, the urban renewal movement swept through scores of American cities. 

 

Civic planners saw progress.  City residents saw relocation.

 

Between 1963 and 1970, more than 800 homes and businesses in the heart of Lansing’s African-American neighborhood were torn down to build Interstate 496.  

 

A Trip Through Time

It’s a blustery February day in Lansing.  Adolph Burton shakes off the cold and climbs into the waiting warmth of a pickup truck.

 

Rolling down St. Joseph Street, we’re on a trip through time.

 

“My house was right here on the left, which would be in between Logan Street and Birch Street,” Burton recalls.  “Birch Street is now southbound MLK.”

 

highway photo
Credit Courtesy / Capital Area District Library
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Capital Area District Library
The I-496 construction project began in 1963. By the time the highway was completed in 1970, more than 800 African-American homes and businesses had been torn down.

   

Burton is 67, a Lansing native and lifelong resident.  He knows every block of the Westside and downtown neighborhoods that hug the north side of I-496.  

 

But it’s a far different city than the Lansing of his youth.  

 

Much of what used to be Burton’s old neighborhood is gone.  Don and Bill’s Grocery.  Russell’s Cleaners.  

 

In the long shadow of Lansing’s towering triple smokestacks lie the traces of a once vibrant African-American neighborhood.  

 

 

house being torn down
Credit Courtesy / Capital Area District Library
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Capital Area District Library
This home in Lansing was demolished to make way for Interstate 496.

When construction began on Interstate 496 in 1963, hundreds were dislocated.  They lost homes, schools, and churches.  The upheaval sparked redlining and white flight in some places and accelerated integration in others.

 

Now, the city of Lansing and local historians are using a National Park Service grant to tell the story of that era, in a project called “Paving The Way.”

 

Johnny's Was The Spot

 

There’s a small blue building at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr, Boulevard and Malcolm X Street.  Years ago, this intersection was known as Logan and Main.   

 

It’s the only commercial structure that survived the bulldozers.

 

Johnny’s Records was the cultural nerve center of black Lansing.  John Wesley Johnson kept the place well stocked with gospel, jazz, and blues.  Johnny’s sold more than just records.  You could buy dress shirts and shoes, jewelry and even candy.

 

When the shop closed, the building was spared.  

 

Then the state highway commission came in and used it as its project headquarters.  The place that once held a neighborhood together ultimately became the command center for its demolition.

 

Today, the building is the office of Platinum Paint Coatings.

  

old homes
Credit Courtesy / Capital Area District Library
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Capital Area District Library
Many homes that were torn down were situated on or near St. Joseph Street, which today runs just north and parallel to I-496.

trees and road
Credit Kevin Lavery / WKAR-MSU
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WKAR-MSU
This is where the home at 1609 W. St. Joseph would be today if it were still standing.

“Growing up in this area and specifically in this neighborhood on the west side, I had no idea that the building had this kind of history,” says owner Chris Shuck.

 

Shuck is white and in his early 40’s.  Too young to remember pre-1963 Lansing. 

 

The Lansing Adolph Burton laments.

 

“When you destroy a way of life, (you) take away the churches, retail stores, the doctors’ offices,” says Burton.  “The doctor who delivered me, his office was literally three blocks from here.  Three blocks from here was where I purchased groceries.  The dentist's office that I went to was one block from here. So tearing those all up to build an expressway wasn't very nice.”

 

Still, Burton says, Lansing somehow kept its character.

 

newspaper ad
Credit Courtesy / Capital Area District Library
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Capital Area District Library
An advertisement attempts to persuade Lansing residents of their chance to "break up ghetto living."

"Lansing always seemed to grab itself up from its bootstraps and just keep on pushing,” he says.  “A lot of black folks came from the South and they didn't want to do anything to mess up their way of life, because they took pride in it.”

 

In the coming months, organizers of the “Paving The Way” project will collect oral histories and compiling artifacts to be put on display at the Library of Michigan. 

 

The project is expected to continue into early 2020.

 

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